Thursday, May 19, 2011

Eventing: Rolex Kentucky: The Press Take A Course Walk -- From the Back of a Horse

A group of 12 riders toured the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event**** cross-country course on Thursday, April 28 on the Rolex Ride The Course media trail ride.     Photo by Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
Writer and Photographer Kim MacMillan took a 2011 Rolex Kentucky course walk -- on horseback at the invitation of Rolex Kentucky title sponsor Rolex Watch. She and several of our fellow members of the working press were invited to take a ride with USEF President and Canadian Chef d'Equipe David O'Connor, Course Designer Derek DiGrazia, and 4* rider Bobby Costello. With a few photos and a video clip shot by Kim's husband Allen to serve as proof that some members of the press can ride, Kim and the others learned that the course looks a bit different when the view is from the back of a horse.

 The e-mail in my inbox said “Rolex Ride the Course invitation” - it was from Merrick Haydon at Revolution Sports Marketing Group in England, the marketing firm for Rolex Watch. I was intrigued and opened it to find I had been invited as one of a select group of journalists to ride the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event**** course to see the obstacles from the perspective of the rider. I couldn’t resist replying that I would be happy to join the ride.

Mother Nature did her best to do away with the plans for the ride, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday, April 27, the day before the start of dressage. The ride had to be postponed because of tornado watches and warnings in the area on Wednesday, but immediately following the press conference for the first day of dressage on Thursday, we were whisked away in golf carts from the media center to the Head of the Lake obstacle where we met our mounts - horses and ponies from the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) trail ride string.

Kim MacMillan and Pocahontas stand near four-star rider Robert Costello as they listen to David O’Connor talk about the Head of the Lake obstacle on the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event****.   Photo by Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
As the wrangler matched us with our horses, she pointed at me and said, “You, the short lady,” with a smile and I looked around to find she was addressing me as I was, in fact, the shortest, and probably the oldest at “50-something”, rider in the group. She paired me with a wonderful, mild-mannered Appaloosa named Pocahontas, the only mare in the group, primarily because she was wearing a western saddle with the shortest stirrups.

The horse matching continued with our host USEF President and Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor being paired with a red roan named Scout and fellow four-star rider and our co-host Robert (Bobby) Costello getting the ride on a slightly frisky dark horse. After all of us, two hosts, three KHP wranglers and seven journalists, were assigned horses, we got underway with a train of golf carts with Haydon, a photographer and television camera following us. O’Connor led and as he turned Scout he said, “Welcome to the first annual Rolex media trail ride.”

David O’Connor mounts up to start the Rolex Ride The Course media trail ride on his horse Scout. Photo by Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
We first turned our attention to the Head of the Lake complex (jump numbers 18 a-b, 19 a-b and 20) which due to the excessive amounts of rain (Lexington had the most rainfall in April on record since they started keeping track in the 1800’s) was quite deep. Karen O’Connor in her Wellies waded out as far into the Lake as she could without overflowing her boots to show us the depth and David and Bobby discussed the approach and options. They were trying to let water out in order to lower the depth to an acceptable level by Saturday.

Video by Allen MacMillan - Karen O’Connor in the Head of the Lake and David O’Connor and Bobby Costello with journalists on trail ride.

As we rode the course and I looked at the jumps through Pocahontas’ ears, I couldn’t help being glad I was a journalist and not a four-star rider! It was an interesting challenge for all of us, many trying to take notes with pen and paper or snapshots with small cameras in an effort to try to remember enough details to write about our unique experience.

Then we went up the hill to the east of the course and stopped at number 11 a-b-c-d, the Sunken Road, normally a 3’9” jump over rails, then down a 3’7” bank into a dry road bed, then up a 3’7” bank and over another 4’7” brushed bench, but now also a water obstacle with water rushing down the sunken road in the middle. (Later on Saturday I would be stationed there to photograph in the morning and it had only a little water in it then.)

We continued on to number 15 a-b the double corners, a set of 3’11”open corners that O’Connor and Costello talked quite a bit about from their viewpoints as riders and as coaches for other riders. The corners were assembled with frangible pins. O’Connor and Costello also fielded questions about number 13 a-b, the Land Rover Hollow, which was further to the east, but due to the soft course and late hour, we did not ride out that far.

David O’Connor mounted on Scout (red roan on right) addresses the journalists on the Rolex Ride The Course media ride on April 28, 2011. Photo by Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
Our trail ride then turned back west and we stopped at number 7 a-b-c, the Bridgestone Park Question, which was a set of 3’8” vertical rails, then a 5’3” wide coffin (ditch) and a 3’10” cabin jump after the coffin. The coffin was completely obscured by water and they had a sump pump working - it had been going for over a day at that point and would continue to work until Saturday morning. During this stop on the ride a journalist asked O’Connor about whether or not they would leave this obstacle on the course or remove it if the water didn’t go down enough for the horses to see the coffin. He replied if the water did not go down it may have to be removed; happily through huge amounts of work on the part of the course crew and with Mother Nature slowing down the rain (although we did have some more rain on Thursday evening), the Bridgestone Park Question did remain a part of the course on  Saturday.

In our last few minutes on the ride I asked O’Connor and Costello what obstacles would cause them concern if they were riding the course. They had slightly different answers, but both agreed their plan would depend on the horse they were riding at the time.

We then wandered down the hill to the steeplechase infield and discussed the infield water and other obstacles, after which our media ride sadly ended at the water truck filling spot on Nina Bonnie Boulevard. We walked back to the media center in the covered arena, a bunch of happy journalist saddle bums!

The concept of riding the course with the four-star riders gave the questions and answers a less formal and more hands-on feel. It was different from the formal press conference setting and gave us all a bond because we were riding together. My thanks to Rolex Watch and Revolution Sports, Mr. O’Connor,  Mr. Costello, Mr. di Grazia and Mr. Haydon, the Kentucky Horse Park staff and especially Pocahontas. It was an experience I will never forget.

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