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Tue, 2015-04-14 14:19

Podcast: Rolex Preview with Derek di Grazia and John Michael Durr

Authored By: Chris Stafford Radio

Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event Course Designer Derek di Grazia discusses the changes he has made to the course for this year's event, which takes place in the Kentucky Horse Park April 23-26, 2015.  And John Michael Durr from Area VI talks about how he is preparing Ruth Bley's Espirit de la Danse for their Rolex debut. Listen here or on the podcast player below.

Chris:                  This is the United States Eventing Association's official podcast. Hello and welcome to the program I'm Chris Stafford. On the show this week the Rolex Kentucky 3 day event course designer Derek Di Grazia previews this year's course for us, but first we hear from a Rolex rookie. John Michael Durr from Castro Valley in California will be riding Ruth Bley’s 11-year-old Canadian sport horse mare, Espirit de la Danse. I began by asking him how the preparation is going.

John:                  So far so good, we ran galway, and had our best results so far together. Now it's just playing the fitness game to we ship out.

Chris:                  And counting down the days I'm sure. Well let's give everyone a little bit of background JM as to how you got to where you are now to compete in your 1st four-star event with Espirit de la Danse. You obviously know Rolex a little bit, having visited there last year to help.

John:                  Yeah, it's been of goal of mine since I was a kid. I was lucky enough to do young riders in 04 and 05 back when they did that crazy track and steeplechase stuff. Like I said it's always been a goal, I've been lucky enough to have a copy of advanced horses along the way, but this mare, she's fantastic, she's really the 1st horse in my career that I be really to try something like this on

Chris:                  Tell everybody how long you've actually been in the sport JM, give us a sense of how it all began, and the experience you've gained so far coming up through the levels.

John:                  My poor non-horsey parents, I wanted to ride a pony one day and they brought me to a competitive program run by Yves Sauvignon as a 4-year-old, and I just never left. I caught the bug I stayed with Eve up through my 1st young riders at 16, and I played the working student game for a good number of years, and wound up starting my own business under Lilo Fore up in Santa Rosa, the North Bay, the wine country. Then through a couple different things I ended up in Castro Valley. I now operate my business out of Ruth Bley’s place - we do a lot of sales together. I'm very fortunate, she owns this mare for me as one of the flagships of our program. We're off to the big one.

Chris:                  All right, you mentioned Lilo Fore there, of course a very well known name in the sport of dressage that clearly has helped you in your career with eventing though JM. Tell us a little bit about that relationship in terms of how it's helped you for eventing, and why you decided to go eventing and not follow dressage with her?

John:                  Well I'm horrible at dressage. I'm an eventer at heart. Lilo was great, Dana who I was a working student for semi-up for lessons with her, and she's actually from my hometown. Through the working student game I wound up a little burnt out like a lot of us do, and I actually went home to just have one horse and go to the fire academy. I boarded the horse at Lilo's, because I'd been taking lessons from her, at the end of one of our lesson she looked me dead in the eye and said "I need a brave stupid young man who rides well, and I think you're my guy." I was really fortunate enough to start the last 2 horses out of her really well known breeding program directly into her every day. It's just been a huge strength to my skills and the relationship of Lilo. She's become my 2nd mom at this point. She is a mentor, she's a friend, she's really instrumental to my life.

Chris:                  Of course that makes such a difference obviously giving you the grounding that you need in Eventing for your dressage. You said it's not maybe your strong point, but you must be obviously quite happy with it now going into your 1st four-star with this mare. Let's talk about your relationship with her, owned by Ruth Bley, as you said from Castro Valley there in California where you're from, how did that partnership come about JM?

John:                  It came about through my wife. My wife has ridden with her and we were kind of an amateur team when I came along. My wife spent some term professional. Actually when I was working for another gentleman Ruth had a young horse, and a future event horse, and I followed them back to the barn to try to buy the horse for the guy I was working for. I failed miserably and I ended up with a wife and a relationship with Ruth. So I didn't get the horse, but funny enough now I ride that horse around Preliminary.

Chris:                  Last year you finished 7th, as you said, and go way down to the three-star there, and then went on to finish 4th at Copper Meadows, and placed 6th at Rebecca Farm in the CIC three-star as well. A good season for you, must have filled you with confidence for your partnership with this mare. How long have you been riding her actually?

John:                  My 1st competition on her was Rebecca farms in 13. She jumped to the 2 star level with Waylon Roberts. I love jumping this mare, she's solid, she's just a wonderful jumping horse. Her dressage is really, really good, really skillful. However we have tension demons like you wouldn't believe. So this last galway was really a great success for us. We kept the demons in the closet, and let me think there's a chance for that at Kentucky but Kentucky is really just an experienced finder for the 2 of us.

Chris:                  Talk about her fitness then JM, your preparation this year, what you've done with her, and how you've got her fit over there?

John:                  We're really lucky, where one of the few places in California that has good hills on site. Really, really good hills. We have trot hills, we have gallop hills. My good friend Becky Hanlon has been instrumental in telling me how to use them, and what to, what not to do. It's impossible to know if youhave them fit enough for the 1st time, but I feel like where at as good a place as we can be right now.

Chris:                  Told about competitions that you've done so far in your preparation for Rolex.

John:                  This year we used Twin Rivers as a prep event, and she was quite good there. She was still a little fresh, for the show jumping. She uncharacteristically had two down. Then Galway was the only other prep. That was good as it can be. My wife has instructed me that I have another advanced rider, and if I don't stop believing stuff out and start going fast I wasn't going to be allowed to go to Rolex. So we ended up being the fastest time of the day there which made everybody happy, and was a huge boost of confidence heading out east.

Chris:                  What is she like preparing for a big competition like this? Does she get mare-ish, or is she pretty even-tempered?

John:                  She's pretty even-tempered. The joke around the barn is she knows something's coming. She really seems to be settling into the fitness. I was losing sleep from about Christmas forward that the fitness would just make her mental. It really hasn't actually, she's almost settled into the harder work. I'm hoping that continues, fingers crossed.

Chris:                  Now what about your fitness as well, because during of four-star is going to be different to anything you've done before. Have you been working on your own?

John:                  Absolutely, I'm unfortunately built a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The brick poop house as you have to say on the radio. So I've been really trying to find ways to cut pounds, not just build muscle. Just different exercises, lots of swimming, things like this that can cut ... Give me fitness without make me look like the Incredible Hulk.

Chris:                  Now how do you deal with a competition at this level, or I'm sure you'll find out when you get near to the time, but in past competitions JM when they've really mattered, do you handle the psychological aspect, the mental preparation well, or do you get very nervous?

John:                  As long as I can keep my sense of humor I'm fine. If I get too intense then no, then I can spiral to somewhere I don't want to be. I really found that I'm the best when I'm cracking jokes at the back gate. If I put too much pressure on myself I'm not my best. My best is when I can keep my sense of humor, and ride like it matters, but ride like my life doesn't depend on it.

Chris:                  All right, well we know obviously this is a big occasion for you. Do you have some tools from sport psychology to actually handle those nerves on the big day, because going into that arena for your dressage, obviously you will have had your right time in there and get a feel of that big space. How do you think you'll handle it, and how do you think the mare will handle that very different environment?

John:                  The mare could go either way. The mare will either rise up to the occasion, which she has done, or she will be very tense in the occasion, which she has done. Were going to do everything we can to prepare her for the better, and for myself I'm really going into this as an opportunity to gain experience. I don't have any illusions that I'm going in there to beat Michael Jung. This is to get experience, and I think is a long as I go down that ramp, just to gain the experience of this wonderful opportunity. I think that will control my nerves the best.

Chris:                  And who will be helping you on the ground? Who do you train with normally, and who will be there for the event JM?

John:                  Yves Sauvignon still helps me. We now have a 23 year relationship, and he's been helping me at home get ready. He will unfortunately not be able to make the journey out to Kentucky. So my coordinator is David O'Connor, and he'd better help me. He help me a gala as well, so he's familiar with the mare. I've really gotten to build a little bit of a relationship with him through my wife. She's been on the under 25 the last 2 years. My wife will be there obviously as well, she'll be the 1st tell me I do right, and the first to tell me I do it wrong.

Chris:                  And what's her name?

John:                  Her name is Kimmy Steinbush.

Chris:                  Okay, so you'll have her on the ground as well. Keep you, hopefully in the preparation. What are your travel plans then for the next 2 weeks? When would you actually leave and plan to arrive in Kentucky, and how long will it take? It is quite a haul over from the left coast.

John:                  Yes, it will take 3 full days. James Alliston and I will travel together. We're leaving a week from Thursday, so both him and I are riding younger horses. Actually I believe he's riding one of his well liked horses at Twin Rivers this weekend. Then will have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, pack up our stuff, polish our boots, and hit the road.

Chris:                  Well obviously very exciting journey for you, and as you said before, great experience. Whichever way it goes JM, what are you most looking forward to about being in the horse park as a competitor?

John:                  For me the weekend is about finding out what I have in my mare, and what we can do to get to the next level. Getting to this level is obviously the biggest step of both of our careers, but it's not the end goal. It's the 1st step of the next part of the journey. Really it's a fact-finding trip. To me that's where the fun in horses is, is always finding out how to make it a little the better, get a little bit further.

Chris:                  All the very best of luck on that journey JM. I hope it all goes well and you have a great experience. Thank you for coming on the program.

John:                  Oh thanks so much for having me.

Chris:                  Derek Di Grazia has been the course designer for the Rolex Kentucky 3 day event since he took over from Mike Etherington Smith, following the 2010 Alltech FEI world equestrian games. Before we hear about this year's course, I began by asking Derek what he took away from last year's event.

Derek:                I think we had a good event last year, however I think my whole outlook, even before the event was finished last year, was that I really was, and I've been thinking about this for a while, was that I really want to try to change up the track more than what we had over the past 2 years. So it's just trying to figure out how that's all going to work. That was my main goal this year, was to try to give the course a different look, and to try to use some places that we hadn't used before. That's where I headed when I was working on this year's track.

Chris:                  So you take a look at the other land that's available to you. Which areas did you think you would like to the course?

Derek:                Well I think a lot of places would say, "Well we'll just reverse the track." When I thought of that track, and trying to reverse it, in ways it just doesn't really work very well. I started with that idea and it morphed from there. I think that, while it certainly does start out going the direction of how we finished last year, it quickly diverges from that because there were certain areas that weren't going to work going the other direction. So we end up going towards the bottom side of what was the 1st water, and the 1st water ended up being right at the end of the course. That's how that's evolved, and from there we do have a lot of the key features are still in the course.

Chris:                  What about the new land that you've incorporated? Has it been a while since that was used the course?

Derek:                I don't know, some of it I don't think has ever been used, or it's been quite a long time, but I think that it is going to certainly give a certain feel with how things come up. I think obviously, the head of the lake is coming earlier than it's ever come in quite a long time. Which then again changes how everything evolves, because it is like a puzzle and when you do one thing one time in the course, then the other things have to slot in, in a different way. I think that, especially after the Normandy bank, we're sort of going a direction we haven't gone in some years. Which again leads into having the water towards the end of the course. I think that the big thing is the riders are going to have to realize that they will need to save some of the horse for the end of the course, because there are going to be things to do.

Chris:                  Let's go around it then Derek. Where do you start?

Derek:                We start where we started it last year, in the same place, in the same field.

Chris:                  And the 1st fence is where?

Derek:                It's literally probably 50 yards from where the 1st fence was before, but it's literally on the track where they finished last year. The 2nd fence is right next to the 2nd to last, from last year. Then we head on through the field, and head towards where, what we call the water park, where that is, but we’re just below the water park. It's an area that we reconfigured ... Actually we reconfigured right when we were redoing that water jump for the world games, but it's an area that's never been used on the Rolex course. We have used parts that on the horse trials courses, and on the one star course in the fall, but from there ... That's sort of where the first complex is, is right below that water complex there. From there we go to the infield of the racetrack.

                             Then as we go to the infield we have 2 features on the infield, which are that infield water which is called the duck pond, and the coffin. Both of those this year are being done in a direction that we haven't done before. The infield water, not completely new because there are so many ways you can go through it but the coffin is going to be in a different direction from last year. Going the other direction. Then we go out of the infield and up to the, what would be to the right of the Normandy bank, and from there we head down to the ... We have a fence up at the top of the hill there, and then we had down to the big stick brush. Then we go to the head of the lake, which is more than the 1st 3rd of the course.

Chris:                  How does that look this year? What have you done there?

Derek:                Other than everything floating away the other day, it looks great. I was there on Thursday, and we set everything, and on Friday we had these huge rains. So our logs that we all said went floating away, but they've retrieved them by this point. Hopefully we can all put back together. The head of the lake, again we're approaching from the topside this year. Which again we haven't done probably in about 5 years. So that will be different, and we only get through the lake once. We don't go out and come back in, which again is going to be different. Then after that we head out of the head of the lake and we head up to the mountains, with which again I don't think I've used for a few years now. So we have a complex, we have some jump set up at the mounds, and from there they go all into the hollow. Using the hollow a little bit differently this year than it's been used before, but from there we used to always head down ...

                             Actually last year there was a set of angled brushes that were down in the bottom area, in the trees there, and those have gone. I have another little combination there which will keep them occupied before they head to the fallen tree, which is back on the course this year, but approaching it from a different direction.

                             Again we've gone to approaching that fallen tree, we've gone to the ... There's a big mound there which they called Mount Mick which has a driving obstacle. We've gone to the right of that this year to cross over, which is a bit different. I can put you on a track to come to the fallen tree off to the left hand as opposed to the right hand. That will put you into the sunken road field where we have a combination there, which is directly related to the fallen tree. From there, from that field, they gallop up to the Normandy bank, which has been in the course for ever and ever, it has been there for a long time. It's still a good fence, and so I always like to use it. From there instead of, we used to always head to Normandy banks, we'll head down to the keepers brush, and this year we're actually heading straight from the Normandy banks straight across the field to a new combination which are in the hedges. They have these big old hedges there, so I found a place where I wanted to be able to use those hedges, and be able to go from one side to the other through the hedges. So I've done that this year.

                             From there we pick up ... There's a combination there in the hedges, and then from there they pick up a nice galloping fence before they head back to the last water. Which comes about just before the 10 minute mark on the course, which means obviously they're going to have the save some for the end. From there we have one combination for the finish, and then we finished literally right where the course started last year. It's different, it's not reversed, but it is different from what it has been.

Chris:                  What does the last water look like now Derek, what have you got in there?

Derek:                The last water looks like it did last year actually. I just actually left at the same, because I thought it worked as the 1st water, and it sure works of the last water. It's not overly difficult, but it's enough to make them stay on their toes.

Chris:                  So that's the only time to go through that water then?

derek:                That's correct.

Chris:                  That's a little bit different. How many fences? And how many combinations or complexes you have?

Derek:                I can't tell you how many complexes there are, but there are 45 obstacles, and the number is ... I'd have to actually look, but I think that there are 29 numbered obstacles on the course. As far as combinations, I haven't sat there and counted them up yet.

Chris:                  All right, and the optimum time right now before the jury sees it?

Derek:                Before we do the final tread, around 11 minutes, 14 – 15 seconds , somewhere in there. That's the same distance wise, it's pretty close to where we've been before.

Chris:                  I'm not going to ask you what your expectations would be, and to get out your crystal ball about the number of finishes within the optimum time, because that never works. I don't want to put you on the spot. If you look back at the courses that you've designed at Rolex Derek, in your philosophy for that course, has that evolved? Is it something that evolves each year? Or do you still have that general attitude towards it that it is a very traditional track, it's the one and only four-star over here, and that you wouldn't want to make any drastic changes to it, or have you got a shifting philosophy as you go each year?

Derek:                I think that each year you always try to find some new ways to go through the park, and some new lines to try to give a different look. I think that the horse Park is a great piece of ground, which allows for a galloping horse, and so we try to keep it that way. I do believe that it's one of those things where you want to try to keep it interesting, and tried to keep the riders thinking each year so that they don't just come and say, "Well this is the same old thing." I think that's really the heart thing, is to try to be able to come up with something new that's going to do that, and at the same time be able to ask different questions all along the way. I think that's the challenge.

Chris:                  I know the designers look at other tracks around the world, whether you can visit them and watch them online to get ideas for your own courses, have you got any ideas that keep bubbling up and you think, "Yes I could adapt that to the Rolex course, and configure it my own way"?

Derek:                I think that each place is very different . Each four-star in the world is actually a different piece of property, and things come up differently. I think that it really, the way I look at it is, you have to see what's going to work with the piece of ground that you're working with. That's how think how all the designers probably look at how they do things, because I think that you can't go out with the idea that I'm going to have this and this and this, because they may not fit within the context of what you're doing.

Chris:                  When you've designed a four-star track, like Rolex, for a few years Derek, what challenges do you enjoy about it to make those subtle changes within the character of the course?

Derek:                I think that the enjoyment comes in trying to be able to find these things and make the course different from year-to-year, and obviously to come up with a track that's going to flow and that's going to give the riders a good ride around the country. In the end you have to have a picture that's going to be a good picture, and that's going to be a good ride for the horses and riders. It's finding that balance that is going to make for good course, and that is a challenge.

Chris:                  So when you sit and watch those monitors on Saturday Derek, do you wish you were still in the tack, and having a go around it yourself?

Derek:                I always, I have to get the final product out there, and there are a lot of times when I do wish that I had the horse, that I could actually go on right over the course.

Chris:                  It would be very satisfying I'm sure. Finally with 2 weeks to go Derek what does the forecast look like, as you said you had an absolute deluge in the park just the past few days, is it recovering now and do you know what the forecast will be in a couple weeks time? Do you take any notes of it with Kentucky?

Derek:                Well the thing is you never know what the weather is going to be quite honestly because ... And I don't know what the forecast is, but I do know that park drains probably better than most places I've ever been. We did have a situation, actually it was in my 1st year, designing the four-star there that we had huge amounts of rain literally right up until the day before cross-country. Literally in a day and a half it drained off, and we were able to go, and the footing actually turned out quite good. I know that they had huge amounts of rain near the bay, and already most of the park is drained off. They still have some wet areas, but it does recover quite quickly. I think that we just have to hope that in the next couple of weeks the rain is minimal, and that we can get everything finished up, which will also help in being able to prepare for the day.

Chris:                  Thank you very much indeed for taking time to come on the program and tell us what we can look forward to at this year's Rolex Kentucky 3 day event.

Derek:                Great, thank you.

Chris:                  And you can of course find more information on the Rolex website, that's, and the USEF network will have live streaming of the event on their website at The USEF will have a booth as usual at the event, so if you're planning to attend be sure to pay them a visit. If you're a new listener to the show, you can download this podcast from the iTunes podcast store to your smart phone or tablet, and listen to the show on the go. Until the next time, thanks for listening, and easy to enjoy your eventing.


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