Rolex Kentucky cross-country course: rider’s eye view

  • Title sponsors of the Lexington three-day event since 1981, Rolex invited a small group of journalists to ‘ride the course’ on horseback for the first time to get a rider’s perspective.

    As Kentucky has had more rain in April than it has since the 1800s, and a tornado warning saw all the horses evacuated to the new Alltech Indoor Arena prior to the trot-up, 2011 will definitely be the year that everyone remembers for the weather.

    About 12 members of the media were mounted western-style on borrowed horses from the park’s trail-riding programme to ‘ride the course’. Mine was a very obliging palomino called Hidalgo; he seemed surprised to be off the beaten track and squelching through the sodden grass which felt akin to riding through marshland.

    The going will play a major factor in Saturday’s cross-country. The Kentucky Horse Park is renowned for its ability to absorb moisture, but rookie Rolex course designer Derek di Grazia (who won Rolex in 1985) told us that for the first time ever, this year there will be water in the Sunken Road, as “an added attraction” (see picture).

    Although we only walked our horses around the course, the brush fences, even at the Head of the Lake, looked far more inviting from horseback than they do from the ground, begging to be galloped at and jumped out of stride.

    The turns however, feel much tighter, even at a sedate pace — some that I hadn’t even considered while walking the course earlier, took on a new dimension when hugging the strings on Hidalgo to gain precious extra seconds! The jumps too, come up much quicker, testing the trust in horse and rider partnership to the utmost.

    Our tour guide, Olympic medalist David O’Connor (pictured above with Samantha), who coached the Canadian team to a silver medal around this park at the World Equestrian Games last autumn, explained the dynamics of the coffin at fence 7 to us, the ditch in the middle completely submerged and invisible, and added that in his 30 years of coming here, he had never seen so much water.

    Just within our small group, it really made a difference whether you went first or last on the saturated footing, so my heart goes out to William Fox-Pitt’s Neuf des Coeurs who has been drawn last to go and will suffer the worst of the ground after some 40 horses have been over it.

    I’ll watch on Saturday with a fresh perspective, and renewed excitement, as well as a healthy respect for the horses and riders tackling the course at full speed.

    I’d like to extend my thanks to Rolex, and to Horse & Hound for arranging such a wonderful opportunity, and will remember Hidalgo and this year’s Rolex Kentucky especially fondly.

    • You can follow Samantha’s regular updates from Rolex on twitter – www.twitter.com/samanthalclark

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