The last combination to go on opening Thursday sits first on the leaderboard at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, presented by Land Rover. Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti belted out a lovely number inside Rolex Stadium, earning a score of 43.1, just ahead of Lauren Kieffer and Vermiculus at 43.8.
“It’s exciting,” beamed a glowing Phoenix. “I’m so proud of everything that “Rotti” did today and I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend with him.”
Though sunny and warm, the wind kicked up early in the day, with large gusts often setting the horses on the edge, and proving the undoing of several combinations. By the end of the day, steady performances in the wind and atmosphere were garnering the top scores.
Phoenix, 33, Cannington, Ontario, has long gone south for the winter and has always stopped in Lexington on her way back north. Sometimes she does the whole event and sometimes she’s withdrawn after dressage, but Pavarotti’s comfort in the ring was evident as he stayed focused and steady throughout his work.
“He’s definitely been in this ring before, and it helped,” Phoenix said. “He felt so relaxed going down the runway, and he felt confident and happy in the ring. It was a pleasure to ride him.”
Steadiness was also a hallmark of Kieffer’s test, something she hasn’t been able to count on with Vermiculus in the past.
“I’m really pleased with him today,” said Kieffer, 29, Middleburg, Va. “It’s his first four star, so he’s greener, and he’s known for being cheeky in the dressage. But he’s come out and been better and more mature this year, though I didn’t expect him to be that good in that ring. Apparently a bag blew by during my test, I didn’t know but I heard crowd gasping, and I though I’d gone off course. But he handled it really well.”
“Bug” is special to Kieffer, as he is a full brother to her first event horse and first Rolex horse, Snooze Alarm. Kieffer bought the Anglo-Arabian from breeder Lawson Williams as an unbroken three-year old, though their first few months together weren’t all the smooth.
“I brought him home and turned him out in field with Snooze Alarm and couldn’t catch him for three months,” she said with a laugh. “So he got started a little later than I planned. But it’s always special to have ones with that sort of connection.”
France’s Maxime Livio rounds out the top three, scoring a 44.6 with Qalao Des Mers. The 29-year-old is a long way from home but loves Kentucky so far.
“I was waiting for something like this, and it’s totally amazing,” Livio said. “I’m so happy to be here and discover the USA’s four star.”
Livio and Qalao Des Mers won the CCI4* at Luhmuhlen (Germany) and were second at the Pau (France) CCI4* in 2016, so they are bringing a lot of experience into this competition. “He’s a really bold horse, and he has two or three four-stars behind him so we know he’s a terrific cross-country horse,” he said. “He’s fast and courageous, my only problem is to keep him from jumping too high or going too fast and to say to him, ‘wait listen to me.’ I’m very lucky to have such a horse.”
With the first phase over for them, the rider’s thoughts turn now to Derek di Grazia’s cross-country course.
“I think it’s well suited to my horse,” Phoenix said. “He has a massive gallop stride and takes a little bit to settle in to a course. It looks bold and forward-there are lots of accuracy questions and the terrain is always a question here-but it’s open, bold, galloping and not trappy.”
Livio hadn’t finished his first walk, but the course had already made an impression. “I hadn’t finished so I can’t tell a lot yet,” he said. “But what I saw looks very exciting. I’m happy to be here on this horse.”