Lexington, KY - Germany's Michael Jung had to wait until the last rider finished the second day of dressage at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by Land Rover, to know if his leading Thursday score (34.4) would stay atop the leaderboard. It did-by 5.3 points.
And it was the last rider, Allison Springer, who finished closest of all, riding her veteran partner Arthur to a score of 39.7. Marilyn Little is third on RF Demeter (42.5), with Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp fourth on Fernhill By Night (43.0) and Phillip Dutton fifth with Fernhill Fugitive (43.1).
This is the seventh start at Rolex Kentucky for Arthur, 17, with Springer, of Upperville, Va. She said this test was his second best Rolex Kentucky test, just behind the winning ride she had in 2014.
Allison Springer rode Arthur to second place in dressage at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by Land Rover. (Ben Radvanyi photo) "This test was close to our best, but I think that the 2014 test was a tick better," said Springer, 41. " Today I felt like I was sneaking through the walk and praying for the rein-back not to be too exciting."
Little, of Frederick, Md., said she thought RF Demeter, 14, is capable of even better work. "There were some more moments of brilliance, but there were a few mistakes. It was certainly one of her more relaxed tests. She wants to be a reliable horse in dressage," said Little, 34.
While Jung has a wide scoring gap between him and Springer and Little, they don't have much of a gap behind them: There are 27 horses between Little's mark of 42.5 and the 50 penalties scored by Landmark's Monte Carlo and Lauren Kieffer. Another 15 horses are crowded between 50.0 penalties and 55.0 penalties. That means that if Jung has a refusal tomorrow, he could drop to 40th place.
The tight scores and the weather are why everyone's focus has now shifted to the Kentucky Horse Park's exquisite cross-country course, designed, as it has been since 2011, by Derek di Grazia of Carmel Valley, Calif. The weather forecast is for showers overnight, followed by thunderstorms throughout the day.
"This is probably the most tiring track I've seen at Rolex," said Springer of di Grazia's considerably revised course. "We used to have a really nice, long hill down the backside where they could catch their breath. But I don't think there is any place where they can catch their breath this year. I think they're going to be tired, really tired, at the end. I think that the fitness requirement is going to be different."
Springer said that Arthur hasn't missed any preparatory gallops this spring, but that, because of his age, she's competed him lightly. Springer admitted that being the final starter is likely to be a disadvantage that she'll have to prepare for, although by the time she starts she'll know how her competitors have fared in the expected difficult conditions.
"I hope he'll go the distance for me," she said.
Jung will be the man with the most to gain and the most to lose in the rain on Saturday. Fischerrocana FST will be the 25th of 71 horses on the course, but Dutton will be the first rider to go on fifth-placed Fernhill Fugitive and will likely finish in a fast time over the pristine course. And Halliday-Sharp will be the ninth starter on fourth-placed Fernhill By Night.
So Jung will have to decide how fast to push his mount, based on Dutton's and Halliday-Sharp's results and how much the footing has deteriorated. All but one of the other top-10 horses start after Jung.
Jung said that he is considering all his options around the 29-fence course. "At the moment I have not changed my plan. At the moment we will try to go fast," he said. "She feels very happy and very strong, but it can change tomorrow morning."
Jung's strategy is further complicated by his quest to become the second rider to win the Rolex Grand Slam. Rolex Kentucky would be his second victory in the three-leg challenge-he won at Burghley (England) in September and would need to also win at Badminton (England) next weekend, were he has his Olympic and World Champion, La Biosthetique Sam, entered.
"Rolex Kentucky and the Rolex Grand Slam are very important to me. It's a very long trip to here. I'm not coming here to have a nice holiday. I come here to win," Jung said firmly.
Then he added, "But it depends on the horse. The horse says to you in the first medium trot of the dressage test if he's ready to try for you. And it's the same in the warm-up for cross-country. Sometimes the weather is not so good or you could lose a shoe and you have to go slower. It's very important to finish the event with a healthy horse and so the season can go on."
Jung said that, ever since winning Rolex Kentucky in 2015, he intended to return. But, after winning Burghley, "We had to decide weather to bring one horse here and one to Badminton or to bring both horses here--because I like the competition here very much."
Team USA has taken the early lead in the DuBarry of Ireland Nations Team Challenge. Team USA members Marilyn Little, Lauren Kieffer, Boyd Martin and Philip Dutton scored 131.0 penalties in dressage. They lead New Zealand (139.0), Canada (150.3) and the combined team of Australia, Germany and Great Britain (154.9).
Friday's paid attendance was 14,171, some 1,000 more than in 2015 and nearly double Thursday's 7,842.
Dutton kicks off the cross-country competition at 10:00 on Saturday morning, and Springer concludes it, as the 71st rider, at 2:40 in the afternoon.
The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event will be broadcast on NBC on Sunday, May 8, from 1:30-3:00 p.m. EDT. USEFNetwork.com will livestream the competition in its entirety live as it happens and will also have the coverage available on demand. FEITV.org will also livestream the event internationally.
For more information please visit the Rolex Kentucky website at www.RK3DE.org.