By the Numbers: Galway Downs 4*-L Cross Country Day

One thing I love about the West Coast events is the time differential; it is lovely to be sitting down to dinner and having a live stream to watch after work hours. Last night was full of surprises, and from the very first ride, the predictions were turned on their end. Today will likely be similar.

DRESSAGE DAY ANALYSIS

Sometimes dressage is the easiest phase to predict, and sometimes it is absolutely the most difficult; yesterday, the atmosphere blew any previous predictions out of the water. Not only does the 27.0 record set by Marilyn Little still stand, we had only one horse barely break the 70% barrier. The venue does an excellent job of producing atmosphere in their rings for this event; there’s something about it that makes it difficult for the horses to produce their best test.

Unfortunately, the dressage percentiles from each judge are not publicly available, which often provides a much more enlightening look into the thought process of the judges; we are working on obtaining them but for this report, we will be unable to take a closer look.

What is clear is that yesterday turned the entire competition on its head. Only two horses, Luke 140 and Fernhill Singapore, bettered their expected score by anything significant. Neither achieved their best score, but instead merely scored better than their average score for the level. The field as a whole scored +2.89 above their expected average, a significant rise across the board.

Often it’s assumed that if the field is scored high, at least it is done across the board and therefore the rankings are still appropriate. However, looking at the scores from yesterday, the four horses expected to break the 70% mark ranged from +3.9 points to +8.6 points above expected … the remainder of the field almost entirely scored within two points either direction of their expected score. Some of this will almost certainly be due to an uncharacteristic tension or behavior in the test, but it is notable enough that it seems that the judging panel was in general reluctant to award scores at the upper end of the scale.

Ultimately, what this means is that the calculus for each competitor is out the window and a new strategies will be formed. There’s nothing better than a good shake-up; we just normally look for the cross country phase to do the shaking up.

Looking to the USEF Futures, both teams suffered a bit from the tough scoring, but Team Erik got hit harder. Team Leslie (Passepartout, Dassett Choice, 2 A.M.) lead the challenge with a team score of 100.1 while Team Erik (Cooley Quicksilver, Jakobi, Quidproquo) trail with a team score of 112.4.

THE COURSE

Photo courtesy of Galway Downs

Galway Downs has been re-inventing itself over the last few years; after several years with Ian Stark as the course designer, the venue convinced the designer of Badminton, Eric Winter, to take a spin in 2017. After a brief hiatus from the division in 2018, Jay Hambly make his design debut at 4*-L in 2019. This year, the venue has brought in Clayton Fredericks, who has been the featured course designer at the Ocala Jockey Club and most recently created the new Advanced course for the Florida Horse Park.

In addition to bringing in fresh eyes to design the course, Galway Downs has also made a major effort to upgrade their course surface, installing turf over much of the course to replace the previously dragged dirt tracks. This should cut down on the number of changes of surface the horses will experience over the track.

In the last five editions of this division, 71.8% of cross-country starters have completed the course, which would translate to three or four non-completions this weekend. Only 57.7% of starters finish the course clear, which would translate to seven clear rounds here. Over the last half decade, 20% of  cross-country starters have made the time, so it’s likely that two of our fastest pairs will add nothing to their dressage scores on day two. However, last year all four horses who finished the course did so clear and inside the time, so look for an upped ante from Clayton to make sure that time plays a factor this weekend.

Over the last five runnings, each winner of the division has either made the time, or has been the fastest time on cross-country day. Although none of the horses in the field have achieved the fastest pace of the day at a 4*-L, Jollybo has done twice put in the fastest round while Long Island T, Woodford Reserve, Stag Party, and Passepartout have all done so once in their A/4* careers. Stunningly, Jollybo and Hawley Bennett-Awad are the only pair in the field to have achieved the optimum time at the level as a partnership.

The optimum time for the course is 10:00, the typical length for a course at this level. Although course photos do not appear to be available online, a course map is available in the program. A brief description of course appears in yesterday’s press release; the primary consensus among competitors appears to be “twisty and turny between long gallop stretches.”

One term I’d like to introduce to the readers is what I define as the speed rating, or SR. Speed rating is the number of seconds over either optimum time or, if no pair achieves optimum time on that day, the number of seconds a pair has come in behind the fastest round of the day. This calculation is showing up more and more when defining the overall pace of a horse; it is helpful when looking at time penalties to determine which courses ran fast and which were plagued by time penalties. This rating allows direct comparison of paces of the two types of courses.

CROSS COUNTRY MACHINES

Overall, this field has fairly strong jump records at the A/4* levels, with every horse expected to jump clear if we were looking at a 4*-S. However, the 4*-L is a whole different ballgame, statistically more difficult level than moving up to 5*-L, for both first time riders when looking at the North American pairs over the last half decade. The clear completion rate for the 4*-L when a rider is attempting it for the first time is only 40%, compared to a 60% clear completion rate overall for the level. That drops to 29% clear completion rate when neither a horse nor a rider has prior experience at either the A/4* levels. A first time horse with a rider who has previously been at the 4*-L level does not have the same difficulties; this category falls in line with the overall rate at 61% jumping clear.

Boyd Martin and Long Island T. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Once again, Boyd Martin and Long Island T will set out as the trailblazers of the day, needing to put in as quick a pace as they can while still feeling out the course. This horse has two completions at this level, both clear across the country, finishing 13 seconds slower than the fastest round at Jersey Fresh 4*-L in 2018, when no one could achieve the optimum, and finishing only 10 seconds over optimum at Fair Hill the same year, when two pairs achieved the optimum. This puts his average speed rating at 11.5 seconds for this level.

However, these two each are going to have to shake off some rust at this level, having only one start as a pair at Advanced in a year; while their jump record as a pair has been solid in this phase (their last issue occurred in the spring of 2018), speed has not been this horse’s forte. Between their sporadic time off and having to be the pair to feel out the course, it’s more likely we’ll see their pace come in somewhere between their 4*-L speed rating of 11.5 seconds and their 2019/2020 pace at 4*-S of 22.5 seconds. Look for a final speed rating more in the range of 15-20 seconds for this pair today.

Rebecca Brown and Fernhill Fortitude. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

A horse to keep an eye on for a surprise speedy round is Fernhill Fortitude, who will be making his ninth career start at the 4*-L level but this time with Rebecca Brown in the irons, a newcomer to the level. These two have only been paired together for one A/4*-S start, finishing with three solid but unremarkable phases at Stable View last month. They’ve got a number of rounds moving up throughout the levels this year though, pairing up at the end of 2019 and making their way steadily through the qualifications. With his previous rider Jenny Caras, Fernhill Fortitude has finished seven clear 4*-L rounds, been the fastest time of the day at one of them, made the optimum time on three other occasions, and been within 3 seconds of optimum on two others. His speed rating for the level is only 3.29 seconds, despite a speed rating of 27 in his only outing of the level with Rebecca.

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Singapore. Photo by Abby Powell.

Fernhill Singapore was not initially expected to be up with the leaders on cross country pace, but with a second placed dressage test, Phillip Dutton will be setting out with a vengeance. In ten A/4*-S runs, this pairs fastest speed rating is 11 seconds, finishing with 4.4 time penalties at a venue when 11 horses made the time. In their only CCI4*-L completion, they finished 12 seconds over the optimum at Fair Hill last fall, when 8 horses total made the time. It will be a big ask of this horse to get closer than that over a course that is likely to stunt speed, but if anyone can pull out a personal best pace, it is Phillip Dutton.

Hawley Bennett-Awad and Jollybo. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

The most experienced horse in the field is Jollybo, who is the only horse with 5*-L completions on her resume. As a pair with Hawley Bennett-Awad, she has completed three 4*-L, finishing with an average speed rating of only 2.67 seconds. This might be the first pair of the day to make the optimum. In 2016 they finished inside the time at Rebecca Farm 4*-L in their very first 4* start as a pair, then went onto Fair Hill in the fall to incur only 3 seconds worth of time penalties. At Jersey Fresh in 2018, they slogged through a mud pit to finish only 5 seconds off the fastest pace of the day, when no one could catch the optimum.

Erin Kellerhouse and Woodford Reserve. Photo courtesy of MGO Photography.

Next up will be our only pair to face their first 4*-L as both green horse and green rider, Erin Kellerhouse and Woodford Reserve. As mentioned in yesterday’s predictions, there’s no indications that these two won’t buck the odds and be one of the 29% of green pairs who go on to finish with clear rounds. The bigger question is ultimately what speed they’ll be able to maintain in doing so. In four starts at A/4*-S, their worst speed rating is only 12 seconds in their very first Advanced start; overall for the level their speed rating averages at 5.25 seconds. In their only two long format finishes, both at the 3*-L level, they’ve accumulated a total of one second over optimum time. This will be a pair to watch closely for a fast round.

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Futures Team Captain Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Quicksilver will be next up. Historically this horse has not been the fastest pair around, but they have definitely picked up the pace somewhat in 2020. In the horse’s first 4*-L, he finished only 6 seconds over optimum at Boekelo last fall, a marked increase from his 2019 A/4*-S speed rating average of only 22.75 seconds. In 2020, that A/4*-S speed rating average has dropped to 13.75 seconds. Liz will likely set a pace that improves on their A/4*-S pace from 2020, as she tries to close the gap with the leaders after a disappointing dressage test.

Boyd Martin and Luke 140. Photo by Shannon Brinkman for Erin Gilmore Photography.

A horse who has escaped mention thus far is Boyd Martin‘s second ride of the day, Luke 140. This horse has had only four starts at the level this year, with Phillip Dutton taking the reins for two of his four Advanced runs. This horse has been shockingly consistent thus far in his four starts, he has finished between 25 and 27 seconds over optimum time no matter what the other horses have been doing. Prior to the start of competition, the biggest question was whether Boyd would choose to press the horse for the time. That question is almost certainly answered, now that Luke 140 holds the lead with Long Island T further down in the order. He’ll have had the advantage of riding the course once at this point, and it’s likely that he sets out to give Luke 140 more of a competitive pace; in their two starts together as a pair they average only 17 seconds slower than the fastest time of the day.

Tamie Smith & Passepartout, owned by Kaylawna Smith-Cook. Photo by MGO Photography.

Finally, stay tuned for West Coast queen Tamie Smith, who will be our other Futures Team Captain, aboard Passepartout. Under Kaylawna Cook, this horse put in two reliable but steady rounds across the country; when Tamie took the reins they blazed to the lead by putting in the fastest round of the day at Twin Rivers 4*-S. This pair is a true wild card, but Tamie has the home field advantage; while she doesn’t often compete in this division, she is intimately familiar with the Galway venue. Last year, in her first start in this division since 2011, she put in the fastest round of the division last year with EnVogue, blazing home 39 seconds inside the time and 34 seconds faster than the next fastest pair.

PREDICTIONS – DAY TWO

Division Winner: With a vastly different reality after day one, the top placings have been completely shaken up. The three horses currently atop the leaderboard are all extremely good jumpers; between them, they’ve added only two rails in 22 rounds at this level. That means it’s highly likely that this weekend comes down to their time differentials on cross country; whomever emerges on top today will be the favorite to secure the win tomorrow. Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin may both be sitting on horses who have a historically slower pace than Tamie’s single start on her catch ride, but all three riders are masters of pushing for a personal best pace when the moment matters.

Phase Two Leader: The ability to push for time has become all important with this shake-up in dressage scoring, and Tamie Smith knows this venue. Boyd will be pushing for Luke 140 to stay right up at the top but has only six seconds of cushion over Passepartout. Similarly, Phillip will push Fernhill Singapore but has only two seconds of cushion over the west coast pair. Ultimately, Tamie and Passepartout will pull ahead. Jollybo and Hawley Bennett-Awad will be right there making their case as well, with a more consistent record of getting close to or achieving the time at this level; however this pair will need to overcome a more significant deficit with the Australian pair, who have 14 and 9 seconds of cushion over them.

Making the Optimum Time: Although 20% of the field typically makes the time out of overall starters at this venue, that equates to only two horses in the field. The two most likely to do so are Jollybo and Passepartout, with Woodford Reserve hovering at the edge.

The Surprise: As mentioned above, Fernhill Fortitude could be a surprise today with his prior 4*-L record; Rebecca Brown will be using him to gain experience in her first 4*-L start.

USEF Futures Team Challenge: Despite a disappointing dressage phase, Team Erik will pull solidly ahead with three solid cross-country performances adding only some time penalties to put them on a score somewhere between 130 and 140 penalties. Team Leslie will likely run into some trouble on cross-country, trailing with a score in the 150+ range, still within stalking range but needing some luck to catch up.

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