ES Exclusive: 2003 Rolex-Kentucky Dressage

A judge keeps his eye on William Fox-Pitt | © Nancy Jaffer

Lexington, Ky., April 25, 2003 — Someone once said that eventing dressage is to dressage as military music is to music. True enough, no one competes in eventing for the privilege of riding a dressage test, which has meant many substandard performances in those little white-fenced arenas over the years.

But these days, dressage counts more than it once did, and the dressage performances we’ve seen the last few days here at the Rolex-Kentucky Three-Day Event reflect that. Particularly impressive, of course, was the winning effort this afternoon by two-time European Champion Pippa Funnell of Great Britain, riding Primmore’s Pride to a mark of 38.6 penalties. Her countryman William Fox-Pitt, the world’s leading rider last year, was second on Moon Man, an elegant dark bay turned out to the nines. His test earned 42.6 penalties, marred only by a mid-test halt in front of the judges that wasn’t square and a bit of crookedness on the rein-back.

Amy Tryon, a member of last year’s World Equestrian Games gold medal team, halted the British onslaught with a 43-penalty test on My Beau. She edged another English rider, Polly Stockton, who had been the leader after Thursday’s portion of dressage with a score of 43.4 on Tangleman. Polly pays particular attention to dressage because in her Badminton debut a few years back, her horse leaped out of the arena. She was disqualified before he even set hoof on the cross-country course that had been occupying her mind. Pippa is a charmer. Her attitude is as attractive as her face, an open countenance with classic features topped by dark hair in a neat bun. We had a chance to chat after dressage, and I found out a lot about her fantastic string of horses. Number one in her book, of course, is Supreme Rock, last year’s Badminton winner and probably the best-known dressage horse still competing today.

She decided she wanted to do one last Badminton next month on her veteran, so she picked Primmore’s Pride (out of a mare who went ’round Badminton three times) to accompany her on her first trip to America. She’s incredibly impressed by the Kentucky Horse Park.

“Everyone said it was lovely, but when I got here, I realized that the facilities are amazing,” she said. Of course, she’s looking to take this event, but if she can’t, she wants the title to go to one of her four countrymen who are also here.

“It would be nice for a Brit to win it,” she said, and she especially seems to feel that way about William, who went up through the junior ranks with her.

“William is some jockey,” she enthused. “He’s a real cool cookie, and very quiet with his horses. He’s got an amazing eye on cross-country for a stride.”

On the American side, you couldn’t have a better person to root for than Amy. Remember how she had a hard fall off Poggio II last year at the World Equestrian Games? Even though she had a rib cartilage problem that hurt like, well, heck, she climbed back on and finished for the sake of the team. The next day, despite pain so intense she couldn’t even jog her horse in the veterinary exam, she rode in show jumping and had just a single rail down.

This Washington State fireman is all guts, and as nice and forthright as she can be. She’s facing back surgery next week, probably as a result of her WEG fall (though she isn’t sure) but she shrugged off the prospect of the operation as she concentrated on what she’s doing here.

Course designer Michael Etherington-Smith talks to David O’Conner | © Nancy Jaffer

My Beau, she said, is as different from Poggio as “chalk from cheese.” Poggio has enormous scope, and is quick and sharp. The bigger Beau, whose dressage “is a work in progress,” is a very willing sort. That makes up for what he lacks in scope.

You’d really need to have confidence in what you’re riding to even think of attempting Michael Etherington-Smith’s course. Pippa noted that unlike some designers, he’s kind to horses and doesn’t punish them for a good effort (she wouldn’t name the guy who makes horses jump a drop that has an uphill landing that could sting them.)

However, Mike challenges the riders, and the route is particularly tough this time around because he’s set the fences in the opposite direction from the usual way around these fields and hills. And he’s very clever in forcing the riders to be resourceful. For instance, at the Lexington Bank, which comes near the end of the course, horses have to jump a mini-run-in shed that is 3-feet, 11-inches high, then head up the bank to a double of Log Cabin Corners (complete with little windows). A straight approach wouldn’t be that difficult for the average 4-star rider, but Mike has planted a rock garden in the way so there is no direct line. Ooooh. And coming near the end of the course, this one could well take a toll.

But as Mike put it, “there’s no point in mucking about with Mickey Mouse fences.”

The questions start coming along fast in the first portion of the course, with the Wishing Well Corners at 4 and 5, and the Rails/Ditch/Rails (which used to have the unfortunate nickname of a coffin) at 7 and 8AB. But Mike doesn’t ease off at the back part of the route either (the log house corners is just one example), and those who gloried in the old Rolex track where you could make up time flaws with a good run at the end won’t be able to do that anymore.

“It will be interesting to see what happens Saturday,” said Mike, a master of understatement. There will be lots of people on hand to watch, considering there were more than 13,000 here today for dressage, which doesn’t exactly keep most casual observers awake.

The crowd included Great Britain’s Princess Anne, here for the Pony Club Games started decades ago by her father, Prince Phillip. If she hasn’t already, the princess doubtless will be running into her ex-husband, Mark Phillips, the U.S. Equestrian Team’s coach. But I imagine that happens often, since their daughter, Zara, is quite the eventer like her parents (genetics DO make a difference) and they both go to watch her in Britain.

We had a bit of rain for the end of the dressage today, but I’m holding my breath that it doesn’t drench us like it did last year, when so many of the afternoon starters scratched rather than drown. This course should be a very good test, and even the Brits who are used to Badminton’s challenges will know they’ve been around something very demanding when–and if–they finish this track.

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