The first thing to note about the cross-country course at this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is that there are a few more water jumps than planned.
The second is that while Kentucky limestone is miraculously absorbent, you still might want to wear rubber boots if you plan on going out to watch Saturday morning. Twelve inches of rain in a month, most of it in the past two weeks, is no joke.
I got to see the squelchy surface up close on Thursday, part of a lucky contingent of members of the media on the first Rolex Ride the Course program. There we were on horses provided by the Kentucky Horse Park, following famed eventer David O'Connor around the course as he explained some of the more complicated jump combinations. My horse, Lucky, seemed pretty energized by the spectacle. It's hard not to enjoy a windy, sunny day riding around the Horse Park.
"The idea was to give the media a rider's eye perspective rather than the traditional way of seeing fences from a hay wagon or a car," explained Rolex spokesman Merrick Haydon.
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This year's course was designed by Derek DiGrazia, who took over from longtime designer Michael Etherington-Smith. DiGrazia, who won the Kentucky event in 1985, also worked on the course for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last October.
He said that, because of the Games, he didn't have as much time as he would have liked to work on Rolex, but he was able to use some of the same fences in slightly different ways. He also kept the start and finish of the course near the stables, as it was set up for the Games.
"There's a lot of galloping, but the going by Saturday should be quite good," he said Thursday.
From my very amateur rider's perspective, the fences still look huge and scary, although maybe not as big as they do on foot. The intrepid horses and riders will gallop at an average of 21 miles per hour over a four-mile course of 28 jumps. They have to do it in roughly 11 minutes, 11 seconds, in order not to get time faults. Most of the jumps are combinations, which pose what the riders call "questions" for horse and rider. They have to find the quickest and cleanest way to get through these combinations.
For example, one of the most popular jumps is known as the Head of the Lake, which sets a series of jumps in and around what used to be a 6- to 8-inch body of water, but now appears to be almost 18 inches.
You have to jump over a brush jump into the water, jump up a short hill over a giant carved frog, then back over some rails into the water, finding the fastest angle to aim at two carved duck jumps. Karen O'Connor, herself a past Olympian and Rolex winner, was going to walk the combination for us to find the best route — until the water almost topped her boots.
"I was going to walk this, but I'd need hip waders," she joked.
The water will go down by Saturday, David O'Connor said, but it's still a "big deal" for both horse and rider.
We walked and trotted to the fields behind the lake, where plenty of competitors were still walking around the course, which they do to learn the course and figure out what they think the best routes will be. When you're galloping that fast, of course, those calculations can change in a split second.
While the lanes that will be used by the horses are roped off, there was plenty of squishiness under the horse's hooves. At jump 15, the Double Corners, course worker Aaron Rust was digging a tiny ditch to drain the water down the hill, away from the jumps, a combination of huge rails set up in triangles.
At jump seven, known as the Bridgestone Park, DiGrazia's crew had set up an actual sump pump in the grass ditch between a set of rails that leads into a ditch, then up over a small cabin. With a stream there now, the horses will probably jump over the water, changing how the riders will get through the combination.
"In 30 years of riding here, I've never seen water at this jump," O'Connor said.
Overall, the experts agreed that the course would be a bit more straightforward than the World Equestrian Games course, but still plenty challenging. The course provides plenty of higher, and dryer, ground from which to watch, along with the new tailgating option near the steeplechase course.
Spectators will also have the option of staying dry and watching the indoor reining freestyle on Saturday evening at the Alltech Arena. It is the first time reining has been a part of Rolex.
Rider Allison Springer, who was leading dressage after the first day, said she wasn't too worried about the cross-country course.
"I think this ground can take the water," she said Thursday. "I think Derek did a phenomenal job. ... It's a four star course. You can't let up."
The cross-country portion is often the favorite phase of the Three-Day Event for both riders and spectators, and the Horse Park provides a scenic backdrop. For the riders, it provides speed, some danger and terrific excitement.
Still, as Lucky and I trotted around the course, I think we were both relieved we won't be the ones competing.