In a departure from the 22 previous years in which I have evaluated the field for the Kentucky Three-Day Event, I’m not going to rank my picks, based on the fact that we’ve had so little head-to-head competition of the entire field.
We’ve got a whole bunch of four-star stars. Looking back, it will be obvious who the winner was, but looking forward it’s a prognosticator’s nightmare because of the explosion of four-star opportunities for North American riders. While this means more competitive opportunities for the horses and riders, there are fewer head-to-head matchups that would give those of us in the crystal ball business any insight into how the riders stack up against each other.
The foreign competitors’ season has been badly affected by their version of the coronavirus quarantine. For the first time our North American riders are more competition sharp than the riders based in the U.K. They’ve had one or maybe two outings at most. They
are not “grooved” in the way they usually are by the time they come to Kentucky, meaning there is a chance they are not at peak competitive performance yet. If ever an American is going to sneak up after 13 years and win Kentucky, this is the year to do it. But they will have to beat a very competitive field to win. Although our foreign competitors’ preparation has not been optimal, Ollie Townend on a bad day is better than most North American riders on a good day. Ollie’s got the inside track with former winner Cooley Master Class and Burghley winner Ballaghmor Class. William Fox-Pitt is bringing a horse that finished 13th at Badminton in 2019. He’ll certainly be in the mix, and if he wins at Kentucky, it would mark his 15th winner at this level. Some of the other riders coming over from the U.K. are threats to win whenever they step off the plane. Tim and Jonelle Price, who ride for New Zealand, are both five-star winners. Their only handicap is that they haven’t had much in the way of competitive outings in the last 14 months. Tim has never won at Kentucky, but he’s come near, and it wouldn’t surprise me were he to win. Jonelle rode in 2010, so she’s going to be comfortable here (which is not good news for the rest of the competitors).
When it comes to analyzing the U.S. entries, you look at the riders with the horsepower to stay with the foreigners, and we’ve only got a handful of them. If I’m going to pick an American, Liz Halliday-Sharp is the one I would pick because she is so competitive. I don’t just mean competitive about results. I mean competitive about standing in the grocery line next to you and swapping places because you might get ahead of her.
Marilyn Little probably has the best horse here in RF Scandalous. While she’s turned in dominating performances at lower levels, she has yet to produce winning five-star form.
We can expect Marilyn to turn in a dressage score in the low 20s, and joining her should be Tamie Smith and Mai Baum. Mai Baum hasn’t really returned to his former form yet, but when he first hit the scene, I was convinced he was an individual medal winner, not just a team horse. Both Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton are well mounted, and they will turn in their usual professional performances. I expect them to be nipping at the heels of the leaders after the dressage scores are posted.
I noticed that we only have a couple of riders in their 20s, while everybody else on the entry list is in their 30s or older. I’m using that as an excuse to retire my imaginary trophy, the Whodat? (I used to award this to the unknown rider who jumped to prominence at Kentucky.) At the five-star level these days, nobody comes out of nowhere. There may be riders who have been lacking form, who have one out of three phases that they can’t quite control yet, and they work and work, and then suddenly they’re established at the five-star level.
But there are no surprises left. The only surprise will be who wins, especially this year.
It’s going to be a weird feeling watching the show jumping. The ring will be deadly silent, not just because of the intensity of the final moments, but also the total lack of spectators. On the one hand, the lack of spectators is demoralizing, but for those competitors and their support crew, it’s going to be a unique gathering of the eventing elite.
This is the start of a new chapter for me. I’m one of the few people still around who has never missed a Kentucky. It’s a viewpoint that’s not unique, but it’s unusual now. It gives me a sense of perspective about the event, where it’s come from, which helps me to see where it’s going. There are giant trees now around the Head of the Lake, and I have pictures of myself galloping past those trees, and the button on my helmet is taller than the tree. That’s how long I’ve been coming and walking the complex at the Head of the Lake.
The lost year gave me an excuse to step back and acknowledge that I’ve been doing this column for almost a quarter of a century, and it’s time for someone else to take it over and stick their neck out, someone who is willing to say the things that a lot of us think yet are too scared to say. I look forward to that.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our April 19 and 26, 2021, issue and has been updated.
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