Cross country day! Definitely the most action packed of all the phases. I ran all over the course today to make sure I saw every single fence, and I’m here to tell you what I saw and what I thought!
Okay, we have to start with the weather. This was the best cross country weather I have experienced since the first time I came to Kentucky in 2011. It was sunny and breezy all day, just enough sunshine that the breeze felt nice and just enough breeze that it felt great in the sun! The ground was just about perfect, it seemed to have had enough time since the last rain to dry out without becoming too hard. The last few years’ cross country days have featured a combination of mud, rain and freezing temperatures, sometimes all three. We could not have gotten luckier with the weather for today.
The course also got a pretty substantial overhaul, the start and finish were in the same area as they’ve been previously, but the track went around the opposite direction and featured a lot of new fences. There were quite a few more combinations than I remember from last year’s course. Overall, there were 30 rounds completed without jumping penalties, including 11 double clear rounds. There were no horse falls on course and only 3 rider falls, with reports that all were up right away and are completely fine. Of course, being a spectator here in person means that I didn’t get to see everything that they showed on the USEF Live Stream. I definitely have plans to go watch it later on, but for now I can only rely on what I saw for myself, what I heard in interviews and reports and from other spectators and what I’ve seen photos and clips of. You can head to my Instagram story for clips of each fence, but for now I’ll just hit the highlights of what I saw.
The first substantial question came at fence 4, the Water Park. This was an ABC combination of a rail down a small hill into the water to a boat fence in the water bending out to another boat fence on the other side of the water. The first ride I saw at this fence, a very experienced pair in Joe Meyer on Clip Clop, had a bit of a sticky jump in, seemingly a disagreement about whether to jump the rail or to veer to the left, but like a true Kiwi, he pushed on, stuck the landing and continued on to jump out of the combination clear. From my vantage point it looked as though the horse might not have quite gotten his eye on everything that was behind the A element and had a bit of a surprise when it came time for takeoff. The next ride I saw at this combination was another experienced rider on a 4* rookie horse, Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg, who had no trouble at all through the combination. I wouldn’t say that their approaches were all that different in terms of speed, balance or distance, but mainly in that Boyd appeared to hug the line a bit more to the right which might have allowed “Thomas” to get a better idea of the question a bit earlier on. I should add here that I am by no means a professional, just someone who has watched a lot of courses and these are just my own thoughts on what I saw today!
The next serious question that we came to was fence 6, an ABCD combination consisting of a coffin combination (a rail, down to a ditch up to a cabin) with a bending line out over an open corner. Both pairs that I saw at this question, Tamie Smith and Wembley and Savannah Fulton and Captain Jack, took the direct route and rode it smoothly and positively. I wasn’t sure how this combination would ride somewhat early in the course, a horse who is still so full of running could have been a little cheeky through the last bending turn out over the open corner, but both riders I saw had no issues. There was an option at this combination, where riders could essentially come around and jump the coffin combination backwards and give themselves a longer turn to get out over the open corner at D, but of course with scores being packed so tightly together, every second counted and taking the option here would have eaten up a significant amount of time. I did hear about some issues with the open corner at this combination but I didn’t see them for myself, so I can’t say exactly what happened there other than what I already speculated!
Immediately following fence 6, the course comes around a turn and to the Keeper’s Brush at fence 7, which is a classic Kentucky 3-Day Event cross country fence. I don’t remember a recent course that it hasn’t been a part of, it was even part of an eventing video game that Bailey and I used to play obsessively as children (we don’t need to talk about it). It is, according to the listed measurements in the program, 4’9” at the top of the brush and has a 9’6” base spread, from the front of the ditch to the back of the wall. At this level, it is a galloping fence and truly doesn’t often cause problems, from what I have seen. What it is, however, is a spectacular photo op! It’s easily one of the most impressive fences on course and quite often, you can catch a shot of a rider flying over it one handed as they stick their horse off the ground. I saw Colleen Loach and Qorry Blue D’Argouges and Michael Jung and the queen of Kentucky fischerRocana at this fence and both had beautiful efforts and galloped on to the next fence. A similar experience came at fence 9, the Ditch Brush, which is exactly as it sounds, 4’9” at the top of the brush, according to the program, with a wide ditch in front, usually with some water running through. I saw Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 and Leah Lang-Gluscic and AP Prime at this fence, both spectacular efforts and they carried on to the next obstacle.
The next obstacle was fence 10, the Rolex Grand Slam Challenge, an ABC combination consisting of a rolltop drop down 5’5” into the water and out over a brushed corner to a skinny brushed table. I know this combination also caused it’s fair share of issues throughout the day, but I saw 4* rookies Sarah Gumbiner and Polaris and seasoned 4* competitor Sharon White and Cooley On Show both fly through the combination, Sharon’s ride was particularly forward, but both looked fantastic. The issue I could see here is that you’re obviously going to have quite a bit of momentum coming off that drop into the water and then you’ve got to guide your way through two accuracy questions, a corner and a skinny. Again, I didn’t see the issues that occurred here, but those were my thoughts on seeing the rides I did.
The next combination came pretty quickly at fences 12/13AB, Pete’s Hollow, a table up a hill to a narrow log to a brush fence. I saw Holly Jacks-Smither and More Inspiration through this combination perfectly clear but with a bit of a discussion about the distance to 13b. I also saw this ridden by Buck Davidson on his second ride of the day Carlevo, who did not look like he was running his first 4* course to me! Buck’s expert guidance (and probably a bit of a jump on the competition from already having ridden it once) brought them through this combination with no balks or bobbles.
Coming off of Pete’s Hollow was the halfway mark of the course, which marks the first time in at least a few years of the Head of the Lake being so late in the course. There was one more combination before that, the Fallen Trees at 15AB, which were set at a severe angle to each other with a bit of a dip in between. At this combination I saw the very experienced Lauren Kieffer and Vermiculus with a very forward 4 strides, followed by Allie Knowles and Sound Prospect who had a bit of a ‘discussion’ and added a shorter 5th stride to jump out of the combination clear. This combination wasn’t anything too surprising for this level, but I did read that horses had anywhere from 3 to 5 strides between the fences which is an interesting note and I think could be an indicator of how the horse is faring around the course, just after the halfway mark.
Finally we come to the Head of the Lake, the most quintessential Kentucky cross country fence there is! There were actually 2 routes at the HOTL this year, starting from the first brush drop into the water, which could be jumped on the right or the left of center. From there riders could either take the direct route to a corner, out of the water and over a brushed table, back into the water and over a skinny brush chevron, or they could take a longer route, jumping identical fences that were placed a bit further apart, good for building confidence or for moving on quickly if there was trouble, but definitely a time suck! I was actually lucky to see both routes in action! Lisa Marie Fergusson and Honor Me took the direct route and made it very confidently through, while Lillian Heard and LCC Barnaby took the longer option. I read that she ended up incurring 20 penalties here but I can’t say that I saw what exactly happened (the crowds at that fence are monstrous!). Either way, she made it out over the long option and was able to continue on.
Yet another combination comes up at 21ABCD, the Normandy Bank. The line of this fence was changed a bit this year from past courses. This year it consisted of a jump up the bank and over a large wooden duck, then veering slightly left (rather than right as it’s been recently) over two angled brush fences. The rides I saw here were Chris Burton and Nobilis 18 and Will Coleman with Tight Lines, both very experienced 4* riders, so there’s nothing much to report from there other than Will taking a hold of a very exuberant ‘Phish’ to get his line to the angled fences. I did hear about a few issues here, and I believe one fall, which I would attribute to the impressiveness of the fence combined with its technical questions of distance and line, though of course without seeing for myself, that’s all speculation.
Just when you think there might be some breathing room, you come upon yet another combination, the Frog Pond at 23AB. This is fairly straightforward as water obstacles go, a jump in, splash through the water and out over a solid corner. I didn’t see or hear about issues here, but there may have been some as it was quite late in the course and this is probably where you would start feeling a tired horse.
Just two fences later, we come to the second to last combination of the course, the Mighty Moguls at 26AB. This caught a lot of the most seasoned riders in the field, including Buck on his first horse of the day, Park Trader, and just in the time that I was at this fence, both Kim Severson on Cooley Cross Border (they were my top contenders and I was so gutted for them!) and Colleen Rutledge on Covert Rights. These were two angled brush fences, and I think the main factor affecting the two run outs that I saw were tired horses. Both lost their motor on the third stride and ducked out to the right, compared to the next rider I saw, Lynn Symansky on Donner, who came right down in two strides and had no issues. Obviously I don’t know what these riders were feeling underneath them, but the difference between horses inside the combination definitely seemed to indicate a loss of energy.
Finally, the 10th (!) and final combination of the course, just one fence from home. The Hillside Cabins to the Boathouses. Both of these fences are duplicated on both sides of the track, so riders can choose to jump the right or left fence. Both riders that I saw here, Buck Davidson on Copper Beach and Phillip Dutton on I’m Sew Ready, chose the right hand fences, both combinations jumped through just fine, if a bit tired so close to home. I’m not sure whether there were issues at this combination but you would have to imagine it would be due to how late on course it came up if there were.
I got to see Oliver Townend on Cooley Master Class and Lauren Kieffer on Landmark’s Monte Carlo over the final fence and through the finish line to wrap up the day. Ironically, both of these horses looked completely full of running as they pulled up at the end of the course!
The new dressage scoring system, with the loss of the multiplier, did play a big part in the scoring for the day, as expected. Two riders moved up a total of 20 places on the merit of a double clear round! We also saw our overnight leader drop to 6th with 8 time penalties. Our new leader also incurred .4 time penalties, which means that they no longer have even a single time penalty in hand going into stadium jumping tomorrow.
If you’ve made it this far, I can only assume that you’re as interested in the minutia of this sport as I am and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my account of events today! I’ll be back with a final wrap up after the sure to be exciting show jumping finale!