It’s T-minus a few hours until the Super Bowl of American eventing begins, and my predictions are finally a go. With such an important event, I could hardly keep my thoughts even to a top 10, so I’m stretching all the way down to 15. Before we get down to the details, let’s discuss a few aspects of the event itself.
This weekend, the dressage test will be 2009 FEI 4*-A. These four-star tests have been around for a while, so at this point the riders will be fairly attuned to what is necessary. However, A is the test performed in odd-numbered years, which means that championships like the Olympics and World Equestrian Games always end up with the B test.
As a result, many of the pairs in this field have more experience with the B test, simply because they might give their four star partners a break in the odd-numbered years when the team cycle is off or they are focused on the Pan American Games. We are getting new CCI4* tests for 2016, so expect the playing field to level again next year.
The judges for dressage will be Angela Tucker, Dr. Ernst Topp, and Wayne Quarles. Angela Tucker is a British judge who tends to appear at events like Boekelo and Burghley. Dr. Ernst Topp is from Germany, and appeared as a judge at WEG last year, as well as at Luhmühlen and Burghley. Wayne Quarles is a homegrown American and presided over events like Plantation, Woodside and Fair Hill last year.
Derek di Grazia has been the cross country course designer at Rolex since Mike Etherington-Smith stepped down after the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Derek has really been able to put his mark on the course design the past couple of years, offering up courses with good flow and challenge that encourage bold, accurate riding. Look for challenges that make strong use of terrain, combinations with strong angles and forward striding, and hanging logs into water.
Richard Jeffrey will be your show jumping course designer this weekend. He designed courses in the U.S. for Rolex, Rebecca Farm and the American Eventing Championships last year, as well as the course at Burghley in England.
As a note, when doing score comparisons, I used only FEI scores in order to keep a level playing field with the foreign horses. Advanced scores do not factor into these averages.
Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW: Everyone will probably believe I’m taking the easy out by calling this pair to win, but I truly believe that barring the bizarre, we will be seeing a coronation this weekend. The only question to me is the margin of victory for these two.
Here’s a fun fact about Michael and Sam: They are the only pair in the entire field who average in the 30s in dressage. That’s FEI 30s, ladies and gents. This horse averages a 37.56 at the three-star/four-star level for his whole career and has scored as low as 27.9 at a three-star. But it gets better. Looking at only the scores from 2014 and 2015, that average drops to an incredible 33.0.
Their four-star average is a 39.15, and the only “weak” spot is that their average on the A test is a 41.5. That last stat might make them sound beatable, but it includes a 47.0 at their first four-star in Luhmühlen in 2009. When they more recently performed that test at Badminton in 2013, they scored a 36.0. I’m predicting a 39.2 to match their four-star average, but in reality, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that score go lower.
Another fun fact: Michael has never incurred a cross country penalty at a CCI3* or CCI4* with Sam. No jump penalties, no time penalties, no letters. In fact, these two have a 100 percent completion rate for an incredible 28 events at the three-star and four-star level. They are the only pair to have this completion rate for more than 10 events at this level. That includes no withdrawals. When Michael enters his horses in a show, he plans to compete. Expect a double clear out of these two in the second phase.
Finally, a weakness. Sort of. These two once had four rails at a CCI3*! That was at Strzegom back in 2008. Oh, and one time they had two rails. That was also back in 2008, at a CIC3*. They haven’t had more than one rail since 2009, and more often go clear. In four CCI4* completions, they’ve accumulated a grand total of one rail. A double clear will cap off their weekend, finishing on their dressage score somewhere in the 30s.
REST OF THE TOP 10
2. William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero: William and Bay My Hero are another pair with a 100 percent completion rate at the three-star and four-star levels, but have only seven starts. In three four-star attempts, Bay My Hero has never finished worse than fourth and of course won Rolex last year. He’ll have to fight for it this year, and second place will be decided by less than a rail.
These two have actually been getting better scores at four-stars than at three-stars, averaging a 41.73 at this level. Since 2014, the only events they have entered have been two four-stars, where they averaged a 41.8, so look for them to stay in that range.
These two obviously have a history of good cross country runs and finished double clear here and at Pau in 2012. They’ve completed five CCIs for a time average of eight cross country time penalties, but that includes two outliers. If you drop the CCI3* run at Blenheim in 2011, which contain’s this horse’s only stop at this level, and the Burghley run last fall, where the average time of the field was an astonishing 92.86 seconds over optimum time, the CCI time average drops to 0.8 seconds. Don’t be looking for WFP and his horse to be adding much, if any, to their dressage score come Saturday.
To wrap things up, Bay My Hero is a fairly careful jumper, but still has a rail or two on his record. In three four-star attempts, he’s dropped one rail only and jumped the more recent two double clean. William might miss out on his Rolex this year, but he will probably be happy with second on a score in the very low 40s.
3. Michael Jung and fischerRocana FST: Many may think that this is Rocana’s weekend, and while I don’t think she’s quite ready to dethrone her stablemate, Michael will probably be pretty happy if he finishes two in the top three. Michael is truly remarkable, as Rocana is another horse with a 100 percent completion rate, although she has only eight starts at the three-star and four-star levels. Her dressage scores show the potential to grow as good as Sam, but she’s probably got another year or two before her average matches his.
Rocana is only a couple of points behind her stablemate, with a four star average of 41.1. However, there are indications she is getting better as she gains experience, with a 2014/2015 average of 40.34. A score of 40.3 would put her hot on the heels of Sam, in second place after the flat.
Michael has been consistent with his younger horse as with his older one, accumulating no jump penalties in any of his runs at these levels. In addition, he continued his streak of double clears at CCI events up until Rocana ran at WEG, where she finished 29 seconds over the time on a course that averaged 83.03 seconds over for the field. Throwing this outlier out means that Michael will almost certainly be looking for a double clear round on Saturday.
Show jumping really is this mare’s weakness, and while she doesn’t usually drop more than one, she does usually drop one. At these high levels, she has only jumped two clear rounds, one of which was at the World Equestrian Games last year to secure the individual silver medal. Rocana certainly has the propensity to jump clear, but Michael still has a bit of refining to do before it becomes a consistent thing. I think we’ll see one rail from her on Sunday, dropping her down from second to finish ultimately in third with a score just under the mid-40s.
4. Lauren Kieffer and Veronica: If things play out according to the numbers, it doesn’t look like this will be the year for an American winner, but Lauren will be one of two who will be leading the charge to prove me wrong. Lauren and Veronica have been the epitome of consistency this spring, racking up two wins and a third at Advanced level. After a second place finish last year, Lauren will be hungry for more and will do her utmost to upset the indomitable Sam.
Lauren and Veronica average a 45.45 for the four-star dressage, which would be good enough to be solidly inside the top 10 after dressage. These two are incredibly consistent on the flat, generally scoring within three points of their average, no matter the test, the level or the time of year. They will not be straying too far from their average, but could go to the low 40s.
Lauren’s cross country numbers don’t tell the entire story, as she is one to run fairly conservatively until the big day. While she did go double clear at last year’s Rolex, these two also racked up 27.2 penalties last fall at Pau, more than the typical average for the field. However, Lauren was clearly testing the gas pedal at The Fork in her last outing, finishing double clear to take the win in their Advanced division. I suspect we’ll see these two match their performance from last year, throwing down a double clear to climb the rankings.
The final phase is not Veronica’s strongest, with a tendency to have a rail or two down. At the CCI4* level, they have jumped double clear once and more recently had three rails. However, they have yet to have a rail in 2015, and Lauren in particular has been extremely precise in the show jumping phase. Still, I have to go with the numbers in this case, and I think we’ll see one rail fall on the final day. However, the rail won’t make a difference in the standings, and Lauren will still end up as the highest placed American with a score in the high 40s.
5. Jennie Brannigan and Cambalda: This pair has probably had the worst four-star luck of the entire field, and it’s high time some stars aligned for them. Jennie will be the second of two ladies battling it out for top American and gunning for the upset if they can. Fresh off a win at The Fork CIC3*, Cambalda is primed and ready to finally finish his first four-star and with style.
Jennie and Cambalda average a 50.07 at the four-star level, but perform quite better than that on the 4*-A test, typically scoring around a 47.6. Cambalda is another who could drop into the low 40s on the flat and recently scored 42.8 in a three-star test. If they put in an average test, it will still be good enough to be just outside of the top 10.
This horse has been very consistent across the country at the three-star level, but four-star has just not been in the cards so far. At this point, it’s finally their time. Overall, these two average 4.4 time penalties across the country. They are certainly capable of making the time, but don’t always, like coming in three seconds over in last fall’s Fair Hill CCI3*.
Jennie’s first priority this weekend will be crossing the finish flags, and her second will be coming home clear. This rider is well known for her competitive streak, but I don’t doubt for a minute that she’ll sacrifice a tiny bit on the second goal to accomplish the first. At the very least, she’ll match or better her average of 4.4 time penalties, and I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see a double clear by her name.
The final day of the competition is one of Cambalda’s strongest phases. He’s never had a rail at a CCI3* on U.S. soil, although he did pick up a very rare two-rail round at Boekelo in 2012. He has not had a rail at the Advanced or CIC3* level since that Boekelo round, except at Red Hills in 2013 and 2014. So basically, if it isn’t in Red Hills’ now retired grass arena, he’s not having a rail. A double clear should put him in fifth, with a score barely over 50.
6. Francis Whittington and Easy Target: The Europeans don’t bring slouches overseas, and Easy Target is another with a good chance at cracking the top 10 this weekend. This horse is another with great success at the three-star level, but is struggling to replicate it at the four-star level.
Francis and Easy Target have a long partnership together, and while their four-star average is a 45.68, their average in the past two years has dropped dramatically to a 41.26, including a stellar 36.2 score at Badminton last spring. These two probably have the best chance in the field of challenging Michael and Sam, and a 41.3 would put them in the top three after dressage.
As I said before, Easy Target has not made quick and easy work of the four-star level, accruing stops in his first two attempts before finally coming home clear at Badminton 2013. Unfortunately, his next attempt was at beefed-up Badminton last year, and while he did not incur any stops, Francis retired him before the end of the course. Other than that one blip, he has not incurred any jump penalties across the country since 2012. For clean CCI runs, these two have an average of 15 seconds over optimum time, accumulating an additional 6 penalties to their dressage score.
Easy Target is a horse who doesn’t have many rails, but does incur more rails at CCI4* than his typical average. In his two CCI4* completions, he has dropped two and one, along with a handful of time penalties during each round. It’s likely we’ll see him have a rail on the final day, along with 1 time penalty to bring the final score just a couple of tenths behind Cambalda.
7. James Alliston and Tivoli: James brought three horses to Rolex for the first time in 2013 after already gaining experience with Parker and Jumbo’s Jake in previous years. The third horse, Tivoli, was new to the level, but seemed well poised to be James’ leading contender. Tivoli combined the lovely cadence of Jumbo’s Jake’s flatwork with the grit and determination to run fast and clear that Parker has. The cherry on top was his careful tendency in the show jumping.
It all came to a screeching halt on Sunday morning, when Tivoli was spun at the final horse inspection. After a prolonged period of time off, Tivoli is back, and James will be looking to pick up where he left off with this talented gelding’s career.
Tivoli has had only one go at a four-star test, but it was the 4*-A test, and he scored 49.5. Since he has been back in competition, James has kept his average at a 50.4, and that’s likely where he will score at the end of the day.
This horse isn’t quite as quick across the country as his stablemate Parker, but has kept his average to a mere 0.4 time penalties since his return. Overall, the gelding averages 3.2 time penalties, and based on his last run in Kentucky, it’s a realistic goal for him.
With only one CCI3* and no CCI4* under their belt, it’s a little difficult to gauge how well Tivoli typically handles show jumping while tired. In their one CCI3* at Galway Downs in 2012, they accrued one rail, but have only ever had rails in two of their nine show jumping rounds at the three-star level. James should be able to maintain that streak, and a double clear round on Sunday will result in a final score a few tenths behind Easy Target.
8. Lynn Symansky and Donner: Lynn and Donner are coming into their fourth four-star together. These two have a fairly blemish free record together and will be looking to gain their Olympics qualifications for Rio by matching their previous Rolex attempt.
Many may think Thoroughbreds can’t keep up on the flat, but Donner is out to prove them wrong. While Lynn’s four-star average overall is a 53.7, they’ve stepped up to the plate since 2014 and hammered it down to a 49.42. If they match their current performance with a 49.4, they’ll be in prime position to stalk the leaders.
After a tough WEG cross country day, these two have a jump penalty average at the CCI4* level that implies they are prone to have a stop. In this case, that’s a lie. With two out of three four-star attempts jumped double clear across the country, it’s pretty clear that we should come to expect that performance out of them. Donner’s blood will ring true, and I’m predicting the fastest round of the day from these two.
In three CCI4* show jumping rounds, this pair has had one, two and zero rail rounds. Overall, they average one rail, and one rail would put them solidly inside the top 10 with a score in the low 50s, less than a point behind Tivoli.
9. Marilyn Little and RF Demeter: Marilyn and RF Demeter are about to start their seventh four-star together. These two are one of the most consistent pairs in the bunch. Other than Red Hills, where they have less than stellar luck, this pair have an impeccable record across the country, barring a rider fall at Rolex in 2013 when Marilyn rode with a separated shoulder and a frangible pin penalty at Burghley last fall. Other than that? Nada.
For the dressage, their three-star average is close to their four-star average, which is close to their average for the 4*-A test, which is close to their average for the past two years, and so on and so forth. You get the picture. They’ve scored as low as 43.7, but also ventured upwards into the low 50s, so look for them to score similar to their most recent performances, which average at a 48.56.
Marilyn Little and RF Demeter are a quick pair, with an average of 3.6 time penalties in 2014 and 2015. At the four-star level, they average 6.8 penalties, but have an outlier at Burghley, where they acquired 28.4 penalties. Without that score, they end up with a typical average of only three seconds over optimum time at the four-star level.
Show jumping has come leaps and bounds for this mare. From the days of multiple rails at four-stars, Marilyn helped RF Demeter jump her first double clear in this phase at the four-star level last fall. While this pair’s overall average at the CCI4* level tends towards two rails, their more recent performance trends towards one or less. If they have a rail, they’ll end up in ninth, with a score about half a point behind Donner.
10. Nicola Wilson and Annie Clover: Annie Clover has big shoes to fill, with Opposition Buzz’s retirement and then unexpected death last year. After withdrawing before cross country at soggy Badminton last spring, Nicola Wilson found herself tackling the mare’s first fou- star at WEG. Luckily, Annie Clover stepped up in a big way, delivering a solid clear cross country round as an individual for the Brits.
Annie Clover scores quite well in dressage and is another who will make an appearance in the top 10 after the first phase. An average of 46.7 since 2014 will slot them nicely into the top group of contenders.
This mare has had a clean record since the middle of 2013, and with a clear round at WEG, it’s clear she’s no slouch across the country. She has struggled with coming home inside the time though, with only one double clear round on her record. Overall, Nicola averages 7.6 time penalties during CCIs with her and will probably accumulate a similar number of time penalties here.
Nicola has had good show jumping results with Annie as well, up until WEG, where the mare accumulated 20 faults after a stop at one of the fences. Prior to that, the mare had only once brought down more than one rail in a round, and more often than not jumped double clear. For Rolex, I predict that we’ll see a return to their previous ways of double clears, finishing on a score just a couple of tenths behind RF Demeter.
11. Buck Davidson and Ballynoe Castle RM: A perennial favorite, Reggie is back for more this year. This will be his fourth Rolex run, ninth four-star attempt, and 33rd start at the three-star or four-star level. Frankly, the horse is a machine and is likely the most durable horse in the field.
Reggie and Buck are consistently competitive on the flat, and for the past two years have averaged a 48.7 after the first phase. This horse has always been on at Kentucky, with three clear rounds in three attempts and a combined total of eight seconds over optimum time. For 2014 and 2015, their cross country average is only four time penalties. While Reggie is known to be a careful jumper, he does tend to be less careful at the four-star level. A rail this weekend will drop these two to just outside the top 10, with a score just a hair under mid-50.
12. Zara Phillips and High Kingdom: This will be Zara’s first trip to Rolex with High Kingdom, and I for one am slightly curious as to what sort of press there will be at Rolex to document her appearance. Zara and High Kingdom will be starting their sixth four-star together this weekend.
Although Zara and High Kingdom have a four-star average of 46.22, the past two years have seen a bit of loss in their form, inching their typical performance up to a 49.2. They average clear cross country with only five seconds over optimum time when you toss out the outlier of WEG. They’ve jumped two clear rounds and two one rail rounds at the four-star level, but when you look to their overall record, they trend towards one rail. A final score right of mid-50 will see them in 12th.
13. Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch: Laine and Al are probably the crowd favorites this weekend. They’ve run into their share of bad luck at this event, and I think it’s finally their year. I’ve pegged these two as my Dark Horse pair, so read down below for more detail.
These two have a four-star average of 53.73, but haven’t actually competed at a four star since 2012. Since then, they’ve knocked several points off their dressage scores, and their most recent two-year average sits at a 44.7. This pair has a reputation of going clear, but in reality, they usually have a handful of time penalties, with an average of 7.6 time penalties for runs in the past two years. Remember, I’m using FEI information only, and Laine has competed Anthony Patch very sparingly in the FEI levels since 2013, with only two starts in 2014 and 2015.
Al is a very careful jumper, but overall tends to be evenly split between clear rounds and one rail rounds. In two four-star rounds, they have one clear round and a one rail round. However, their overall average indicated a very slight tendency to have one rail, which would put them in 13th place with a score just over mid-60.
14. Phillip Dutton and Mighty Nice: Mighty Nice constantly seems on the verge of greatness, but has yet to put three brilliant phases together at the four-star level. If anyone can bring it together, it’s Phillip — the last American winner at Rolex with Connaught in 2008 — and three solid phases will still land these two inside the top 15.
This pair has a four-star average on the flat of 53.4, but since 2014 have been scoring closer to 48.5. Phillip runs this horse quick at CCIs, averaging only a few seconds over optimum time. Unfortunately, Mighty Nice is tricky in the show jumping phase and trends towards having two rails at the CCI levels. A final score in the mid-to-high fifties will help Phillip snag 14th.
15. Boyd Martin and Master Frisky: Master Frisky is one of the least experienced horses in the field, with only four three-stars under his belt. Boyd more than makes up for that lack of experience and will have a solid contender for the future on his hands after this weekend.
Master Frisky averages a 49.9 on the flat at the three-star level after his scores dropped around 10 points from last fall. Boyd picked up the pace at Fair Hill, and dropping the outlier of a slow run at the horse’s first three-star, should accumulate no more than 2.4 time penalties. This is another pair who struggles a bit in the show jumping, with a tendency to have a rail and perhaps one time penalty. Boyd will sneak into the top 15 only a hair behind Phillip and Mighty Nice.
THE DARK HORSE
Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch: I was quite surprised to see Laine and Anthony Patch outside the top 20 when working with my numbers, and it was quite obvious as to why. Laine has competed Al very sparingly at the FEI levels recently and overall is very careful about where and when she runs him for time. However, when Laine aims to go clear with her Thoroughbred, she goes clear. If there was any place to go for time, it’s here and now.
Similarly, Anthony Patch was extremely on point in his show jumping through all of 2013 and most of 2014, hitting only one rail in all of that time. While a tendency towards a rail cropped up right at the end of 2014, and a tepid show jumping in a tough arena at Carolina International pushed up this horse’s average, there’s still a very good chance this pair will throw down a double clear on Sunday.
If Laine and Anthony Patch can finish on their dressage score, they could rise as high as the top three and become the top American of the weekend.
Tim Price and Wesko: Tim Price and Wesko’s dressage is among the best in the field, capable of a top three placing after the first phase. Their show jumping is impressive, with only three rails ever at the three-star or four-star levels. They won the Blair Castle CCI3* in 2013 and the Luhmühlen CCI4* in 2014.
Unfortunately, they’ve run into a spot of rough luck since winning Luhmühlen. At WEG, Tim was forced to retire Wesko near the end of the course when officials felt the horse looked too tired. Their next FEI start was then at Burnham Market CIC3*, where Wesko incurred a stop.
It’s fairly likely that we’ll see a return to their previous winning form here, and with a quick and clear cross country round, Wesko can potentially challenge La Biosthetique Sam FBW for the title.
Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair: The Rolex Rookies picked a hell of a year to be competing for the first time, with one of the most strongly talented foreign fields we’ve seen in a while. Still, every year at least one pair seems to rise to the challenge while everyone takes note. This year, that pair will be Maya and Doesn’t Play Fair.
Maya showed she was no stranger to pressure last year, and she and Doesn’t Play Fair stayed cool to collect big wins in their Advanced division at Carolina and Plantation Field CIC3*. These two will throw down a competitive dressage to start with, averaging 48.4 on the flat. They’ve typically averaged 10 time penalties on their CCI attempts, but have also shown they are capable of double clear rounds. One rail on the final day will still keep their placing well ahead, and they could be the surprise of the weekend.