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April 22, 2013

James C. Wofford Looks Ahead To The Rolex Kentucky CCI****

"Every year I leave the Horse Park thinking, 'Wow, this event was the best ever. They will never top it.' But along comes next year, and somehow the event is better than ever," says James C. Wofford about Rolex Kentucky. Photo by Szemere

Just as he has every year since the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** began in 1998, James C. Wofford, who won Kentucky in 1981 and 1986, evaluates the competition and the starters.

Oh, to be in Lexington, now that April’s here. April in Kentucky means the eventing world is at the Kentucky Horse Park for “The Rolex.” Not many sporting events are called by the sponsor’s name, but when you have the same sponsor for 32 years that happens. I have been at every Rolex since 1981, and every year I leave the Horse Park thinking, “Wow, this event was the best ever. They will never top it.” But along comes next year, and somehow the event is better than ever.

Rolex 2013 looks like it will continue that tradition—bigger and better than ever. There will be so many things going on this year that I hardly know where to begin, so let’s start with the really important stuff: the shopping. The trade fair is still in the covered arena, downhill from the main arena. However, expect to see a new and expanded list of vendors. Due to the increase in the size of the trade fair, some of the vendors are in a new tent city next to the covered arena. I hope you “accidentally” forgot your outdoor gear. It is April in Kentucky, which means the weather can be anything from snow to blazing sunshine. Rest assured that you can outfit yourself for any weather conditions, if you keep the black stripe up and to the left.

When you take a break from power-shopping, check out the new demonstrations taking place in the Walnut Arena (just downhill from the main competition arena). This year there will be driving, dressage and eventing displays. These are intended to be informative and entertaining and should be a hit with the new audience we can expect to show up this year, especially for the free concert late Saturday afternoon, featuring Jordan English. If country and western is more your style, show up Saturday night for the Kentucky Reining Cup, and catch a glimpse of Lyle Lovett while you are at it.

To warm up the Saturday night crowd, several of the eventing world’s brightest stars will try their hand at reining. Allison Springer, Bobby Costello, Sinead Halpin and David O’Connor may be able to ride pretty fancy dressage pirouettes, but these reining horses can turn on a dime and give you change. Don’t miss it if you can. Thursday is “College Day,” meaning that Kentucky college students get free admission and seats, and Friday is “Military Day,” with free admission and seats for serving members and their families, either in uniform or with a military ID. If you see people in uniform, take the opportunity to thank them for their service and welcome them to Rolex.

There are a lot of people we need to thank, starting of course with the hundreds of volunteers who will put on the event this year. Rolex literally would not happen without them. As you walk around the grounds, make sure to tell them how much you appreciate them. It’s the only payment they’ll get, other than the thrill of taking part in the largest horse event in North America. The volunteers will be especially visible on cross-country day, making sure you can cross the course safely at the designated crossing points. The horses and riders will be galloping past you at speeds exceeding 20 miles an hour, which does not allow them much time for dodging wandering spectators on the wrong side of the crowd control ropes. While you are walking around the course, please stay outside the roped galloping lanes. This protects the footing for the horses and ensures your safety. As has often been said here, make sure you keep your children on a leash and your dogs under control.

Last year, control was in slightly short supply at the tailgate parking area; there was no doubt in my mind that some of Kentucky’s finest distilleries were doing a landslide business in adult beverages. When I went by that area, I spotted several serious contenders for the “Golden Lampshade Award.” Infield tailgate parking on cross-country day was a new addition last year, and it proved so popular that the area has been expanded. When I last checked, there were a few of the new spots left. Who knows, you might wind up as “Mr. and Ms. Golden Lampshade of 2013.”

The reason the tailgating is so popular is that it gives you a close look at a worldclass cross-country course. The course designer this year is again Derek di Grazia, who has proven himself a worthy successor to Michael Etherington- Smith, our designer here for more than a decade. Derek is relatively new to the international scene, and many riders have not yet fully appreciated that they are in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing. Every year the same thing happens: The riders walk the course early in the week and come back to report, “The course looks fine, maybe a little easier than last year.” Huh. Don’t you believe it.

Derek knows what makes cross-country courses hard, and he builds to the same standard every year, which is to say four-star level, the hardest eventing competitions in the world. Many of his obstacles contain subtle difficulties, and a casual inspection will miss them, until cross-country day, when things will go wrong in a hurry. One of my favorite sayings is that there are riders who make it happen, riders who watch it happen, and riders who wonder what happened. If you don’t make it happen, this course will make you look like you rode in on a load of turnips.

This year’s field of competitors has the widest spread of experience that I can remember, which will produce thrills and chills on Saturday. We have an unusual number of first-time four-star horses and riders, and many of them will be surprised by what it takes to jump a four-star course. At the other end of the experience scale, the usual suspects from around the world are back again, and you will get to watch a fascinating mixture of rookies and riders who will make it look easy. The course is not easy; it’s just that the best of the best are so good these days that they will make the course look easy. So, who do I think will do well here this year? Read on to see how far I stick myneck out with my prognostications.

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