Competition heats up at the chilly Kentucky Horse Park.
The 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, which was rescued by a swell of grassroots donations from a second-straight year of cancellation during the COVID pandemic, arrived with bone-chilling cold in the Blue Grass State. This year, the traditional CCI5* division will be run, as well as an additional CCI4* division.
By the time the inspection started most of the morning snow had melted, but a lone snowman stood sentinel over the Land Rover Kentucky Veterinary Committee’s tent as the horses jogged for soundness evaluation during the inspection. The diminutive iceman wore an event ball cap with the year 2020 crossed out and 2021 inked above it―a nod to last year’s cancellation.
By the time the last horse trotted down the runway, all 63 CCI5* horses had been accepted on the first try, despite several brief recurrences of snow flurries.
Thursday it was on to dressage, with the first half of the entries in both the CCI4* and the CCI5* divisions competing, and the balance in each division on the docket for Friday.
The competition in the Rolex stadium brewed up another unique happenstance―a three-way tie for first in the CCI4* between Doug Payne riding the lovely bay mare Starr Witness, Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp riding the flashy true-black gelding Cooley Moonshine, and Tamra Smith’s copper-colored gelding Danito.
The CCI5* class was equally competitive, with Marilyn Little leading the pack. She and long-time partner, the bay mare RF Scandalous, laid down a sizzling test that scored a 21.7, a score not seen since 2009 (when converting the old scoring system to the one in use today).
The winners of the 2019 and 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Event, Oliver Townend and the rangy bay Cooley Master Class of Great Britain, are back again this year looking for a three-peat, and are behind by only 2.4 points after day one of dressage.
A small gap of 3.8 separates Townend from fellow Brit William Fox-Pitt, who is riding the black bay gelding Oratorio. This is Fox-Pitt’s first time in Kentucky since he suffered a serious fall with head trauma in Europe a few years ago. It took him months to get back in the saddle, and it’s been six years since he stepped foot in the bluegrass. He has won the Kentucky Event three times thus far: in 2014 with Bay My Hero, 2012 with Parklane Hawk, and in 2010 with Cool Mountain.
Besides the lack of degrees on the thermometer this week, the biggest void is the lack of the tens of thousands of spectators that normally flock to this competition, dubbed “The Best Weekend All Year.” The group of determined competitors and supporters who donated over $500,000 in passionate support of saving the 2021 event were enough to convince the organizers that the 2021 event should go on, even with the required COVID restrictions.
The huge Rolex Stadium grandstands here at the Park normally hold over 7,300, with space for additional temporary stands that can hold 30,000 more. On Thursday, there were only a smattering of masked officials, volunteers, media, grooms and horse owners, and a couple hundred cardboard cutout “fans,” watching from the socially distanced seating.
Some of the riders commented on the lack of extreme “atmosphere” in the arena without all of the people. I have been covering this event since 1982, so it was easy to close my eyes and relive the deafening cheers in my mind’s eye. Next year!
I hope you’ve enjoyed a few of my husband Allen’s favorite photos from the day with short commentary by him. Friday will bring more dancing in the sand for the final groups in each division, and Saturday will be the heart of the event—cross-country, where the horses will run and jump over hill and dale. On Sunday, it’s back to the stadium for show jumping and final placings.