Before I begin, let me get this off my chest: Folks, if you've never been to a real upper-level event and watched these amazing horses/riders up close, you haven't seen eventing. I've watched the Rolex on TV for as long as I can remember, but what I experienced today made my TV experience pale in comparison. To all my Texas friends (you KNOW who you are) who've ever talked about coming to Rolex, I have one word for you: COME.
That said, there's probably something to be said for being able to choose the jump you're watching, and perhaps to go to more than one jump, to try to see how riders handle the course by examining various rides at different jumps. Still, I'm not complaining. As a jump judge, I was able to help out in the highest level event in the US, I was able to see how every single rider who made it to obstacle #23 handled it, and in the smallest of ways, I felt a part of something much larger than myself.
My jump, the Keeper's Brush, was about 4'7" high, with about a 9' spread. What was intimidating to me was the gaping ditch before the jump (which only a few of the horses and/or riders actually looked at), and the fairly steep downhill approach after a pretty long gallop. Even though the weather was still a bit wet--it was a bit misty in the morning, and cool/breezy in the afternoon--the ground wasn't bad, and it actually got progressively better as the day progressed. After each rider crossed the fence, several of us fence judge types would go and replace divits and check footing. Some workers came to put gravel on the downhill approach, but the footing remained good before and after my jump.
Of the first six riders, only two made it to my jump (one more did--for some reason, Andrew Hoy and Yoeman's Point went later than they were initially scheduled). I understand that the footing was a little more soggy in the steeplechase area, and Kim Severson pulled her green horse, Maguire, because he'd lost two shoes, and she wanted his first four-star to be "perfect". Others, like Cricket Worthen and Tiffani Loudon-Meetze, opted to retire on the course before reaching #23.
A couple somewhat random observations: Because Phillip Dutton had three horses, I was able to see him cross my jump three times--and he was incredibly consistent. I'm deeply impressed with this rider--he guided each horse down the hill, not really slowing down drastically like some, but allowing the horse to find a pace that was comfortable and would allow him to find a good take-off spot. I honestly believe he saw his spot a long way off, while galloping down the hill, and thus he didn't need to make major adjustments before the fence. Those who slowed down significantly often had to scramble to find a spot. Now, there were a few who didn't slow down who had a wee bit of trouble. There were those who came barreling down the hill, never slowing down, and they nonetheless seemed quite competent--for instance, Peter Gray on Balladeer Ted literally ran through the jump (and because it was a brush, they could). There was at least one horse, Bad Boy Billy with Ralph Hill aboard, who had to be aggressively ridden over (the divits in the ground told quite the story--the horse was putting on the breaks, even though Peter was yelling at the horse to GO). Several of the favorites made it over after slowing down halfway down the hill before the fence, then scrambling to find a half a stride to make a good distance--both Amy Tryon and Kim Severson did this. Others slowed down coming down the hill gradually, and took the brush carefully, like Corinne Ashton and Wendy Lewis. While they were slower, they rode more like Phillip Dutton did--except he kept the pace a bit faster, but consistent. Someone once told me that men tended to "see" the take off spot sooner and more easily than did women, and while my "data" is totally biased and subjective, it would seem to support this assertion.
I have to say that looking at the riders' faces as they came down the hill was amazing: the concentration, the effort, the THINKING that was going on.....and other emotions, too; "Buck" Davidson was a bit annoyed/frustrated with Let It Rain as the pair tore down the hill--Buck pulled the horse's head almost perpendicular to his body before the horse would slow down/ listen to him!
Some riders were thinking of this fence, and I swear others had thrown their hearts over and were concentrating on the next effort. Some were obviously concerned about this one--the ditch, the footing, the speed, etc. A few memorable fences: Each one by Phillip Dutton; Leslie Law's really nice, smooth integration of this fence into his gallop; Jan Thompson's easy concentration and athleticism.
I was also able to see the Bass Pond clearly, and only about 5 of the riders really did a good job there, particularly the first effort which asked the rider to gallop up a hill, jump an obstacle, then gallop down hill into the pond. Most got up hill, then didn't know what to do, and the horses scrambled, clambered, or somehow hopped over from almost a standstill. A handful of riders were able to ride up, let the horse know that they would need to jump through their riding/seat, then ride down. Just like in dressage, the horses who'd been prepared properly took it literally in stride; those who hadn't been, didn't. Once again, thinking ahead, and preparing your horse via your body, your aids, etc. is vital.
There are only 26 riders remaining for tomorrow's stadium jumping phase. I have tickets for that ("cheap seats"), but it won't be the same as being almost face-to-face with these incredible athletes--both the horses and riders.