You’re my hero William but, please, save some for the rest of us
The Rolex first horse inspectin is drawing closer by the minute, and as is always the case in the right before three-days, we’re heading into the event with more questions than answers. Here’s a few questions that the chinchillas are bouncing around today:
— Which US riders will stand up and defend our home turf? 18 of 49 pairs on the current entry list are riding for countries other than the United States, making Rolex a truly international competition. William Fox-Pitt, Andrew Nicholson, and Mary King headline the list of overseas riders who made the long trip to Kentucky. Mary and William also happen to collectively own the past three years worth of Rolex trophies. For me, the most important and frustrating number on the line this year is that only one U.S. rider (Phillip ’08) has won Rolex in the past seven years. The U.S. has been completely unable to defend home field advantage at Rolex with any consistency since the days of Kim Severson and Winsome Adante. Mary, William, and Andrew are all sharks in the most admirable connotation, and they smell blood in the water in the form of four-star opportunity each spring in Lexington. It’s high time that someone in the U.S. stands up and beats them.
Phillip’s ride Mighty Nice jumps off the page as a second-time horse with the talent (and the rider) to win. Placing 10th in his first four-star at Rolex last year, Mighty Nice is a world class horse who has the experience to win this year. This pair is clearly the class of the US contingent and my feeling is that Phillip and Mighty Nice might be the only US pair with a chance to beat the Brits and Kiwis without having an absolutely perfect weekend. Marilyn Little and Demeter have a great shot this weekend at a quality performance if Marilyn’s shoulder is good enough to go. I’d bet money that they won’t pull three rails this year and any step forward from their great dressage and XC performances last year will put them in great position on Sunday. I also have high hopes for Buck and Carl and Cassandra Segal’s Ballynoecastle RM. Although the cross-country course hasn’t opened for walking yet, the word around the barns is that it is a long track. Ballynoecastle RM struggles with four-star distance, so perhaps my heart has the better of my common sense, but I just absolutely love this horse and I have a feeling that this is the weekend for Buck and Reggie. Also keep an eye on Park Trader — Buck has very high hopes for this horse in the future and look out if Park Trader wakes up on the right side of the stall each day this weekend. Buck and James Alliston of Great Britain are both giving themselves three chances to win this year, each with an impressive three horses entered. Boyd is struggling with his ankle more than he’ll admit publicly. Trading Aces is an extremely classy horse and Boyd will look to grit it out this weekend to set young Oscar up well for a shot at Normandy. I think Becky Holder and Can’t Fire Me are also ready for an excellent weekend. Becky is a woman on a mission and I bet they will put a disappointing 2012 Rolex behind them starting in the dressage on Thursday.
— Which first-time pairs are going to put their stamp on Rolex? The great Jimmy Wofford noted in his Rolex preview for the Chronicle that 2013 features an unusually high number of four-star first-timers. I feel that one of the great things about this year’s field is that it features a great variety of experience and inexperience, both with riders and horses and sometimes among horses with the same rider (Buck with Reggie and Park Trader, for example). We are going to get to see every possible type of four-star pair work their way around Derek Di Grazia’s cross-country. Picking just a few first-timers to look at, Allie Knowles kicked butt out west before moving to Kentucky last year. We’ve been following Allie’s progress all year with Samantha Clark’s training diaries. Allie lives so close to the Horse Park that she could trailer in for Rolex, and I have high hopes for her this year as a first-timer. Lindsey Oaks and Enchantez are another Kentucky native pair competing at Rolex for the first time. Competing close to home at a big event can be a big advantage, as the riders don’t have to worry about all of the little logistical details involved with travel, and they are just minutes away from that always crucial familiar spare piece of tack. However, being close to home can quickly turn into a disadvantage if the less experienced riders don’t learn to tune out what will surely be a large herd of friends and family. A word of advice to said friends and family — I know it’s hard, but give your riders as much space as is possible and definitely make sure that the riders get at least two course walks completely to themselves. I’ve seen Rolex go very well and very poorly for first-timers, and it often has a lot to do with how well they managed the external factors, especially friends and family.
— What about the second-timers? There are a few four-star second timers to keep an eye on, especially Emily Beshear and Here’s To You (Rolex ’12), and Jennie Brannigan with Cambalda (Luhmuhlen ’11). Emily finished 20th last year after two less than ideal jumping phases, but I expect a much cleaner performance from this talented pair and, with Emily’s flatwork skills, that could mean a top performance. Jennie Brannigan is poised for a break-through performance at a four-star. Jennie doesn’t just handle pressure; she makes pressure feel nervous.
Also keep an eye on third-time Rolex rider Lynn Symansky and her Pan Am ride, the young OTTB Donner. Lynn’s job will be to keep Donner calm, and if she does that the upside is very high this weekend. Lynn picked up a big win at The Fork, but she’s still working with a pinky finger that was essentially broken in half just before The Fork and some back issues that have cropped up this week. Between Boyd, Marilyn, and Lynn, the stage is set for some incredibly gritty performances.
— What does Rolex mean for the 2014 World Equestrian Games? We are still over a year away from the WEGs in Normandy, but the Games are at the forefront of U.S. High Performance planning. Rolex is the first US chance to collect that all-important Certificate of Capability (think qualification) for the WEGs. A top 10 performance at Rolex for any pair, followed by a good three- or four-star in the autumn, will put them in contention to ride in France. However, it is important to note that the most defining aspect of WEG planning at this point, in my opinion, is the fact that WEG course designer Pierre Michilet has an extremely unique style. Therefore, some of the USA’s top pairs are bypassing Rolex’s more open course and heading to events like Saumur and Pau.
— What about Canada? Most of the Canadian horses are able to enjoy the added benefits of trot sets in the snow well into April, so they should be fit and ready for Rolex. Kidding aside, Canadian High Performance is sending their best pairs to Rolex with three 2012 Olympic pairs (Exponential, Kilrodan Abbott, Gin & Juice) and one alternate (Rockfield Grant Juan) in the field. Those four Canadian horses rank up there as some of my favorite horses in the world. Keep a close eye on the half-rocket/half-horse Exponential and the always true Kilrodan Abbott to jump way up the leaderboard on Saturday. Kendal Lehari and Daily Edition are making their four-star debut at Rolex after just missing the event last year. Kendal is one of the hardest working riders I know, and I’m thrilled to see her back on the entry list. I pay Kendal the highest compliment that I can in saying that she builds her horses from scratch and gets the absolute best out of them — not a lot of riders would have looked at Daily Edition and seen a ride around Rolex, but Kendal did. She was right, and now she’s just a few days away from realizing that dream.
— Which pairs are going to be this year’s fan favorites? Jan Byyny is going to get some major cheers galloping around her first four-star in just under four years. Jan’s return to the highest level of our sport hasn’t gotten a ton of media attention, but it is nothing short of miraculous and it is a complete tribute to Jan and her entire support team. Jan gets the added fan-favorite bonus multiplier of riding two thoroughbreds. Speaking of Thoroughbreds, our current EN count has 16 OTTBs entered at Rolex and each will enjoy the due love and affection that we give OTTBs in this sport. Becky Holder and Can’t Fire Me top the list of OTTB pairs, in my opinion, and I have them as one of my top predicted pairs for the U.S. From True Prospect fire survivor to first-time Rolex competitors in under two years, Caitlin Silliman and Catch A Star “Hoku” will get huge cheers all weekend. I had high hopes for Will Coleman and Twizzel as the highest placed 2012 pair to return this year, but sadly they withdrew on Tuesday. And here I have written an entire paragraph about fan favorites and I haven’t mentioned Peter Atkins and Henny — no doubt we’ll be able to hear this pair around the course on Saturday. There are so many classy competitors with fan-favorite stories this year — let me know who I missed in the comment section.
— As Samantha noted earlier today, William and Andrew are both currently riding for the Rolex Grand Slam. Wait…what?! Much like the FEI qualification system, it makes sense when you stop thinking about it. The Grand Slam stipulates the winner as any rider “who wins the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, and the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in any consecutive order.” Since Badminton was canceled last year, William is sitting on Burghley ’11 and Rolex ’12, so he needs Badminton ’13 to win the Grand Slam. Andrew won Burghley ’12, so he needs Rolex ’13 and Badminton ’13. Just think of the mood between those two guys with a lot of history competing against each other if Andrew wins Rolex and they head into Badminton to decide it all.
— Will Jenni finally discard the humanoid costume that she wears over her live event coverage terminator robot endoskeleton? I was worried we might miss a step here at EN with me traveling to fewer events this year, but Jenni took live event coverage to a whole new level at Fair Hill and The Fork. Samantha and I might spike Jenni’s coffee with some ace just so we can keep up.
— Prediction time. I hate it, but smart money has to pick William, Mary, or Andrew to win, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see a top three finish for overseas pairs. I’ll pick William and Seacookie, because why not? I want to pick Andrew Nicholson and Calico Joe badly, because I think Andrew will want it just a little bit more than anyone else — a win puts him in contention for the Grand Slam at Badminton — but it’s hard to pick a horse that retired on course at Rolex last year. I will say that William’s Chilli Morning is the absolute talk of the barns this year — you can see in Samantha’s Monday recap post that he is looking absolutely beyond fabulous in his preparation at the Horse Park. However, I can’t steal Jenni’s pick so I’m sticking with Seacookie.