The reason eventing fans return to the Kentucky Horse Park year after year is because of the magical way the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event brings out the best in the best. Elite riders come from around the world for the chance to win a Rolex watch, a sizable amount of money and bragging rights for the rest of their lives. Every rider at KHP knows the importance of a good finish and brings his or her best effort. It makes for a great competition, to have this many great riders competing for the same prize, all being chased by a group of four-star "rookies" determined to push them off the top of the pyramid.
Watching our US riders in years past, I have felt like Casey Stengel (manager of the hapless 1962 New York Mets) saying, "Can't anybody here play this game?" One of the first things professional athletes learn is that to be the champion, you have to win your home games. Over the past decade, however, our riders have developed a distressing tendency to allow visiting eventers to bring their second-string horses to Rolex?and beat the best we have to offer.
Thus I was pleased to see a new generation of US riders show up at KHP this spring. As a group they did not seem taken aback at competing with the likes of Mark Todd (fresh from his stunning success at Badminton the week before), William Fox-Pitt (last year's Rolex winner), Clayton Fredericks (another former winner here), Oliver Townend (who came close to a Rolex Grand Slam last year) or Mary King (third at Badminton 2011 and a veteran British team member). I know every dog is brave in his own backyard, but in years past many of our riders stayed on the porch rather than trying to hunt with the big dogs.
One reason Rolex brings out the best in riders is the nature of its cross-country course. Michael Etherington-Smith designed the course here for 18 years and set the worldwide standard for cross-country design while he was at it. Thus his successor, Derek di Grazia, was under a great deal of pressure as he unveiled his first four-star course to the riders.
I must admit I was surprised when I first walked the 2011 course. I had expected Derek to ease into his role, building an introductory sort of "three-star-on-steroids" course. Not so. He did not show his hand entirely this year, but he set a standard four-star course, and I think a lot of riders missed in their estimation of it. I have watched Derek's designs for nearly 15 years now, and my advice to riders after walking his Rolex course was "watch out." Derek's courses always walk smaller than they ride; he has a gift for asking questions that seem simple (for a four-star) but stringing them in sequences that make them very difficult to answer. Indeed, for a short period of time on cross-country day, the sounds of riders' air-bag vests deploying sounded like popcorn going off in the new tailgate parking area. (Fortunately, there were no serious two- or four-legged injuries this year; the riders wised up, after they watched a few of their compatriots come to grief due to inattention to detail.)
I look for great things from Derek in years to come. He has "feel," which is essential for an international course designer, an unusual eye for terrain and an uncanny understanding of the effect of terrain on balance at speed. My advice for riders planning a return to Rolex 2012 is "watch out?I told you so last year, but you didn't listen."
The scoring rules for modern eventing (which stipulate that competitors show-jump in reverse order of their standing after cross-country) almost guarantee a cliffhanger of a finish, and spectators must usually wait until the last horse jumps the last stadium fence to know the winner. For competitors, this format takes what I call "Sunday-afternoon nerve," a special kind of mental toughness that enables them to perform well while carrying the crushing burden of expectation. The show-jumping course designer, Richard Jeffery, is Derek's equal in every way. His courses are always big, attractive, flowing, forward?and hard to jump clean. The margin of victory at a four-star event is usually heartbreakingly close, and indeed there were six or seven riders with a legitimate chance of winning this year's Rolex on Sunday.
At least, that was the case until Mary King, who was standing first and second, came into the ring out of order on one of her two horses. If she jumped a clean round, she would win it before the four remaining riders (William Fox-Pitt, Hannah Sue Burnett, Sinead Halpin and Clayton Fredericks) even got a chance to come into the arena. So Mary did what champions do and jumped a clean round on Fernhill Urco She was then already assured of winning, but she came back on Kings Temptress a few minutes later and jumped another clean round, finishing with a nearly unprecedented one-two result at one of the world's premier four-star events.
That was a great finish to the event, and Mary deserves all the praise and attention that will come her way. But for me the even more exciting result was that for the first time in a long time, we had new US faces in the lineup. Sinead Halpin and Hannah Sue Burnett were both welcome new additions to the US contingent, joining Boyd Martin in the top 10. Colleen Rutledge and Olivia Loiacono were just outside the top 10, in good company alongside US veterans Karen O'Connor, Kim Severson and Phillip Dutton.
Once again, Rolex brought out the best in the best this year. In addition, it provided us with a glimpse of our future US stars in action. I haven't mentioned all of the new US riders here at Rolex, because some of them did not perform to their expectations. However, they are good riders and admirable people; they will be back soon, and better than ever. While our new stars were not yet able to beat the best the world has to offer, they show signs of a bright future for US eventing. I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait for Rolex 2012.
Read Jim's 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event rider critiques, including Mary King, Boyd Martin, Sinead Halpin, William Fox-Pitt, Colleen Rutledge and Susan Beebe, in his July 2011 column in Practical Horseman.