Last night, I rode round Rolex Kentucky. Honestly, I did. It wasn’t even a dream — I genuinely hopped on a horse and rode it around the famous Kentucky Horse Park.
Ok, so I didn’t jump any of the fences, but it was still pretty cool. Here at Kentucky sponsors Rolex organise for a group of journalists to go on the “Rolex Ride the Course” on the Thursday evening, something they have been doing for several years now. I’ve wanted to do it ever since I first heard about it, but never been in Kentucky to take up the opportunity until now.
The horses are ones normally used for trail rides around the park and mine was a spotty mare called Pocahontas. Jenni Autry from Eventing Nation had one called Pete — I wonder if they all begin with P? We were accompanied by none other than British 2004 Olympic champion Leslie Law, who now lives in America, and who gave us the benefit of his thoughts at a few fences.
We had to sign two disclaimers before we were allowed to mount — this is the US, after all — but once we got going it was a lot of fun. What could be better than a group hack in the sunshine round a beautiful park, with a few four-star fences to look at? Spectators and journalists who were on the driven course tour looked on enviously.
Pocahontas was quite feisty — she liked to be at the front of the pack. At one point she managed to end up with her nose up Leslie’s roan pony’s tail while we were stopped at a fence. “Any more questions?” asked Leslie. “Yes, is your horse going to kick mine?” I replied.
Luckily, no one got kicked, no one fell off, no one had to prove the claims we had made on our disclaimers about our hats fitting (thanks to fellow journalist Samantha Clark for lending me one and a pair of boots) and having our own insurance.
Listening to Leslie, my main “take away” was how much all the parts of a four-star course relate to each other, how the track is a journey and you cannot look at each fence in isolation. The way an obstacle will ride is intrinsically related to what has come before.
Leslie explained that at Kentucky horses tend to tire as they come up the hill to the Land Rover Hollow, this year fence 18abc (fence pictures).
“I tell first-timers not to panic here, that their horse will get his second wind as he heads away from the fence back down the hill,” he said. “But here I say they need to be the motivator, get busy, be aggressive, make it happen.”
Near the end of the course, horses will become strung out and less easy to manoevre, Leslie went on. This could be influential at fences such as the FEI Classics Series Normany Bank (fence 23abc), which “tests everything”, requiring the power to leap up the bank, the agility to bounce over the rail and then the accuracy to get the skinny at part c, which has a really decent spread.
The following fence, the United States Eventing Association Foxes’ Den (fence 24ab) will also challenge riders’ ability to move their horses around later in the course, as they need to take on the wide oxer with impulsion, but then be able to make a swift left turn through the gap in the trees to the corner.
Walking the course on Wednesday, I was particularly struck by fence 16ab, the Dubarry of Ireland Mounds. This involves going through an owl hole, then choosing between the right-hand and left-hand arms of a V, jumping at an angle which looks really tricky. Leslie said he expects to see everyone make a slight curve here, taking four strides to the V, rather than attempting a straight line on three strides.
Yesterday it was a gloriously sunny — if cold — day here in Kentucky and today looks set to be the same. But rain is forecast for Sunday and Leslie said the currently excellent going could get wet quickly — there has been a lot of rain in the build-up, so the water table is high. If the forecast is right, the conditions could come into play in the way the course rides and how cross-country day pans out.
As we finished our ride, I dismounted and patted Pocahontas — I can now proudly say I rode round Kentucky on a spotty 15hh mare. It’s definitely the nearest I’m ever going to get to tackling a four-star.
More updates from Kentucky online this week. Full report in next week’s H&H magazine, out Thursday, 30 April.