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May 6, 2014

Humbling, Star-Struck And Foot-Perfect: Three Amateur Riders Took On The Rolex Kentucky CCI****

In the Rolex Preview Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse (the April 21 & 28 issue), we introduced readers to three inspirational amateurs entered at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** this year. Now that their Rolex Kentucky adventures are behind them, we caught up with them to see how they fared.

Kevin Keane

Veterinarian Kevin Keane worked in the vet box at Rolex Kentucky for 20 years, but this year, he had a horse in his trailer as he pulled into the driveway of the Kentucky Horse Park.

With Fernhill Flutter, Keane finished in 28th place and made history as the oldest Rolex Kentucky first-timer and the oldest amateur rider, at age 59, to tackle the four-star track.

“I’m very pleased,” he said. “I was just very proud of my horse. He went so well and so solidly in all three phases. Hopefully I can build on it in the future and improve my performance.”

Keane, of West Grove, Pa., was thrilled to be riding among so many top riders and to be stabled next to his strong support group, including coaches Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin.

“When you’re out riding, you realize Mark Todd or William Fox-Pitt is in the same arena,” he said. “It is somewhat humbling to be riding with them.”

Although he picked up a run-out at the B element of fence 14, the Land Rover Hollow, Keane stuck to his plan, and with quick thinking, took the option and completed the course.

“The fences are big—there’s no question,” he said. “I walked the course with Phillip, and I walked it a number of times on my own, so I had a plan going out. I think what you realize is how quickly it all comes up, even though it’s 11½ minutes. You really have to be prepared.

"To keep the galloping to a minimum, you have to know exactly what rope to be on, trying to make a straight line from point A to point B," he continued. "Phillip told us when we walked the course on Thursday, ‘Walk it as many times are you need, but you absolutely must own every inch of this course.’ What he meant was: We had to know exactly where we were between the fences.

“You want everything to go perfectly, and that’s not really what happens in eventing,” he added. “All of the questions were to his ability, I rode to the best of my ability and it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

Keane is eyeing the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.) in the fall and hopes to tackle Rolex Kentucky again next year.

Dana Widstrand

Dana Widstrand’s Rolex Kentucky didn’t end the way she’d hoped. She and her longtime partner Relentless Pursuit were eliminated at fence 9, the Frog Pond, for three refusals.

Widstrand, 29, of Raleigh, N.C., admitted she was unexpectedly star-struck and didn’t ride to the best of her abilities.

She’s usually multitasking at an event as part of her job with a wireless communications company, so when she found herself with a lot of free time to think, Widstrand lost her concentration.

“Without having all of those distractions and just focusing on me, I think I got caught up in, ‘Wow, we’re at Rolex. Wow, there’s so many people that are here to support me, I really want to do well,' ” she said.

Widstrand knew she was physically ready for Rolex Kentucky, but once she set out on the cross-country course with “Rover,” she couldn’t get into a good rhythm with him.

“In warm-up, I started to mentally freeze up a bit, and then we got out on the course, and he didn’t have his usual ‘grab the bit and go,’ ” she said. “I think he was a little like, ‘Why are all these people here?’ He wasn’t on the job like he usually is, and I should have given him a little bit more of a confident ride.

“It’s a mental game with me,” she continued. “If I mess up at one fence, the whole world’s not going to see it at a regular horse show, but if I mess up at a fence at Rolex, everyone is going to see it. I think it was more of a confidence thing for me. I deserved to be there. I’m a good rider with a great horse. We just didn’t give it our shot because I was second-guessing every little thing.”

Rover jumped in big to 9A and nearly unseated Widstrand, but she righted herself and aimed for 9B when he ran out to the right.

“I honestly thought about pulling him up at the fifth fence because it just didn’t feel like we had hit our groove,” she said. “I’ve been killing myself watching the video. I never once put my stick to him, like, ‘Hey buddy, we got this.’ Why did I never correct him for running out to the right? I thought we had it, but at the last stride instead of putting my leg on and growling a little and getting him over it, I leaned forward like a dope. He’s an honest guy, and I don’t generally blame him if he does something like that.”

Widstrand then presented at the 9B option and had two runouts.

“The third time around, I heard the announcer say, ‘You’re living dangerously now Dana. One more refusal and you could be eliminated.’ It was like he was talking directly to me!” she joked. “Rover is such an awesome partner, and it just saddens me deeply to know that if I’d given him a better ride, I know that we could have gone around clean and fast. I just keep kicking myself.”

Widstrand has been addressing Rover’s straightness issues at home and has rerouted to the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) this week. Although the gelding recently turned 18, she’d like to take another shot at Rolex Kentucky.

“I can’t wait to go back and be in the game this time,” she said. “He’s physically fit and has no soundness issues. Rolex is definitely on the radar again for next year. He’s more than capable—now I have to convince myself that I’m capable.”

Rachel Jurgens

Rachel Jurgens had something to prove at Rolex Kentucky this year as she’d fallen off on cross-country in her first try last year with Ziggy.

Her dressage was “a little bit like I expected," she said. "He’s very hot and being on Friday afternoon with the crowds and the winds, he was his usual tense Thoroughbred self.”

But on cross-country day, he was a star, putting in a clear jumping round. They finished the competition in 27th place. Jurgens was thrilled that Ziggy, at 18 one of the oldest horses in the field, finished full of running.

“Ziggy was absolutely foot-perfect on cross-country,” she said. “He did everything I expected and better. I was really excited that he ran so easy and came in so comfortable with himself.”

Jurgens, 43 and from Southern Pines, N.C., was held on course at the Hammock at fence 10, but she didn’t let it get to her, even though the gigantic ditch and brush fence was next.

“I didn’t ride it very well, but I got over it!” she said with a laugh. “Then I felt a lot of relief that everything was coming right out of stride. It’s no fun to be held, ever, but after being nervous for a second, I realized maybe it was a blessing that he got a little breather, so I had to look at it that way.

“After the last fence, I just couldn’t believe I finished a four-star and that I did it with the horse I brought up from the beginning,” she continued. “I’m an amateur. I work a lot. I was thrilled, and I wish more people could feel that feeling because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime for me.”

She was disappointed to pick up 20 faults in show jumping and cited her nerves as one of the reasons.

“Show jumping I get the most nervous for, and that’s a big stage to go into when you’re not real comfortable with it anyway,” she said. “I was sad, because he jumped well, he just touched almost every fence so the rails did fall. I think he was just in cross-country mode, doing the bare minimum getting over them, and they fell down.”

Now that Jurgens has fulfilled her goal of completing Rolex Kentucky, she’s hoping to find Ziggy a rider whom he can show the ropes to.

“He wants to [continue,]” she said. “He has an amazing work ethic, and he loves to gallop, so I would hate to take it away from him while he’s so sound and happy. I’ve now accomplished [Rolex Kentucky], and so now I’d like to find someone who maybe wants to do intermediates or their first advanced and go play with him.”

Jurgens has two of Ziggy’s half-brothers whom she’ll start competing now that she has the time to focus on them.

Curious how Keane juggles a full-time vet practice with eventing at the advanced level? Do you know what the name Relentless Pursuit means for Widstrand? How did Jurgens tame the spooky, spinning beast that was Ziggy in his early years? If you read the full stories about Keane, Widstrand and Jurgens that appeared in the April 21 & 28 print issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, you'd know!

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