Wofford’s Wisdoms: An Old-Fashioned Cross-Country Day At Rolex

Apr 29, 2017 - 5:07 PM

I’m still waiting for the riders to start to understand the course designer, Derek di Grazia. Every year on Friday afternoon I walk through the stables, and riders come up to me and say, “Hi, Jimmy. What do you think?” I say, “I think it’s lovely,” because they’re not paying me to coach them. They say, “Yes, I do too, but don’t you think this year it’s just a little easier?”

Every year I say, “Sure. Whatever you think.” It means the riders don’t understand the subtle nature of Derek’s course.

What do I mean? There was a lot of trouble at 7a, the first water. But the hedge was only 3’ or 3’3” high. So what happened? Well, the horses didn’t see the water until the last stride, and in the meantime the ground fell away slightly. So instead of having the weight all in their hindquarters coming up the little slope, suddenly they’re stuck on their forehand while the rider is saying, “Oh, I counted to three. It’s time for my horse to leave the ground,” and the horse is going, “You want me to jump what?” They didn’t have their leg on and a connection with the reins. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

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Even German juggernaut Michael Jung had some iffy fences along Derek di Grazia’s course with fischerRocana FST. Photo by Amy K. Dragoo.

Secondly, the distances this year—when you walked the distances in the combinations, they didn’t walk “correctly.”

The riders had to say to themselves, “Woah, that walks like a half stride. I wonder what would happen if I approached 50-meters-a-minute faster?” Not everyone was fooled here. Some of the riders figured out, “He doesn’t want us to canter on a straight line this year between obstacles; he wants us to gallop.”

I would say as people adjust to Derek, Derek is still out ahead of people. That caught a lot of people because they could not move forward to a distance and keep the connection. Where did that happen? It happened at 4abc all day long. He had an airy big rail at A, but it was plain vanilla for a four-star, and the second element, three slightly forward strides later, the brush was high on the outside by the flags and low in the middle. It drew the horse’s eye to that point. Then you had to land and move forward to an airy, open corner, and when you got there, you had to have the connection.

People landed, and you could see their lips move: “One, two, three, damn.” They’d just zip by it. But if you watch the video in slow motion, you’ll see in the last stride, they’re just leaning and softening the reins. That’s another subtlety of Derek.

Wonderful—Until They’re Not

Not so subtle, it’s a four-star. What do you mean, Jim? Well, it’s a couple of minutes longer than most of these horses have ever gone. Coach Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” That happened.

Some of these horses, they’re wonderful until they get tired, and then they’re really not wonderful.

Many of the Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred types, they’re wonderful, and they get tired, and the rider picks up the rein and gives a tap with the leg, and they say, “Whatever you say, boss,” and they run on. That’s the difference. There are three-star horses, and there are four-star horses. We had an illustration of that today.

Finally, the conditions were rough. It was muggy; the air was thick. Then there was torrential rain, the sun came out, the temperature went up about 15 degrees, and then it rained again.

In the meantime, the riders don’t think about what has happened at the Kentucky Horse Park in years past when it rains. The answer is: Nothing happens to the footing. It happens in the rider’s mind. They think, “Oh no, it’s going to be slick. It’s going to be deep. It’s going to be holding.” No, it’s not. It’s the turf at the Horse Park, and it’s going to have to rain for two or three days straight before it affects the footing.

Last year, riders were very worried about the footing going out, and it rained like the dickens all day long, and they came in and said, “Wow, the footing really held up.” The fastest round of the day last year, Michael Jung, fancy that, went nearly last. The ground was all chewed up; the rain was at its worst, and zip. Yes, the conditions were tough, but this is a tough business at the four-star level.

Whether the four-star has a future given the actions of the FEI, that’s a whole different question. But on the day today, this was a four-star test.

Some Were Sketchy But Successful, And Some Were Disappointing

Michael Jung, I have never seen him have such a sketchy round. There were 44 efforts, and easily 25 percent of them it could have gone wrong. Roxie is just wonderful.

I can’t explain it. He just did not have a good day, and he said as much in the post-ride interview. I love that about him; he’s very matter-of-fact about, “My horse really saved me,” or, “Well, it was just not our day, and we got it done, and I’m happy for her. She’s a wonderful horse.” That’s all true.

Disappointments—there were so many of them. Clark Montgomery, you just wanted to cry for him because he’s such a good rider, and this is a talented horse, but he’ll let you down. I bet you money that he comes out and wins his next competition by a mile, and then someplace down the road, he’ll do this to you.

He’s a counterfeit. I’m sorry, but I feel the same way about him as Arthur, who I did love, and he’s one of the most talented horses of his generation, but he broke Allison’s heart for fun—just finding a new and different way to mess up.

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Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen won the dressage but then dropped way back after getting two stops. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

After a while, these kids, they work too hard. The horse has to join in. Sure the horses work hard, but some of them work harder than others. Some of them understand the business.

Kim Severson, ohhh. I have felt that horse was coming to form. I agree he was probably a little green here, but if there’s anybody that’s ever going to be able to help a horse around, it would be Kim.

Tim Price—who is the most gorgeous rider—he was having a super stylish round on a horse who’s won at the four-star level, and it just unraveled. It’s a four-star, what can I tell you?

A lot of people I didn’t necessarily think were going to be in the top 10, but I really thought were going to go well, they didn’t go well. I feel for them too. They’re a spear-carrier this year in someone else’s opera. They’re just standing in the background and rehearsing their lines, but they’re not going to be in the spotlight this year, even though they could have been.

Fernhill By Night, he was going really well until he didn’t go. That was sad, but you’re going to hear a lot this next week with the Kentucky Derby trainers, they say, “These 3-year-olds, you don’t know if you have a Derby horse until after they run in the Derby.” You don’t know if they’ll get the distance or not.

These event horses, you don’t know if they’ll get the distance. Again, that’s not just a question of conditioning. It’s a question of the physical and mental qualities of the horse.

Damn Near Beating The Best In The World

Zara Tindall, I said to look out for her in the Chronicle’s Rolex Preview Issue. She’s on form. She’s won a couple of horse trials in England, and she’s streaky. If she’s on form, she’s lethal. If she doesn’t feel like it’s working, it’s not working. That happens inside her. It doesn’t happen externally. But internally right now she’s really good, and the horse is a veteran. People have kind of forgotten that she’s a world champion; she won in 2006. She’d had a really good preparation all that spring and summer, and she was the money. I said at the time, I said, “Look out for her because she’s coming to form at the right time.”

I’m thrilled for Matt Brown. Again, in my Chronicle preview article, I said I thought he was ready to go from good to great, and he can do it. Unlike a lot of riders who were really in the same boat, he came out of the start box, and you could tell he was going to try and beat the best in the world, and he darn near did it. He’s still in there. He’s in it.

Maxime Livio, where’s the surprise in that? He’s the only guy around who’s beaten Michael Jung recently. There’s a very, very good chance he’ll do it tomorrow.

Phillip Dutton is just a machine. He doesn’t move; he gallops to the jump, and the horse gets there on a nice, medium distance. He uses his body. He just lets the reins goes and lands. He has a slightly unusual style, but he never takes the horse’s mouth, and he never fights with the horse.

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Phillip Dutton: Cross-country machine. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

I would say Phillip rarely crosses the finish line having left anything out there on the course—that he went as fast as anyone could go on that day, on that horse, in those conditions, with that state of training. Not just once—every time he comes out. He’s just a machine, and I was so thrilled for him last year when he won his individual medal finally, because he deserves it.

Hannah Sue Burnett, she’s just a gamer. She just sticks her little jaw out, all 5-foot nothing of her, and just rides her you-know-what off. Under Suspection, “Pippy,” reminds me a little bit of Roxie—big ears, big eye, big heart and just all, 100 percent try. She’s just completely genuine. You have to love that. She didn’t have a foot-perfect round. She needed Hannah Sue. It’s her first four-star, but wow.

I thought that some of our under-25 riders rode better than people who were supposed to be more experienced. I know a couple of them at one point or another in the course got a ticket from the state police for RWB—riding while blonde. But they learned, and they got home. I think we have some stars coming up.

Tim Bourke moving all the way up to 10th, that’s what happens when you make the time cross-country, and it was a little bit of an old-fashioned day. The usual ratio these days is 1.5 for dressage, 1.0 for cross-country and 1.0 for show jumping. No, this was more like 1 to 5 to 1 so far.

That horse, Luckaun Quality, just cracks me up because he doesn’t think this is hard. He thinks it’s fun. It’s a joke. His ears are up, and he lopes down, and if he’s a little far off the distance, he just balloons. If he’s a little close, he just snaps his knees and lands with his ears up. Tim knows that now and completely believes in him, and it’s just a stitch to watch them. He’s in that place because Tim has never given up on him and said, “Oh, the dressage is hard for him.” He’s said, “I have to get him better,” and every time I see him come out in a big competition, his dressage is a little better.

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Tim Bourke and Luckaun Quality’s good day moved them way up the leaderboard from 41st to 9th. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

It’s Far From Over

Stick around. There’s going to be one rail between Michael Jung and whomever else is there saying, “I don’t wish him any bad luck, but I sure hope he doesn’t have any good luck.”

You won’t know until he jumps the last jump. That’s the genius of that part of the scoring system. The best horse goes last; you have to wait.

At one time or another, Lucinda Green won everything. At one time or another, Bruce Davidson won everything. You say, “Just shoot them. Get them out of the way!” They just keep winning until they don’t. Nobody knows where it goes.

There’s a quote from Bill Shoemaker, the flat racing jockey, they asked him one day, “Bill, is your horse going to win today?” He said, “Absolutely. Unless he gets beat.”

Is anyone going to beat Michael Jung? No, not until somebody beats him, which Maxime did last fall. It can be done. It just takes a lot of doing. I often say that it’s really the horses who make the difference at this level, because the riders are all so good.

You have to have a super day, and he has to have a slightly not-so-good day.

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