German master Michael Jung has put himself firmly on course to land eventing’s richest prize after retaining the Rolex Kentucky title in emphatic fashion.
Jung, the reigning Olympic and European champion, will arrive at Badminton this week for a full-blown assault on the £240,000 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, which is awarded to any rider that wins consecutive Burghley, Kentucky and Badminton crowns.
But it’s so difficult to win the prize that Great Britain’s Pippa Funnell is the only rider to have previously achieved it, although others like Andrew Nicholson, Oliver Townend and William Fox-Pitt went close.
Jung’s victory margin in Kentucky aboard Fischerrocana FST was an astonishing 13.3 penalties as he destroyed the field with a dressage score of 34.2, just 0.8 cross-country time faults and then four faults in Sunday’s final showjumping phase.
The nearest anyone got to him was American Lauren Kieffer, riding Veronica, on a score of 52.5, followed by her compatriots Maya Black (Doesn’t Play Fair) and Phillip Dutton, who claimed fourth and fifth places aboard Mighty Nice and Fernhill Cubalawn, respectively.
It was Jung’s fifth four-star crown of his career, and while Badminton promises to be a much closer contest with an array of realistic title challengers, 33-year-old Jung is clearly the man to beat after becoming the first back-to-back Kentucky champion on the same horse since Kim Severson in 2004 and 2005.
Jung, who boosted his bank balance by £75,000, said: “I have to thank all the people behind me and my horses. It’s a success of the whole team. Every horse in my stable had a part in it.
“I think always the same thing when I go a championship or a four-star event. I say to myself ‘this is a normal competition’. I try not to change anything. It’s important to win, but it’s important that you have a good feeling for the horse and that you have a good ride.
Jung’s genius came to the fore during a demanding cross-country test when heavy rain and muddy conditions tested every combination, but he guided his 11-year-old bay mare through an exemplary round, jumping clear just two seconds over the optimum time on the Derek di Grazia-designed course.
“It was a really great feeling,” Jung added. “She was really concentrated from the start box, and I knew we could gallop. I gave her more time in the beginning of the course, and at the end she had a enough power so that she could go faster.”
“In the cross-country, you need a fighting horse, and she’s a really fighting horse, because not everything on the cross-country is perfect. You have to know your horse, like I do with her, because we’ve been together for many years.”
Reflecting on the challenge he set, Di Grazia said: “You are always a little bit nervous about the weather. We ran in the rain last year, and the footing held up well, so I thought we’d probably be okay. Still, I will take my hat off to the riders, because they produced some great rounds.”
A total of 40 combinations went clear cross-country, but none without time faults, while five horses were eliminated and three were retired on course.
Attention now switches quickly to Badminton, where Jung will ride his London 2012 Olympic gold medal winner, 2010 world champion and last year’s Burghley king La Biosthetique Sam.
Image: Michael Jung and Fischerrocana make history with their victory at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, third leg of the FEI Classics™ 2015/2016, by Red Bay Group LLC/FEI