Top Quotes from Cross Country Day at Kentucky

Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Today was … unexpected, perhaps. At least for the riders, most of whom seemed to think yesterday that Derek di Grazia’s cross country course walked a little softer than usual. Once they got on course, however, it seems that they changed their minds pretty quickly!

Scroll down to read the reactions of some of the first riders on course, some of the riders sitting at the top of the standings, and the thoughts of the course designer himself on how his creation rode.

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Allie Sacksen (USA) first to complete the course, sitting in 30th place on 79.5: I’m crying! Oh my God! I’m sorry! That was such an amazing ride … I can’t … that horse! Ok, wow … it was not pretty, but we got it done. I was walking around the start box and Caroline fell, and then Liz fell, and then Buck had a runout and then he fell and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing today?’ I woke up at like 3:30 this morning in cold sweats like, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? It’s supposed to be fun!’ But at the riders meeting on Wednesday there was one gentleman talking about putting everything else outside of your head and focusing and I just did that and I knew that I had to ride the entire course — I could not stop riding. And I had to ride the entire course and it never let up. A couple of the fences – I think after the triple bar – the wide table turning right to the big brushes, [Sparrow’s Nio] like got there in a half stride, he like bellied it, but I totally did like a Pony Club yank in both directions and he was just so dead on. I’m speechless.”

“Last year was a very odd season for us. I just had my baby that January in 2018 and I came out in the spring and retired and Bromont, retired at Fair Hill, and that’s not normal for us. So I kind of came out this spring thinking, ‘OK well, we’ll go to Carolina and see how it goes.’ He was brilliant at Carolina and I was like, ‘Alright let’s give it one more go.’ He was phenomenal. He was absolutely phenomenal. It’s so cool – I like to call myself an average joe – I have one horse, him, and I have a young little Thoroughbred that a great friend of mine, Jill McNicol, owns and that’s it. So I’m kind of a one horse wonder at the moment but it’s one wonderful horse that I have.”

“[My advice to the other riders would be] bon’t worry about striding — just ride. Nothing worked out quite like I thought it would, but it’s just kind of grit your teeth and make it happen. I took two long routes, but I wanted to come here with clean jumping, I didn’t really care about time. I actually threw my watch off halfway through the course because it was starting to slip and drive me nuts before the 9abc question because I knew all I wanted to do was come across the finish flags. It doesn’t let up — you’ve got to be a fit rider and a fit horse. I had a little bit different fitness plan coming in this year and I think it worked because he felt super up until the end.”

Sara Gumbiner (USA) one of only four riders to complete the Normandy Bank direct route, sitting in 23rd place on 58.2: Oh my gosh, it was hard. I think it was tougher than last year. It was so much more technical. I felt like it was a bit slower, like you really had to think about your time as you were going though the combinations. He took care of me a couple times out there, you know like, I put my leg on and he said it wasn’t there, he just sort of backed off and did it and he was amazing.”

“That is the scariest thing [when you hear riders before you fall]. You just start second guessing yourself. You walk all your lines – I’ve walked this course six times – and you know, you have a plan, you’re like, ‘I’m going to do all the straight lines,’ and then the first three riders bomb out and it’s all at the same fence and you’re like, ‘We need to do the option!’ But I know my horse and I knew where the trip up was and I knew that he was going to be fine no matter where I got him to and he was.”

“You know, I think like my overall feeling of [being at Kentucky for the second time] was way less overwhelming, so I do think that gave me a little bit of ease. But walking it, it’s walked completely differently than last year so it felt like it was a new event. I just thought that, you know, the questions it was asking and the type of horses that would excel at it was very different than the horses last year so luckily I have a really rideable scopey horse which I think can kind of accomplish any course and I think he proved it today.”

Will Faudree (USA) sitting in 19th place on 50.6: It’s perfect conditions, perfect weather, but a really big track and Derek knows this park so well and knows how to use the terrain and it was a serious fitness test. And [Pfun] is a really good cross country horse. I’m kicking myself for just slowing down a bit too much at the end setting him up for the combinations and I could have saved 10 or 20 seconds easily, but that’s why we come to these things, to get better. I think he’s just such a trustworthy horse and such a good friend.”

“The softer it looks, the harder it is to ride. I heard some people saying, ‘Oh, it’s quite soft this year,’ and I think it’s easy to walk around when you’re not having to go out and do it. You can’t walk the terrain the way you feel it on the horses. I think that’s an incredible trait that Derek has as a course designer is that he designs it from the horse’s perspective, not the rider’s. I think that you had to fight for it the whole way around and I was thrilled to cross the finish line clear. I with I could have finished a bit faster. [The horses] land after each combination feeling like, ‘Wow, I just did that,’ and I think that’s a tribute to Derek as a designer.”

“I’ll go back and make sure my pony is good and ready for tomorrow. Early to bed. The night before cross country is typically a sleepless night for me. I find myself waking up multiple times throughout the night visualizing what I’m supposed to be doing. I went out and I jumped every single jump one time today, but I jumped them about fifty-five times between Wednesday and today in my head. So I’m going to have a night of sleep.”

Hazel Shannon (AUS) sitting in 28th place on 65.4: “[Willingapark Clifford] would have jumped [18c], but I was stuck in an indecision and I kind of didn’t give him enough leadership. If I had it a little more right – I didn’t even have to get it right, I just had to get it half right – he would have been fine. But he was trying really hard, he always does. It was pretty good, there’s things you always want to do better, but he’s very forgiving so you just have to get it half right and he’ll do it.”

“[The runout at 18c, The Head of the Lake] probably just made me sort of think I have to sharpen up to get around. I was watching the time at the beginning, but then I sort of stopped. He decided to get strong so I was kind of just trying to pilot around safely.”

“I was always going to [go long at the Normandy Bank]. That was one of the fences that I didn’t feel comfortable with. Everything else I’ve jumped variations of it, I just didn’t feel like that was something that we were familiar with. The long route wasn’t really that much longer, I thought. Especially if he was a bit tired by then it would just be easier to cruise around there.”

“[The course] was kind of how I’d imagined. A few things I ended up doing slightly differently out there, but basically it all rode how I was planning. And the water, it did ride as I was planning, I just didn’t ride it as I was planning on riding it. I’m disappointed, but I mean the horse is healthy and safe so that’s the main thing.”

Oliver Townend (GBR) sitting in 1st place on 25.3: “[Cooley Master Class] was unbelievable. He’s had great preparation this year and he was keen, which I’m not that used to. He had a few of his own ideas out there, but all with his ears pricked and all looking for the flags. There were times when I was sat behind him with reins too long because he’d done something I hadn’t expected and he just put himself through the flags every single time. He lost a shoe halfway so I was very conscious of that. He slipped on a few of the turns so I tried to look after him at the fences so I didn’t always go on a wing on a prayer short, I kind of ended up balancing a few more times than I wanted and had one long route that I hadn’t planned, again, because he jumped so big in, but I couldn’t be happier with the horse and the way he’s finished.”

“After seeing the trouble early on I thought [the Normandy Bank] would be my one planned long route and obviously saw what I thought was a good distance from too far out really to the very last water and he threw a huge jump in and on the second or first stride I saw we’d never get there, he was landing traveling, so I shouldered ‘long route’ and that was not planned. He was very, very good.”

“He’s enjoyed [Kentucky] this year, that’s for sure, probably more so than I have to a certain extent. He’s basically dozed in the dressage and run off with me ‘round the cross country, but at the same time he’s a horse that’s very close to our heart. The whole of the team loves him. He’s a yard favorite and he’ll stay that way after performances like this. We’ll enjoy today. Hopefully he’ll have the shoe back on and he’ll not be feeling it too much and hopefully he’ll redo what he did in the stadium last time.”

Phillip Dutton (USA) sitting in 4th place on 31.7:I walked the course and I thought it walked a little soft, but it was far from soft.  It was hard work all the way around. I didn’t have any really bad moments I don’t think, but you had to concentrate and you had to hold your line and you had to keep your horse in front of your leg. Obviously I was a little bit anxious coming to that Normandy Bank, but felt that it was going to be slower and harder on [Z] if I did the option and turning him and he was getting tired. He was jumping very forward and strong so I took an estimated guess that he’d probably do it alright and I saw a good shot up and he got there in the two. And Erik Duvander just told me to go for it, so.”

Lauren Kieffer (USA) only rider to run multiple horses, sitting in 8th place on 41.4 with Vermiculus and sitting in 9th place on 45.6 with Paramount Importance:The first year [Vermiculus and I] about ate it in the first water and he was pretty amazing — in the Head of the Lake he landed and almost completely fell down so we had to do a circle in the Head of the Lake, so the first year I had a twenty there through no fault of his own. And then last year clear and this year clear. He’s just as confident as he was the first time. He has very high self-esteem so he’s not phased by a whole lot and he’s always actually been a great horse about just picking up the flags and he wants to go through them so you don’t have to fight with him much on that. I’d say he’s just stronger [than previous years]. The first year, because he’s little, you’d have to reach across the tales a bit and this year it just kind of felt all out of stride for him.”

“[After bringing one horse home] I think you kind of are like, ‘At least I can go finish the day half happy regardless of how this goes — at least I didn’t have the worst day ever,’ but certainly I love Kentucky. It was definitely nice to have the first go on [Paramount Importance] and then on “Bug” (Vermiculus) you’re just a little less careful because you know him and you know he’s done a five-star so it’s a little bit trying to have a crack at it. I was slower than I would have liked but you know, he’s a little guy and we did the best we could.”

“You always don’t underestimate Derek’s courses. I think we really trust Derek, but we don’t underestimate him. I think one of the biggest things, I think he’s the best course designer in the world, but I think one of the bigger things that people should take note of, and other designers should take note of, is he has no ego about it. Like the Normandy Bank, studying that corner off that was slightly experimental and I think that the fact that he gave us a long route that wasn’t very long, you knew he thought he wasn’t 100% sure it how it was going to ride so he gave us that option that wasn’t going to be devastating to the day. And I think that’s because he doesn’t have a huge ego about it. He was going to experiment a little, he wasn’t 100% sure that the horses were going to get it, and so he gave us a not-horrific long route, which some course designers would put there and say, ‘Well toughen up and learn how to ride it,’ but you can’t always predict what the horses are going to read. I actually thought the straight route was going to be fine and then the horses just didn’t quite read it the same way. Tt’s interesting with the Normandy Bank when you don’t have a jump on it they actually land a bit bellied on it whereas if you have a jump on top they land looking up so I think that that they kind of landed on their bellies and that kept them low to the ground to that.”

“The crowds just go crazy here. It’s funny they kind of have their little heart horses and stuff they get behind and like for Bug they were just going wild the whole way around. It just amps you up and it’s fun. The horses love it, we love it. It’s just a special place and I’ve been incredibly lucky here year after year. Every year I come back and I’m like, ‘Well my lucks gotta run out this year,’ but I’ve always just had great goes here.”

Thoughts from the course designer, Derek di Grazia:

On what surprised him about how the course rode… 

“I guess you never know going into these days, especially with a group of riders, you never know what they are going to do. Obviously, as it turned out, I think all of the jumps got jumped because a lot of people opted to take some of the longer routes, which is good. I don’t know if anything necessarily surprised me. I think that for the most part the jumps to me worked the way that I thought that they would and I thought that with a lot of the combinations there was a variation in the strides between the obstacles and the riders used all of them quite honestly. I think that they had to work for it at the Head of the Lake, quite honestly. I think that first jumping in and then having to get reorganized to jump the step out, I think that that to me was where good riders were going to have to work more than I thought they would.”

On the first three riders on course falling…

“Well, that hopefully the next one would go clear. You’re always looking for the first one. And you know, those things, they happen. They’ve happened before where you go out and they don’t come back, but I think once you get someone around that sort of sets the tone for the rest of the ones going and I think that gives you a pretty good feeling. And I think the course, the way it was laid out, the riders certainly had places where if they didn’t want to go the straight ways they could go to the options. They were a little bit longer, but they weren’t terribly longer and I think that in some ways that gave them a little bit of a break so that they always didn’t feel that they had to go the hard way.”

On riders saying that it felt softer after walking it…

“I think it’s probably more the riders who have ridden here year after year that would say that. I think there were some more technical things this year than there were last year. Size-wise I think it was just the same as it was last year and as far as whether it was easier or not, I think that in some cases you could say just because they could in certain areas take those longer routes you could say that that obviously made it easier. I think that for the ones that went all the straight ways I thought it was right up there with anything and I was happy to see that actually everything was used.”

I set the track knowing that it could go one way or the other and I think it was more that the riders had to make that decision and especially they would make the decision with Plan A going into the ride, of course, but at the same time I think they had to have a Plan B depending on what actually happened when they were going around the course. So that was always my intention that it wasn’t going to be something where it’s very set and ‘this is what you have to do,’ but I don’t think it was that sort of course.”