Stars Shine In Kentucky

 Rolex just keeps getting better. That sentiment was echoed from every sector of the eventing world, from the riders, to the veterinarians, to the spectators. "I truly believe in a couple of years it will rival the Kentucky Derby in significance in equestrian sports in this country," said internationally known veterinarian Kent Allen, who was a treating vet for the 2000 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by Bayer. Allen, who was the head of veterinary services for the Atlanta Olympics, will be the Federation Equestre Internationale Foreign Veterinary Delegate to the equestrian events at Sydney later this year.

Getting better from this point won't be easy. Rolex is the only four-star event held outside Europe each year. Four-star is the highest ranking in the eventing world; the Olympics are a four-star competition. Events are ranked based on difficulty of the course, which determines experience of the riders and horses who attempt the course. Human and equine competitors prove themselves at lower levels before they take on Olympic-caliber courses and rivals. Rolex also is the only domestic Olympic Selection Trial conducted at the four-star level for the United States Equestrian Team.

This year's Rolex cross-country course was designed by Michael Etherington-Smith, who also will design the course at Sydney. He is touted as being a master at challenging horse and rider, but not jeopardizing safety to accomplish the feat.

"Michael Etherington-Smith is a genius at designing the level desirable while keeping the course user-friendly," said Catherine Kohn, VMD, the FEI Veterinary Delegate for the event.

This year's cross-country course was at the limit for some jumps, yet no horses fell (although a few riders took tumbles). Alternate routes that allowed easier efforts, but took more time, made this year's course perfect for "thinking" riders. And even though the course was a tremendous challenge, "We had an incredibly talented and deep field," said Allen.

"The quality of riders and horses is unmatched from what we've seen here before," he continued. "There are no rookies this year. From a treating veterinarian's standpoint, that makes for a very uneventful competition."

In fact, the most vocal complaint was that the stiff brush on the porcupines and the brush and ditch before the first water obstacle scratched and poked the bellies and stifles of some horses. Riders ride a steeplechase phase early on cross-country day, so horses have the opportunity to go "through" less-dense brush on those types of fences. (Horses actually sweep their legs through the brush, which gives easily.)

One new safety feature introduced almost at the last minute at Rolex Kentucky was a mandatory 10-minute stop between the first and third kilometer markers on Phase C (roads and tracks). This was recommended by the International Eventing Safety Committee, which was formed to prevent fatalities and injuries such as those that plagued the sport last year. The result, as noted by riders, veterinarians, and veteran observers, was that horses came into the mandatory vet check before the cross-country phase of the event on Saturday in fine fettle. This 10-minute "break" usually involves extensive veterinary observations and cooling of horses and riders. Horses must reduce their heart and respiratory rates to acceptable levels in that time or they are not allowed to start the cross-country phase of the event.

"This now is going to be at all international events," said John Mayo, Veterinary Emergency Officer for Rolex. "That gives the horses a break."

"The horses looked very good finishing phase C," added Kohn. "In general, their heart rates and respiratory rates were lower. A lot of horses had a relaxing time in the 10-minute box."

The distance of Phase C also was shortened from the original 9.46 kilometers to 8.8 km.

Rolex comes shortly before Badminton, a four-star event in England. Because of the timing, there were no British riders at Rolex. However, Allen said, "Now that Rolex has taken on the prominence it has, we'll see more regionalization (of the world's riders). Australia and New Zealand will compete more here, and in England less. Our riders, like the O'Connors and the Davidsons, don't have to fly to England or split their horses and stables all over the world. They can stay here and compete in a genuine four star event. Rolex is right up there with Badminton."

Winner And Still Champion

Blyth Tait, the 37-year-old current Olympic and world champion from New Zealand, won Rolex on his 13-year-old Thoroughbred-cross gelding Welton Envoy. Country-mate Mark Todd, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former world champion, was in the lead following the dressage phase with a low score of 35.6 penalties (eventing is like golf--the lower the score, the better). He rode 10-year-old Just A Mission, a gray Thoroughbred gelding. Todd has said he will retire following the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Tait was second after dressage with a score of 39 penalties, followed by last year's Rolex three-star winner Kimberly Vinoski on Over the Limit with 39.2. David O'Connor, 1999 Pan Am Games gold medalist, was fourth on Rattle and Hum with a score of 39.8, and his wife, defending Rolex champion Karen O'Connor, was fifth on Prince Panache with a score of 42.6.

Following the cross-country day, Vinoski took the lead after adding no faults to her score. Tait earned 0.4 penalty points on cross-country day, dropping him to second at that point. David O'Connor also got around the cross-country without faults and moved up to third, followed by his wife, who also was clean that day.

In the final day of competition, the top riders jumped in reverse order of standing. The O'Connors and Tait all had spectacular, clean rounds in the stadium jumping. Vinoski pulled one rail near the end of the course, which dropped her to fourth in her first four-star competition. Abigail Lufkin aboard Jacob Two Two, part of the 1999 Pan American Games gold medal team, finished fifth.

By Kimberly S. Graetz, Stephanie L. Church, and Sarah E. Hogwood

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