Lexington, Ky.—April 27
Derek di Grazia strikes again. I have two very expert horsemen—and I’m not going to embarrass them by naming them—but two very experienced, very, very knowledgeable horsemen say they thought the course was too soft this year. I think people have not really completely learned how to walk his courses yet. Because every jump out here if you warmed up the horses in the barn, and you went out and jumped a couple logs, you could aim that at any one of these jumps out here, and they would jump it the first time, no problem, and that’s true of every jump out here.
But then you have to jump this one and that one, and when you jump that one you have to do that, and you have to notice the fact that he moved the ropes, and he changed the water level, and he skewed the angle of some of these fences, and he has arranged things so that you can’t count strides. One of these experts that I’m going to laugh at in the party tonight—to their face—they said, “Well there is so much room now that of course everyone is going to get to the next element of the combination,” and I said, “That may very well be true,” but what I was thinking was there is just enough room in between the elements for things to go wrong. It’s no longer a two- or three-stride combination for the most part, but they are related.
You have to jump into them to know how many strides you’re going to take on the way out. Derek is very close-mouthed about his designs, but I know he hates that counting. He doesn’t like it because it’s mechanical; it’s not intuitive; it does not imply any horsemanship. It’s a math class. And I think the course design got too much that way for a while, and I saw bits and pieces of the Badminton [Horse Trials (England)] course next week, and I think we’ll see much the same thing. I’ve heard from someone who’s walked it, and they said it’s going to take a lot of jumping. Well, this course today took a lot of jumping, for sure.
And as much jumping it took concentration. You know, he’s just ruthless about catching you out. and it happens so quickly you can’t believe it. It’s hard to tell people their first couple of times here how much you have to bear down mentally to jump clean physically, because it’s not that they’re impossibly big or wide. Some of them are maximum height and spread, but they’re just there to be jumped. I did a course walk yesterday afternoon, and I said, “If I had one word to describe Derek di Grazia as a course designer it would be subtle.”
He is so subtle because he doesn’t pose this monster question. He says, “Did you notice this detail? What about this? Well you know the ground does that, and you’ve been going very fast but now you can’t be going fast.”
I do sort of a false accuracy, but I develop a rating, from 0 to 100. If a course is 100 that means we have to steer to every fence, if a course is 0 it means we don’t have to steer, and we can just go blasting anywhere on the jump, and we’re good. When Mike Etherington-Smith designed here it was typically between 58 and 63—now what that means is two out of three jumps you had to do something with the reins. Derek typically here has built between 41 and 44, so that gives you an idea of what he did this year when I say this one is a 48. It’s just that bit more technical than it has been in the past.
The field was a little bit smaller than usual. There’s a bit of a gap between most of the riders that we see in the top placings after the second phase and the rest of them not so much. There were a lot of clean rounds, but given the footing and the conditions, a surprisingly low number of clean inside the time. I thought Derek would get six.
I think that had to do with a couple of things. He has five water jumps there. It looks like four but it’s really five because you go back through the Head of the Lake twice. You canter across water; you can’t gallop, so right away you’re slow. The way he had the Rolex Grand Slam Challenge roped you had to go past the fence and turn back, so you had to slow way down. All of those—when you talk about Derek being subtle—those are the subtle details that are cumulative. He doesn’t try to get it by terrifying you to death or by pure scopes, or by angled trickery.
I don’t know about Liz Halliday-Sharp’s fall, but we didn’t have a camera up there. All we hear is, “Liz Halliday Sharp has had a fall.” And I’m like, “What’s she doing having a fall at 3?” I don’t know if she fell off or if the horse went down too. Other than that there were no falls caused by obstacles. And Piggy French was dead lucky there because I thought she was going down for a second [when Quarrycrest Echo slipped at Pete’s Hollow.]
Who did I see that was wonderful? Obviously, for the Chronicle predictions I’m thrilled for Oliver Townend, but he doesn’t have much of a lead. It’s very close. I would say Tim Price I’m not surprised. Felix Vogg I felt that he could do this at this level, but I don’t think he’s ever been like this before, so I’m thrilled for him. He’s a little bit of a surprise—not that he went well, but that he went that well and that quickly—so good on him. Piggy had a little trouble with her horse. He was running a little free, and he was extremely sketchy about getting his feet wet. There are four waters out here, and he didn’t want to jump into any of them.
For the Americans what a disappointment Liz Halliday Sharp’s fall is for us, and I’m sure she is equally disappointed. I expected her to be a Top 3/Top 4 finish. Thank god for our Australian free agents, Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin. They’re cracking me up because Phillip Dutton at the very end of the day jumped an impossible line that caused nothing but trouble at the Normandy Bank and made it look easy. And then three or four horses later as Boyd was galloping up the hill I hadn’t thought ahead, and I suddenly thought, “Uh oh, he’s going to do it too,” and sure enough he looked better than Phillip, so that’s cracking me up there.
My Chronicle Who Dat? trophy pick Ariel Grald was terrific and good on her. I’m heartbroken for Colleen Loach on the Canadian team to slip and fall on the flat when she was going well and the stars were aligning, and once again she’s an also-ran. Sharon White, that horse never went a lick; I don’t know what was going on there. I thought Matt Flynn rode well; I thought that Chris Talley rode very well.
Will Coleman, it was an unfortunate deal to be caught in a rules tangle like when the horse picked up 15 penalties for missing a flag because he went very well other than that.
Doug Payne of course, no surprise, I didn’t pick him in the Top 10 because his recent form wasn’t outstanding but I’m not surprised he did as well as he did.
I thought the Normandy Bank was a bogey when I walked it. Fortunately for me, the riders that I was advising had a late draw. and of course they were, “Which way should I go? Which way should I go?” and I said, “You don’t have to decide. Somebody else is going to try it, and they’re going to get caught out. And that’s too bad for them, but that tells you what to do.” I thought that was as difficult a combination as I’ve seen Derek do. As is typical with Derek the long way was smooth and flowing, and if anything is easy at this level that was easy.
I almost expect that now that riders will come up and say, “Hey Woff, have you seen the course?” I say, “Yes, I think it’s lovely.” They say, “Well yeah, but don’t you think that Derek has dialed it back a little bit this year?” And I say, “It’s entirely possible.” That’s what I say; what I’m thinking kid, you don’t even understand what you don’t know, and they’re usually the ones with the 20. They just gallop past something and say, “How did that corner get over there?” It happens so quickly.
You have to think on your feet all the time, and Ariel Grald for example, she had a really good round. It was a very fancy round; it didn’t have to go that way, but she brought her brain with her when she left the start box. Erin Sylvester, I know she had a little hiccup out there, but she is such a tough rider. We have to find her a new fancy horse. She’s so tough. My tagline every year is there’s a broken heart for every dandelion in the Horse Park, and there’s a whole new crop of them this year.
For more detailed results on how the day played out, check the Chronicle’s “As It Happens” live blog. “As It Happens” live blog.
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