Derek di Grazia knows what it’s like to ride—and win—the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by Land Rover: he won it in 1985 on Sasquatch, a Thoroughbred/Appaloosa cross. These days, as the Rolex Kentucky event’s cross-country course designer, di Grazia is the man asking the questions of the four-star horses and riders galloping over the Kentucky Horse Park’s turf. Known for challenging courses that are also fair and safe, di Grazia says his experience as an upper-level rider informs his course design. We caught up with him for a Q & A to get the inside scoop on the event’s famous cross-country phase.
What’s the average height and spread of the fences on the Rolex Kentucky cross-country course? And what are some of the safety features employed in course design?
“The height limit of the jumps is set by the specification for the level, which is 1.20 meters. The spread can go up to two meters, but you’ll probably see more around the 1.70 meters or 1.80 meters; we have a couple of fences on the course that are two meters.
“The brush fences can go up to 4’9”, which is 1.45 meters. That looks quite imposing when you look at them, but the horses at this level know brush, and they’ve jumped it for years, and so they’ll go right through it. It can end up making a jump that looks quite big actually not be that big to jump.
“The depth of our water is regulated, so you won’t see water that’s enormously deep. And depending on where you are on the course, you might see the water vary, depending on where the water jump comes up on the course, whether it’s early or late in the course.
“Most spectators wouldn’t realize, too, that the turf maintenance on the course is a big, ongoing project throughout the year, in order to make sure they have the best turf possible to be able to compete on.
“People should know that we have the ability to use frangible devices on certain jumps that will break away if a horse hits them hard enough, and that’s just one of the safety factors within the course.
“The big questions you always have to go back to are, is what you’re asking fair and is it safe? Those are the two big things that you have to consider.”
You still compete in three-day eventing yourself. Does that influence how you design a cross-country course?
“I think it has a huge influence, and that’s why I like the fact that I’m able to still keep riding and competing, because I think that really influences what you’re doing, especially in trying to create flow in the track. You hope the course has a good feel to it from start to finish.
“I’m always interested to see how the course as a whole rides. You always want to make sure that the horses and the riders have a good experience when they’re out there.”
Can you define “flow” and describe how you achieve it as a course designer?
“This is one of the big things when you’re designing a track. When you talk about flow, you’re talking about letting the riders get into a rhythm from the beginning and maintain that rhythm throughout the course, and through the different combinations or jumps you have, trying not to take the riders out of that rhythm too much. If they get out of that rhythm, in some ways it’s harder for them to get going again. So you try to allow the riders a chance to be able to jump the jumps, and you have certain parts of the course that are more intense than the others—maybe you have more combinations there. But, at the same time, you have to have part of the course where you can let them gallop and you can also just let them jump some single fences. That gives the horses a breather and gives riders a chance to think about what they’re doing. But, especially for the horses, it gives them that chance to almost take a break and just gallop along nice and easy and not having a lot of jumps come up to them right in a row.”
As a cross-country course designer, what are you trying to test in the horse and rider?
“When you get to the four-star level, it’s different. All the way through the levels, you’re always teaching, and they say when you get to the four-star level, it’s more of a test. But I believe they’re always learning, no matter what. The fact is, you’re trying to ask the horses things which they have learned throughout their careers that test the boldness, the bravery, their ability to be agile and use their feet, to be good jumpers, to be adjustable. You take all these different things that they have been learning from day one, from the time they started their training, and you try to incorporate these things into the questions you ask on the cross-country.
“I try to not only educate but also make sure that we look into what these horses have learned. They have to be able to turn left and right, they have to be able to go forwards and backwards as far as being adjustable, and they have to be good with their feet. They have to be good jumpers, have scope, and be brave.”
How do course designers and builders incorporate what we know about how horses see into course design?
“That’s a complicated question! You like to make sure that the horse actually sees what they’re doing. It’s important to give them that chance. A lot of that also falls back to the rider in their training of the horse: they have to make sure the horses are trained so that they focus on the jumps that they’re jumping, that they are paying attention to the situation, and that they also are able to assess the different questions.
“If you take a bare jump and start decorating it, you can definitely change how the jump is perceived by the horse and also the difficulty of the jump, as well. At the same time, you want to feel that if your jumps didn’t have any decoration, they could still be jumped even without it.
“The biggest thing is that you want the horse to be able to see where the front and the back of the jump are, whether it’s through how the jump is painted or by putting flowers or bushes on the front and the back of the jump. That’s a big part of the safety factor, making sure the horse knows what he’s actually jumping. You can do that with ground lines or by putting flowers on the corners of the jump. You’ll see spread fences that have flags on both the front and the back of the fence, because they will allow the horses to delineate more between the front and the back of the jump. There are different ways of doing it. When you come up to a jump and you look at it, do you really see the front edge of that fence? Can you actually tell where that jump is? If you don’t see it, I’m not sure the horse is going to really see it, either.
“If you have jumps under trees and in areas where light and shadows might affect it, you try to minimize that issue as much as possible. If you have jumps where the light will change, you use brighter flowers or brighter ground lines or make sure the shades of color on the fence are such that you’ll be able to see that in a dark area.”
You’ll also be designing the cross-country course for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Are there particular geographic challenges you’re anticipating?
“For a lot of these courses, especially for Olympic Games, most of the sites typically have never had a competition on them, so you’re pretty much starting from scratch. So you’re not going into an established site that already has things on it; you have to create everything. In some ways, that can be nice, but in other ways it creates a lot more work. But it’s a lot of fun, as well.
“I was really happy to get that assignment. It’s a great honor. So far, the people I’ve been working with in Japan have been great to work with, and I look forward to the challenge.”
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