Defending champion Michael Jung of Germany held his first day lead after the completion of the dressage phase at the Rolex Kentucky CCI4* Three Day Event in Lexington on Friday.
Jung rode last year’s winner Fischerrocana FST to an outstanding dressage score of 34.4 penalties, which no other combination came close to on either day. The only other combination to post a sub-40 score was the USA’s Allison Springer and Arthur, one of the last through on Friday, with 39.7.
New Zealand’s Mark Todd broke up the US stranglehold on the minor placings, in sixth equal place on NZB Campino with 43.2, alongside Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot. Marilyn Little and RF Demeter are third on 42.5, with Liz Halliday-Sharp fourth on Fernhill By Night (43.0) and Phillip Dutton fifth with Fernhill Fugitive on 43.1.
Springer was last of the 71 competitors into the stadium and had a packed home crowd on the edge of their seats. Her big liver-chestnut gelding is always a magnificent sight in this phase yet few riders can match Jung for sheer fluidity and accuracy.
“Arthur was awesome,” said a breathless Springer afterwards. “One walk section and a couple of flying changes perhaps weren’t great. but it’s just emotional to be here after so many years together. I’m blessed. And tomorrow I’m going to have to ride as dynamically as that German!”
Dutton was pleased with the score the three judges (Ernst Topp of Germany, Sandy Phillips of Great Britain and Andrew Bennie of New Zealand) gave Fernhill Fugitive as the first horse in the ring.
“It’s not always great going first — you never know what kind of score you’re going to get. So I was pleased with the way he went. It was probably his best four-star score yet,” said Dutton.
“He’s really matured. He’s come together and is maturing, and he’s a good-natured horse.”
Dutton has three horses in the top 20, with the handsome Mighty Nice in 11th place and Fernhill Cubalawn in 19th. Dutton is dedicating his performance this weekend to Mighty Nice’s late owner Bruce Duchossois, a great supporter of US Eventing, who died recently.
The 12-year-old Irish-bred gelding is now owned by a syndicate who banded together to keep the horse with Dutton.
Dutton’s former pupil Boyd Martin is also three-handed, with Shamwari 4 the best placed in ninth. The horse is also owned by a syndicate, comprising some 20 people. “I love the chaos and they’re all good friends,” said the always affable Martin. “I’m lucky to have the best horses money could buy.”
Fischerrocana FST earned a score five points better than she did when winning the Rolex Kentucky in 2015. But Jung declined to compare the two scores.
“Every competition is different, and today we had different judges than last year, and this was a different test, so it’s hard to compare the tests. But I had a really good start today,” he said.
“I’m very happy with my dressage test,” Jung added. “She was very concentrated. She traveled very well to Kentucky and was very nice to ride on the last few days, so I expected her to perform well.”
Todd said a few small mistakes had meant 6.5 marks instead of 8s, which had made the difference. Kentucky is one of the few big events that Todd has yet to win.
Of the other New Zealand starters, Jock Paget and Clifton Signature are 17th on 47.5, Tim Price and Bango are equal 20th on 48.3, Blyth Tait and Xanthus III are 38th with 54.1, and Joe Meyer is 60th with Clip Clop on 60.6.
But Saturday’s cross-country will surely make big changes to the leaderboard.
Seventy-one horses go forward to the cross-country phase, with Dutton the first on course, on Fernhill Fugitive, at 10am. With marks so closely bunched – there are 26 riders with sub-50 scores – it promises to be a thrilling day.
Dutton said the course was as expected – big and forward-riding. “If you’re on a green horse, it can still be a good experience, but it’s certainly strong enough to sort everyone else out.”
Jung said that he believes that di Grazia’s course is tougher than last year, because he uses the terrain of the Kentucky Horse Park more. And that could be a factor in determining the results if the rain that’s predicted falls. But Jung said that the weather conditions will not change his riding attitude.
“When I come to a competition, I come to win. There is no other way,” Jung said. “ I will ride Fischerrocana the best I can on Saturday and see how she goes in whatever the weather is.”
Tait has described it as “a great course”.
“Each individual fence is big but fair, and cumulatively I think it will ride strong because there is just no let up,” he said.
Equestrian Sports New Zealand high performance eventing coach Erik Duvander agreed.
“The course designer (Derek di Grazia) has made the time more difficult this year with direction changes and not giving horses any recovery spaces, so it looks as though they will need to be right on their minute markers.”
Todd also felt it would be a real challenge.
“It is more twisty than last year, so that time will be difficult,” he said.
Reporting: Diana Dobson, Kate Green
Results after Dressage
1 Michael Jung/FischerRocana FST (GER) 34.4
2 Alison Springer/Arthur (USA) 39.7
3 Marilyn Little/RF Demeter (USA) 42.5
4 Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp/Fernhill By Night (USA) 43.0
5 Phillip Dutton/Fernhill Fugitive (USA) 43.1
6= Mark Todd/NZB Campino (NZL) 43.2
6= Hannah-Sue Burnett/Harbour Pilot (USA) 43.2
8 Lauren Kieffer/Veronica (USA) 43.9
9 Boyd Martin/Shamwari 4 (USA) 44.6
10 Jessica Pheonix/Pavarotti (CAN) 44.7