By Nancy Jaffer
Germany’s Michael Jung had a successful start to the defence of his 2015 Rolex Kentucky title with FischerRocana FST by remaining atop the leaderboard at the conclusion of the dressage phase yesterday after posting a 34.4 penalty test on Thursday with his usual aplomb.
The only other entry in the field of 71 to break into the 30s at the Kentucky Horse Park was seven-time Rolex veteran Arthur, with Allison Springer of the USA aboard, for a 39.7 mark.
In the absence of William Fox-Pitt, who has won the event three times, and 2015 runner-up Wesko, ridden by New Zealand’s Tim Price, it might seem Michael would have an easier road than he did last year, when he came from behind to win by a single penalty point.
But he still has to conquer a cross-country course redesigned and toughened up by Derek di Grazia, who also will be laying out the 2018 World Equestrian Games route and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics course. The test could be complicated by a forecast of thunderstorms, though Michael has the advantage of going 96 minutes from the start of the phase. In contrast, Allison may face footing issues if it rains because she is riding last.
Michael is optimistic, noting: “I think my mare is in very good form. She feels very happy and very strong, but it can change tomorrow morning,” he added, referring to the weather.
The Olympic champion is, however, determined.
“For me, it’s a very long trip to here, so I’m not coming here to just have a nice holiday,” he pointed out.
If Michael can win this weekend, he will challenge for the Rolex Grand Slam at Badminton next week — a $350,000 (£240,000) bonus awarded to any rider who can win Burghley, Kentucky and Badminton consecutively.
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Sir Mark Todd of New Zealand, 8.8 penalties behind Michael, is tied for sixth with NZB Campino and could pose a real threat to the leader.
The only British rider who shipped in from England, Panda Christie, is tied for 56th after a dressage test in which Little Leo was rather extravagant with his flying changes. It is the first visit to Kentucky for Panda, who rode on the British team as a junior, winning two team silver medals in 1993 and 1994.