The 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is officially Michael Jung’s to lose. It probably always has been, but after a great cross-country ride through the rain on Saturday, the German rider sits in first place going into Sunday’s stadium jumping with three rails “in hand.”
“For me it was a bit hard working today but I’m absolutely happy about my mare, Fischerrocana,” Jung said. “In the cross-country you need a horse that trusts you, that fights.”
Jung, last year’s Rolex Kentucky champion and the reigning Olympic gold medalist, would have had a slightly bigger cushion but finished the four-mile, 29 jump cross-country course at the Kentucky Horse Park 2 seconds over the optimum time of 11 minutes and 14 seconds to incur 0.8 time penalties, for a two-day score of 35.2.
No one else was so lucky. In fact, no rider on Saturday finished inside the time as all-day rain made the going slick and heavy, riders said.
Allison Springer, who went into cross-country in second place, was lagging well behind on the time when her horse, Arthur, refused at the sixth fence from the finish to drop her all the way back to 44th place.
But the ill wind that took down Springer gave a huge lift to fellow American Phillip Dutton, who jumped up to second place on Fernhill Fugitive, with a score of 47.5, and to third place on Mighty Nice, with a score of 49.8.
Dutton is the last American rider to win at Rolex Kentucky, in 2008, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Australia.
He said the galloping lanes deteriorated as the competition went on. “It was not easy, the conditions, especially as the day went on,” said Dutton, who rode around it three times. “They were always working.”
Sitting just behind the leaders are Maya Black on Doesn’t Play Fair, with a score of 49.9, and Boyd Martin on Shamwari 4, with a score of 50.2.
Black, who is originally from Clinton, Wash., relocated to Virginia in 2014 and has been steadily moving up the ranks. Earlier this year she was second at the three-star Carolina International Horse Trials. This is her second Rolex Kentucky.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Black said at her first post-ride news conference.
New Zealand rider Mark Todd, on NZB Campino, was tied for sixth place with Hannah Sue Burnett on Harbour Pilot, going into cross-country but both riders fell in the standings — Todd to 14th with time penalties and Burnett to 20th.
American rider Marilyn Little, who had been in third place on RF Demeter after the dressage phase of the competition, was eliminated on the course.
The weather didn’t keep the fans away from the Horse Park; an estimated 34,552 attended cross-country, according to the organizers. Many, including a group from Illinois dressed in Renaissance Fair costumes, enjoyed tailgating along the course.
Jennifer Dunn and her daughter, Alyssa, made the trip down from Street, Md. They were first-timers and moved from jump to jump, folding chairs in tow.
“She’s turning 11 on the second (of May,) so this is kind of a birthday adventure,” Jennifer Dunn said.
Marey Hancock of Lexington said she fell in love with the three-day event, particularly the cross-country competition, when she first came in 2000.
“I love the sound of the horses’ hooves as they go by,” Hancock said. “That’s why watching it on TV isn’t quite good enough.”
But don’t look for her at next weekend’s Kentucky Derby. “That’s too many people,” she said. “That I’d rather watch from my living room.”
In Sunday’s stadium jumping, the riders at the top of the pack after Jung are so closely bunched that one downed fence will derail any of them.
Jung, however, has an almost insurmountable lead: he could knock down three fences and still win.
After his cross-country ride, Jung said he felt great, saying his mare gave him everything she had.
Jung said he would sleep well after today but that the jumping course is a tricky one with little time to prepare between jumps.
In addition to a repeat title, Jung is also chasing the Grand Slam of Eventing, awarded to a rider who wins the Rolex Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley competitions. Jung won the Burghley event last fall.