Coverage of Tryon International this weekend is brought to you by Strides for Equality Equestrians (SEE). Diversity and inclusion in all equestrian sports are important, and we’ll be bringing you tidbits on what this new organization hopes to accomplish.
And suddenly, we are here. One of the few silver linings this year is that with extremely limited options and an Olympic qualifier on the line, we have a record 78 combinations who will come down centerline today to the ground jury of Gretchen Butts (USA), Robert Stevenson (USA), and Helen Brettell (GBR). This is the most horses to start at a 4*-L or a 5*-L in North America in at least a decade, beating the Kentucky 2015 CCI5*-L (then CCI4*) which had 75 starters. The next closes 4*-L was the 2015 Fair Hill CCI4*-L (then CCI3*) which saw 60 pairs present to the ground jury. It’s rare to see such a concentrated field in America due to riders either travelling overseas or picking and choosing among available events here. While there’s a lot to be said for providing options and varying venues to pairs, it’s extremely exciting to get to watch such a competitive field this weekend.
This venue has only been utilized at the 4*-L level for the cross country at the World Equestrian Games in 2018; as such the venue has very little history to evaluate and no records for this particular show to speak of. Having said that, there are five pairs competing this weekend who have previously taken the top spot at a CCI4*-L; we have Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot, who took top honors at the Fair Hill 4*-L all the way back in 2012, and Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous, who also won the 4*-L back in 2016. Also appearing are three 4*-L winners from 2019: Fylicia Barr and Galloway Sunrise who took top honors at Jersey Fresh, Jennie Brannigan and Stella Artois who traveled west to win at Rebecca Farm, and Sara Mittleider and La Paz who topped the field at Galway Downs.
DRESSAGE DIVAS – DAY ONE
The heaviest favorite to take the lead after the first phase is Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous, as they’ve led the field after phase one in their last eight consecutive A/4* starts. This pair averaged a very cool 21.6 penalties in three A/4* starts in 2020, with their worst score still breaking 77%. You have to look back to early 2018 for an occasion where they haven’t broken 75% and are only pair in the field to have broken 80% on two occasions. Although there are a couple horses in the field who might catch this pair if this mare has a bad day and they have a good one, they are few and far between.
Pan American team horse Starr Witness and her rider Doug Payne are a pair to keep an eye on in this phase; with only three starts at the level, this is one of the greener horses in the field to contest this division. Starr Witness started the year off with a bang, laying down a 23.8 test in the Advanced at Pine Top before cooling her jets until September. At Blue Ridge horse trials, held a this very venue, she proved that the quality of the test was no fluke, scoring 25.7 penalties. In three tests for the level, her average sits at a 25.6, but one caveat; her score has floated upwards on average by 1.7 points in each subsequent start.
One pair whose comeback was certainly made more complicated by the pandemic was Sara Kozumplik-Murphy and Rubens d’Ysieux, who ended 2019 with a return to the A/4* level with a solid completions at the Ocala Jockey Club before turning their sights on 2020. After changing their plans, they’ve managed to get only one start at the level this year. Prior to their hiatus, this pair was regularly breaking the 70% mark, doing so in five of eight starts as a pair and even cracking the 75% barrier in the August of 2018. Since their return to competition, they’ve averaged 32.7 penalties in two starts. If their start at Morven last month has helped knock off the rust that has likely accumulated, then they could be a contender for a spot in the top ten but will otherwise have to be content to rely on the horse’s jumping ability to climb the ranks from further down.
Clayton Fredericks is a busy man with all his ventures (he most recently debuted as the 4*-L course designer for Galway Downs just two weeks ago), but it’s evident that the forced time at home this year was immensely helpful to his mount Always In Time who has dropped his dressage average from 34.2 penalties in 2019 to 29.5 penalties in 2020. Always In Time has lowered his score in each of his three consecutive 2020 A/4* starts, most recently clocking in 28.0 penalties at the inaugural Advanced at the Florida Horse Park.
Member of the 2016 Olympic team, Blackfoot Mystery is back to contest only his fourth A/4* and first long format since competing in Brazil. Although we saw him very briefly in 2017 (he contested the fall Advanced at Stable View, finishing fifth), he has been on the sidelines for the level up until this fall. As a horse who can scored anywhere between mid-twenties and mid-thirties, it’s difficult to tell what he might do this weekend with so few prior competitions in the last several years, but a second-best score for the level of 28.0 at Chattahoochee Hills bodes well. He’ll have another barrier to overcome; as second in the ring for the division with Boyd Martin, he’ll have to really lay it down to get the scores he needs to withstand the remainder of the division.
After finishing in the top five at Fair Hill 4*-L last fall, Sydney Conley-Elliott and QC Diamantaire had a quiet year, only making one A/4* start at Stable View. But in doing so, they smashed their previous personal best with a 26.4 on the flat. These two have shown flashes of that brilliance, scoring solidly over 70% on two other occasions out of their eight previous starts, but tend to sit more typically in the 33 to 37 range. All depends on which pair comes out to play this weekend, but they could be a wild card in the first phase.
Woods Baughman and C’est La Vie 135 showed their potential last fall with a win at the Fair Hill 3*-L but like everyone else fell off the radar a bit with an abbreviated scheduled for 2020. Although this horse had two starts at the A/4* level last year prior to his big win at Fair Hill, it wasn’t until this year that the horse really demonstrated what he can do with a 25.8 at Great Meadows 4*-S. In their last three starts, they have scored no worse than a 31.7.
Leamore Master Plan may be a bit of a wild card this weekend if he continues the same trend he has for every A/4* start in 2020; in five starts at those levels this year, he has lowered his dressage score by at least 1.5 pts in each successive start. His most recent test came at Chattahoochee Hills, where he and Ariel Grald put in a test that scored only 28.6 penalties, marking their first sub-thirties score for the level. While unlikely to compete with the leaders, a similar score would let this horse play to his strengths the rest of the weekend.
Quantum Leap has a record that very much reads like a horse who gains more confidence on the flat the longer he has been at the level. His initial starts in the winter of 2019 at Advanced results in scores in the forties before he settled into a steady diet of mid-thirties tests for most of the remainder of the year. The first hint that something was clicking was at the Blue Ridge horse trials at the end of the year, breaking the 70% mark at this very venue. After being put on the shelf for the pandemic, Doug Payne brought him out swinging next a full year later at Blue Ridge again, proving it wasn’t a fluke with a personal best of 26.1 penalties then coming back for more with a 26.8 at Stable View 4*-S. Keep an eye on this horse, as he’s a solid prediction for a competitive test that will surprise a lot of people and could even be a wild card to break the 75% mark if circumstances are right. However, a huge disadvantage for this horse is his spot as first down the centerline; he’ll have to really impress the judges to put up a score that withstands the following 80 horses.
PREDICTIONS – OVERALL
Division Winner: There’s quite a lack of data surrounding this show in regards to how influential the optimum time will be; nearly 20% of the horses at WEG (admittedly a field of very high caliber) finished inside the optimum on the only occasion a long format at the top level has been held at this venue. Of course, the ground was quite conducive for speed and a leg of the course near the end was also removed due to the humid conditions. On the other hand, it has been extremely difficult to catch the time in the short formats held here; as noted in yesterday’s By the Numbers, no one has made the time here since the spring of 2018, and only six of 150 cross-country starters have managed to catch it at all in the last four years. Finally, the amount of rain projected for today and tomorrow has likely softened things up and Tryon’s turf can be quirky. If it ends up being holding, we could see a path to the time being extremely difficult to make.
So for the first time ever in By the Numbers, I’m postulating winners for two different scenarios. First, if time is achievable but not easy to make, or even impossible to make, either of which is a typical scenario for a 4*-L worldwide, Phillip Dutton and Z will hold the advantage at the end of the final day. However, if we see a scenario similar to WEG in which a large portion of the field makes time, Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous will be able to hold the line at the top of the leaderboard, even with a couple of time penalties on cross-country day.
The Potential Spoilers: This field is entirely too full of potential spoilers to just name one, and quite frankly even calling them spoilers is a stretch. Tsetserleg, Vandiver, Deniro Z, La Paz, and EnVogue will all be right there contesting for a slot and quite frankly I’m leaving out about ten others who could make this weekend very interesting.
The Future Star: Danito will likely be as competitive as any of the experienced horses this weekend and it wouldn’t be the first time Tamie Smith won a 4*-L on the back of a green-for-the-level horse. This young gun is ready to be at or near the top of the leaderboard now and will be one to keep an eye on for a surprise slot for Tokyo….pending of course the success of his famous stablemate, Mai Baum.
PREDICTIONS – DAY ONE
Dressage Leader: With quite a few heavy hitters going out on day one, there’s a good chance that whoever leads today will lead through tomorrow as well. While there are absolutely some top horses in the mix tomorrow, our biggest favorite for this phase overall is Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous, who compete in the late morning session. It might be a tall order to expect a score to hold up through another 60+ horses, but if any pair can do it, it’s this one.
The Field Above 70%: With the quality of the field coming out this weekend, there should be a very strong contingent of horses who are ready to break that 70% mark. It is expected that at least 7 horses hit that today, with one or two with the potential to break 75%.
The Surprise: As mentioned above, the horse who has the most potential to exceed expectations is Quantum Leap, who has really shown some huge improvement in his second year at the level. Going first won’t be ideal for showing off that new competency, but it wouldn’t be surprising for us to start the day with a sub-thirty score.