The Big Picture: Looking at Rolex Results Through a WEG Lens

Buck Davidson, Ballynoecastle RM and Kathleen Blauth-Murray. Photo by Sally Spickard. Buck Davidson, Ballynoecastle RM and Kathleen Blauth-Murray. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Welcome to the day after Rolex, when we’re all nursing a hangover from lack of sleep, information overload and too much Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Or is that just me? Rolex is big in any year, but it’s that much more important in a WEG year, and every member of the USEF Eventing Selection Committee was on hand in Kentucky to watch our top team contenders. Here’s a look at some key facts and figures and how those fit in to the big picture of North American eventing.

We always like to give a shout out to the most impressive moves up the leaderboard at Rolex. Buck Davidson earned himself a spot in the top four for a second consecutive year thanks to finishing on his dressage score with Ballynoe Castle RM, who was also named Best Conditioned Horse. Their double clear yesterday moved them up from 11th to third place in the final phase. Marilyn Little was also a big mover on show jumping day, rocketing from 10th to the top five thanks to her double clear with 9-year-old RF Smoke on the Water.

Sinead Halpin and Manoir de Carneville last competed at Rolex in 2011, where they placed third, one spot below this year. Their jumping improved this weekend, however, as they finished on their dressage score; they had 4.4 time penalties on cross country in 2011. The difference in their final placing came from being tied for 11th after dressage this year, whereas they were eighth after dressage in 2011. That said, it was a fantastic performance across the board, and Sinead and Tate easily win the award for best cross-country trip.

Marilyn had a very impressive weekend with two horses finishing in the top six. The next best performances with multiple mounts came from William Fox-Pitt with two in the top nine and Buck Davidson with two in the top 12. While RF Demeter pulled a rail, the sixth-place finish is a major improvement from last year when they were eliminated on cross country. Show jumping continues to be a challenge for Demi, but she and Marilyn are clearly heading in the right direction.

The U.S. finished seven pairs in the top 10, which is up from five pairs last year. Seven Americans finished in the top 10 in 2012, and just three U.S. pairs finished in the top 10 during the year of Mary King’s total domination in 2011. For Team Canada, Selena O’Hanlon earned the highest placing with Foxwood High in a very impressive four-star debut for the horse to finish in 10th place. Hawley Bennett-Awad and Gin & Juice followed in 16th place.

The path to winning Rolex has followed the same pattern in recent years. The Rolex winner has been placed second after the dressage in the past three years, and show jumping has not proved to be as influential in picking the winner as we might expect. In the past four years, the overnight leader after cross country has gone on to clinch the win.

An American has not won this event since Phillip Dutton and Connaught in 2008, and the last rider developed in the U.S. to clinch the win was Kim Severson, who win with Winsome Adante in 2002, 2004 and 2005. A British rider has won Rolex five times since the event became a four-star, while the U.S. has won six times; New Zealand and Australia have three wins a piece.

Now to look ahead to see how this weekend could impact the WEG team. It’s notable that only one horse and one rider from America’s last international team in London competed at Rolex this year — Phillip Dutton and Mr. Medicott. And while it’s still very early in the season, this weekend played a big role in making and breaking certain combinations’ chances at going to Normandy.

Sinead wasn’t the only one who felt her dressage test was better than her score reflected, and the judges were very tough across the board this year. So while Sinead and Tate’s final score of 51.7 is higher than the ideal — mid-40s is about right for being competitive on the four-star international stage — that shouldn’t affect their chances at making the team. On the contrary, I think they’re the only pair that has undoubtedly secured a spot on the team at this point. Pack your backs, Tate!

Buck Davidson thought Ballynoe Castle RM put in the best dressage test of his career, and he was another rider who thought the score of 51.7 should have been lower. They finished third ahead of Sinead and Tate, as Buck and Reggie were closer to the optimum time on cross country, and the horse looks better than I’ve ever seen him. Before this weekend, I wasn’t sure how a Pierre Michelet course would suit him, but Reggie looked very strong on Saturday across a course with a French feel, as William described Derek di Grazia’s track.

Indeed, Reggie is getting better with age, and the horse has now completed 34 FEI competitions in his career. His third-place finish this weekend is the horse’s best four-star performance to date, and with the status of horse’s like Mr. Medicott up in the air right now, Reggie has made a very strong case that he should be considered for the WEG team. It doesn’t hurt either that the horse has an absolute heart of gold and will give everything he has and then some.

While the show jumping remains a concern for RF Demeter, she also remains a very strong contender for making the team. Show jumping just happens to be Marilyn Little’s speciality, and I imagine she’ll be working very hard to get that dialed in. The mare looked very good this weekend, and Marilyn and Demi have definitely put themselves at the top of the list of possible combinations heading to Normandy thanks to their sixth-place finish.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica have undoubtedly put themselves in the running for the team with an incredibly consistent performance this weekend to be crowned the new National Champions. This was the mare’s first four-star completion, and they have yet to complete an overseas event together, but we’d be fools to discount them after seeing how good they looked this weekend.

After Boekelo last year, many questioned whether Trading Aces had what it took to be a four-star horse, but Oscar has soundly put those doubts to rest after making the time easily with Phillip Dutton in the irons at Rolex in place of Boyd Martin, whose broken leg is still healing. The horse has now won two cars in the past two months — a Mercedes at Red Hills for winning there and a Range Rover this weekend for hitting the optimum time. Between Oscar, Shamwari 4 and Otis Barbotiere, Boyd has four very strong contenders for WEG.

With Rolex behind us, we still have four more major selection trials — Badminton, Jersey Fresh, Bromont and Luhmühlen — that will play key roles in determining the fate of combinations like Clark Montgomery and Universe, Tiana Coudray and Ringwood Magister, Lynn Symansky and Donner, and Phillip with Mighty Nice and Mr. Medicott. We’ll be there to bring you every moment of the action as we count down to the World Equestrian Games.

Go Eventing.

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