The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event marketing slogan—“The best weekend all year”—rang true this spring as record-breaking crowds watched record-breaking performances at the Kentucky Horse Park. Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc. has sponsored this event since 1981, and it is a sign of success and growth in the sport that larger dressage audiences showed up for both days of dressage this year despite cold rain and high wind. The KHP is used to big competitions, and Rolex, aided by nearly 2,000 volunteers, runs smoothly.
The Ground Jury did a good job of maintaining their standards despite the challenge of two different weather patterns during the two days. The weather affected the scores, especially on the first day. It is tough enough to do dressage on a fit horse in the best circumstances. It is really tough when a 20-mile-per-hour wind blows straight down the centerline, bringing with it white plastic bags, empty red Solo cups and various other intimations that Sasquatch is just around the corner. But these are experienced riders and many of them were able to produce credible scores despite the conditions.
For the first time in a long time, an American rider led the dressage. Several U.S. riders had good dressage scores, led by Olympic veteran Clark Montgomery with the Irish Sport Horse Loughan Glen, and hopes were high in the U.S. stables that after a decade-long drought an American would be able to beat the best in the world. But there were ominous warnings in the scores. Close behind Clark was Michael Jung, Germany’s one-man gold-medal-producing machine—most sports writers have begun simply referring to him as “The Terminator”—riding his two-time winner at Rolex, fischerRocana FST (“Roxie”). He won individual Olympic gold medals in both 2012 and 2016 to go with his handful of European Championship gold medals. In addition, he won the 2010 World Championships at the KHP and was second four years later in Normandy, France. With a record like this, Michael always arrives as the one to beat. I almost forgot—along the way last year, he won the Rolex Grand Slam, awarded to the winner of Rolex, the Mitsubishi Badminton Horse Trials and the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials. These events must be won in sequence, though the same rider can use different horses.
But this year The Terminator was only a good bet, not a sure bet. Maxime Livio, the only rider to beat Michael recently, was a few points behind. So were 2006 World Champion Zara Tindall and the U.S. bronze medalist from the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phillip Dutton. Michael might win it, but he was going to have to work to get it done.
Cross-country course designer Derek di Grazia had been hard at work as well, producing yet another of his masterpieces of design. Derek’s courses are a major reason that Rolex cross-country day draws such a large crowd, and (just as on both dressage days) this year’s cross-country attendance broke the record (with over 35,000 spectators). It seems to me that every year, when riders walk Derek’s course before the competition, they secretly think it is a little easier than last year. That belief lasts only until they get out on course, when they suddenly realize, “Wow, this is harder than I thought.”
Derek’s courses are hard because, in addition to the size and spread of his obstacles, he uses the terrain to increase the difficulty. A 3-foot, 6-inch brush just past the top of a mound is not much of a question. A brush with an uphill approach to water hidden behind the mound, where the brush hides the water from the horse’s vision until the last stride, is a different proposition. When you have all these factors plus a change of terrain from uphill to slightly downhill at the takeoff point, you have a significant change in the horse’s balance just as he sees the water for the first time. All of this to a 3-foot, 6-inch brush—not so easy after all, huh?
Quite a few horses and riders blundered badly at Fence 7AB, the Frog Pond, and you could suddenly see why Derek is not just a good designer but a great designer. Although the brush at 7A rode bigger than riders had thought, the solid part of the fence was a foot lower than the brush, which allowed horses to scramble through. A solid rail here would have caused some serious falls, but Derek wants to educate riders, not defeat horses.
By the time Michael Jung and his parents’ wonderful mare, Roxie, set out on course, it was obvious that while competitors could make the time limit of 11 minutes and 17 seconds, it was hard work and the rider had to be “stuck in” the moment the starter said “go.” And, oh my goodness, was The Terminator stuck in—and a good thing, too. He produced just over 11 minutes of slashing, driving, all-or-nothing cross-country riding. Some of his efforts were jumped from too far away, some were too close and he certainly strayed far from the classical position we have seen him display on other occasions, but he was still in first place when he crossed the finish line.
However, after cross country, Maxime, Zara, Phillip and two newcomers to the top placing of a four-star event, Matt Brown and Hannah Sue Burnett, were hot on Michael’s heels. The top three riders were separated by a knockdown and a few time faults, while Phillip, Matt and Hannah Sue were just behind the top three, waiting like vultures on a wire. The closeness of the margins and the nature of the scoring on show-jumping day ensured that Michael would not sleep well after cross country.
Show jumping is run in reverse order of standing. Riders with the best scores jump last, which means riders must not get nervous. They need to have what I call “Sunday-afternoon nerve.” Richard Jeffery, the long-time Rolex show-jumping course designer, always designs a lovely, flowing track, but his courses always take a lot of jumping. The last line of jumps on this year’s course was going away from home, a triple consisting of two big oxers and a vertical—then, a few strides later, a very big, very square oxer to finish. This would indeed take a lot of jumping.
Zara showed why she is a former World Champion and turned in one of only three clear rounds, as did Maxime, the only rider who had recently finished ahead of Michael. Last to go, Michael had regained his renowned accuracy overnight and he was clear as he turned toward the last line on course. He could afford a knockdown, but no more than a couple of seconds over the tight time allowed, and he had four big efforts left to jump. He and Roxie jumped the first oxer well, landed, took two strides, jumped the second oxer and Roxie clipped the back rail. The knockdown was bad enough, but she had pushed the rail in front of her in the air, which is a truly unusual and dangerous situation. If a horse gets his legs tangled in the rail, he can trip or, worse yet, fall.
But Roxie calmly stepped over the rail as if it were some weird sort of gymnastic, jumped the third element of the triple, cantered to the last oxer, jumped that clean and another record was broken. Other riders have won Rolex three times, but none have ever won three in a row until Michael and Roxie came along. Rolex 2017 certainly produced “the best weekend all year” for horse lovers.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.