Friday, July 10, 2015

The Road to Rolex

Aiken Entries
By Amber Heintzberger, Photography By Gary Knoll

The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event is America’s premier eventing competition. Held each April at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Rolex is the only regularly-held four star CCI in the Western Hemisphere and it attracts the top competitors in America, as well as a regular contingent of international riders.

This year, a number of horses and riders who train and compete in Aiken over the winter are on the road to Rolex, including some that have galloped over the course many times before, and others for whom this will be the first time. These are a few of their stories.

Phillip Dutton: Mighty Nice, Fernhill Cubalawn, Fernhill Fugitive
Phillip Dutton is a Rolex veteran who won there in 2008 riding Bruce Duchossois’s Connaught. During the winter, Phillip is based out of his own Red Oak Farm in the Bridle Creek equestrian community and he spends his summers at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania. This year, he is on his way to Kentucky with three horses: Fernhill Cubalawn, owned by Thomas Tierney and Simon Roosevelt; Mighty Nice, owned by Caroline Moran, Annie Jones, Michael Bombar, Kevin Keane and Evie Dutton; and Fernhill Fugitive, owned by Thomas Tierney and Ann Jones.

Dutton was thrilled to have Mighty Nice competing again this spring after the horse was laid up with an injury last year. Might Nice, “Happy”, finished third in the CIC Two Star Carolina International at the Carolina Horse Park in mid-March.

Phillip also finished eighth in that competition on Mr. Medicott, owned by the Mr. Medicott Syndicate. Mr. Medicott, “Cave” was also returning to competition after being laid up. After the event, however, Dutton decided to withdraw him from Rolex, not wanting to risk aggravating a tendon injury that he sustained there last year. Currently, Cave is sound, and Dutton’s goal is to ensure that he still has a bright future at the upper levels by not putting undue stress on the tendon. “I think it’s better for him and I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said wistfully.

Dutton won the Carolina International CIC Three Star on I’m Sew Ready, who will not compete in Kentucky, while his Rolex-bound horses Fernhill Fugitive and Fernhill Cubalawn finished sixth and 16th respectively. “Cuba”, a Holsteiner gelding, won the Intermediate at Pine Top back in February, and both horses had top five finishes at Pine Top Advanced Horse Trials.

Both Fernhill horses also competed at Blenheim (England) last year and performed well; Dutton said Cuba was previously ridden by Alex Green and has more experience at the lower levels, while Fernhill Fugitive is a little greener than his stable mate. This will be the first trip to Rolex for both horses.

“For their first time at Kentucky a top-ten finish is probably a good goal. As they progress, the next time it becomes a bit easier and hopefully they can be a bit more competitive. They’re both good in all three phases so we’ll be trying to get them as competitive as possible while keeping in mind it’s their first four-star.”

Phillip’s main hope for competitive success lies with the more experienced Mighty Nice. “Happy should be competitive; he’s going better and better on the flat and he’s a great cross-country horse,” he said. “I’ve been getting help from Silvio [Mazzoni, the U.S. Eventing Team show jumping coach] on the show jumping and I’m excited about his chances.”

Sally Cousins: Tsunami III
Sally Cousins started her 17-hand Thoroughbred mare Tsunami III, known as “Sue”, back into work on December 1, and she has had her sights steadily on Rolex all winter.

“Sue had done the Fair Hill three-star at the end of October and she is an older horse, so I am careful to bring her back slowly,” said Cousins. “She has a lot of experience and I don’t do too many events with her in preparation for Rolex. She does one Intermediate, then the Fork Advanced and then I take her to Rolex. I’m not sure how many times I’ve done Rolex now, but I know she’s jumped clear around there twice. I have taken her three times but withdrew after the dressage in 2013.”

Sally owns a farm in Aiken, so she’s able to spend the winter training in better conditions than at her northern base in Pennsylvania. “The footing is great and there are a lot of opportunities to get the horses out to competitions or cross-country schoolings. The footing in Pennsylvania is either way too muddy or frozen so we have to come to Aiken to get ready for Rolex,” she said.

So far it’s been smooth sailing in her preparations. “I’ve not had any setbacks and I hope I haven’t just jinxed myself by saying that, but I would like to be in the top 10 this year. I have just missed it by a bit the previous two outings there.”

Like a lot of horses that make it to the four-star level, Cousins said Sue excels on cross-country day. “She is the horse that you want to be tacking up on Saturday,” Cousins said. “She can be tight and tense in the dressage, but she typically does one of her better tests at Kentucky. She may have one rail down on Sunday, but she’s a very reliable jumper.”

Holly Payne: Never Outfoxed
Based in New Jersey in the summers and Aiken in the winters, Holly Payne competed in Kentucky last year aboard Madeline, a 15.1 hand Thoroughbred mare owned by Jill Gordon. However, the pair retired on the cross-country course. This year, Holly will be aiming to complete her first four-star, riding Never Outfoxed, an unraced 9-year-old Thoroughbred gelding owned by the Fox Syndicate.

“Madeline is super small and couldn’t make the distances at the fourstar level, that’s why I didn’t take her back to try again,” said Payne. “We worked on it a bit and the four-star was just too much for her. Also, I had two other Advanced horses coming up, so she has retired to compete at the lower levels with her owner.”

“He’s a really awesome cross-country horse,” said Payne of “Fox”, who competed at the Bromont (Quebec) and Fair Hill (Maryland) CCI Three Stars last year, finishing 12th and 9th respectively. “He’s a typical Thoroughbred that gets nervous and he needs work in dressage and that can affect his show jumping too. But he was clean at Fair Hill and has been going well recently.”

Payne started taking dressage lessons with Kim Severson and said they have been working on keeping Fox’s brain “slow,” getting him relaxed and comfortable.

“The dressage is still a work in progress,” she said. “This past weekend at the Carolina International he was relaxed as he’s ever been before the dressage. I was trying a new strategy though, and it didn’t work: I didn’t put any pressure on until we got in the ring, but then he just lost it. He almost fooled me because he was so good getting there!

“I talked to Kim afterwards and she said you have to work through the tension in the warm-up, you can’t just avoid it. He’s not going to go in and win the dressage yet but he is super talented and a good mover so if I can sort it out, he’s an amazing horse, very athletic and very game, which is why he’s going to Rolex. If I didn’t think he could jump around I wouldn’t take him there, but he loves cross-country.”

Last fall in New Jersey, Holly worked with a show jumping trainer, Amanda Fletch, on many of the same things that Severson has pinpointed in the dressage, getting Fox to relax and think slowly.

“I think we are right on track with Kim’s strategies for dressage,” she said. “He’s been tricky to take lessons on because not everyone “gets” his personality, but he tries so hard. I’m careful about who I work with, with him. Kim hadn’t seen the true meltdown side of him yet, so hopefully it’ll help now that she knows what we’re dealing with!”

Payne is hoping for a good placing in Kentucky and is banking on Fox’s cross-country skills to get him there. “In the past he has been competitive because he can jump and he can go fast,” she said. “Ideally I think he could run inside the time, even though it’s his first time out, because he just eats the course up. I know the dressage won’t put us in the top because he’s too immature – that would be hoping for a miracle – but if he can do a nice test, the judges do tend to reward him if he’s relaxed, and if we can move up with the jumping, I think it’s not unrealistic that he could place. It’s not like I’ll be really upset if he doesn’t place, since he’s young, but I’d love for him to be competitive.”

Allie Blyskal Sacksen: Sparrow’s Nio
Allie Sacksen and her 15.3h Connemara/Thoroughbred gelding Sparrow’s Nio caught major attention when they won the 2013 Fair Hill International CCI Two Star, and in 2015 they will be competing in their first CCI Four Star at Rolex Kentucky. Allie says she has been preparing for Rolex by trying to keep things as normal as possible for herself and her horse.

“I am trying not to make too many major changes in my program and fitness routine,” she said. “I have been trying to keep what things have worked for me prior to my other big events and slightly change things that haven’t worked so well in the past. I know Nio really well and know he likes the ‘Keep it simple’ method.”

Sacksen’s prep events for Kentucky included Full Gallop here in Aiken, the Carolina International CIC Three Star and The Fork CIC Three Star in North Carolina.

“I would say Nio is still very green on the flat, and so I believe our greenness will be our weakness,” Allie said. “His strength is the crosscountry, he loves it! It truly is enjoyable to ride him around cross-country.”

Nio has been mainly sound and fit through their preparation, though back in January he had his first hoof abscess, which Sacksen said was very stressful for her.

“I saw him very lame out in the field and freaked out!” She said. “But it ended up popping and healing really fast. Overall things have gone fairly smoothly as I prepare, knock on wood! I try to take each day at a time and not get wrapped up in the craziness of the fact that I am heading for my first Rolex.”

Allie is focused on completing the competition with a sound and happy horse. “I would like to excel at our strongest phase, which is the cross country, and I would like to get around clean and safe,” she said. “I am just so excited to be part of this amazing event and to be able to compete alongside some of the biggest names in eventing. I am just a small town girl on a horse I started eventing four years ago; I took him to his very first event and to be going to our first four-star together is really exciting!”

Sacksen, who is from Fair Hill, Md., spent the winter in Aiken and described it as an unbelievable experience. “I had the opportunity to train with Richard Lamb in the show jumping; he coached my husband while he was training in Modern Pentathlon and is very involved in the United States Pony Club. He has been great helping dealing with the nerves and jitters of training for such a big event. I also have been able to work with Mara dePuy on the flat and she has helped push me and Nio a little more in the flat.

“Being in Aiken gives you the opportunity to train alongside some of the country’s best riders,” she continued. “I have been bouncing ideas off of and asking questions of many Rolex alumni. Aiken has been also really beneficial in helping my fitness because I am able to do my trot and canter sets without having to deal with the muddy, frozen ground that we have up north in the winter. I have enjoyed my time here and hopefully will be making the trip back down next winter.”

The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event includes two full days of dressage, so the event actually runs for four days, Thursday, April 23 through Sunday, April 26. There are many more Aiken-based riders who have sent in their entries, including Kate Chadderton with Collection Pass, Courtney Cooper with Who’s a Star, Kevin Keane with Fernhill Flutter, Boyd Martin with Cracker Jack, Master Frisky and Pancho Villa, Colleen Rutledge with Shiraz and Covert Rights, and Kristin Schmolze with Ballylaffin Bracken. William Fox Pitt from England, who has won the event three times in the last five years, will be back with three horses, including last year’s winner, Bay My Hero, the winner in 2012, Parklane Hawk, and Freddie Mac, an up-and-coming 11-yearold gelding.

Find out more about Rolex at

April-May 2015