Some people think of this as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Others think of it as the annual dress rehearsal for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games — one more almost down, two more to go.
Still others think of it as the apex of the horse sport they love, with all of its beauty, excitement and danger.
However you think of it, the biggest day of this year’s Rolex seemed for organizers and spectators to go about as smoothly as one of those expensive watches it is named for.
The only sadness came for the cross-country competitors, three of whom tumbled at jumps, sending one rider and two horses to hospitals.
“It has been a big crowd, a great day,” said Stewart Perry, a Lexington insurance agent and Rolex board member who is the volunteer director of spectator services.
“They’re all leaving with smiles on their faces,” Perry said by cell phone as the crowds dispersed.
Hawley Bennett clears a jump aboard Livingstone. Photos/Tom Eblen
The only operational hiccup seemed to be getting people in and out of the Kentucky Horse Park. Road work within the park for the 2010 Games contributed to a morning backup that reached down Ironworks Pike and Newtown Pike almost to I-75. It was a 45-minute trip, but at least traffic never stopped moving.
Jack Kelly, CEO of the 2010 Games, has always known that moving people in and out of the park will be one of his biggest challenges. The annual Rolex traffic jam confirms his group’s decision to shuttle people in from outside the park. Perry said Rolex would love to shuttle people, too, but it would be too expensive.
Still, Kelly has nothing but praise for Rolex organizers, who have marshaled more than 1,500 volunteers. “I think they’ve made some tremendous strides,” he said.
Jurgen Gohler thinks so, too. The Cleveland-based dressage trainer, who was on the German three-day eventing teams at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, has attended every one of the Kentucky three-day events since they began with the World Championship in 1978.
Gohler also is a regular at the World Equestrian Games, and he thinks the Horse Park will be a great site in 2010.
“They will handle it very well,” he said. “This is a wonderful facility.”
The crowd of 50,275 Saturday was a diverse lot, from all over the country and around the world.
Some Central Kentuckians might have been there out of curiosity, or because it seemed like a fun thing to do on a beautiful spring day. But the parking lot contained license plates from dozens of states, and evidence that many of them belonged to serious horse people.
For example, there was UPNOVER from Indiana — a jumper, no doubt.
“I like to watch riders who are better than I am,” said Kirby Schmidt, an electrical contractor from Medford, Ore., who mailed his deposit for World Games tickets last year.
One obvious demographic in the crowd was horse- loving girls and their parents, such as Mary Beth Brungardt, 14, of Marshall, Minn., and Bethany Beres, 15, of Roswell, Ga. They stood in a long line to get autographs from Stephen Bradley, a star rider and former Olympian.
“It’s great to be around all these amazing riders,” said Bethany, an avid rider who hopes her father will bring her back in two years for the World Games.
And what happens when those horse-loving girls grow up? They keep coming.
“We’ve been coming off and on for more than 20 years,” said Rosemary McGarrah of Evansville, Ind., who was there with her friend and fellow rider Janet Davis of Newburgh, Ind. “This sport has grown by leaps and bounds. In the 1980s, if they had 10,000 people here, it was a big crowd.”
Linda Palumbo of Orlando, Fla., and her sister, Ruth Travis of Franklin, Tenn., came to Rolex for a “girls’ weekend.” They grew up with horses in Florida, where their father bred appaloosas, and Palumbo still rides.
“This place is just fabulous,” she said.
Throughout the day, there were sad reminders of the sport’s danger.
After the first of Saturday’s three falls, Bill Jansen of Tryon, N.C., watched with a worried look as emergency workers checked Dornin Anne North. The daughter of retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North had taken a hard fall.
Jansen’s daughter, Kaitlyn, rides on the University of Tennessee’s equestrian team and hopes to make it to the Olympics someday. “I just don’t want to be one of those fathers,” he said, nodding toward the ambulance that took North off the course.
After the second fall of the day, Joe and Donna Bihner, who live near Chicago, watched quietly with a large crowd as emergency personnel behind big blue tarps worked on Sarah Hansel and her horse, The Quiet Man.
“Everyone here’s an animal lover, and we hate to see anyone hurt,” said Donna Bihner, a rider attending her fourth Rolex. “I hope he’s OK. They put a lot of love in those babies.”
UPDATE: This column was written Saturday evening for Sunday’s newspaper. On Sunday afternoon, it was reported that two of the three horses involved in falls Saturday were euthanized because of their injuries. The rider, Laine Ashker, is hospitalized in intensive care. Read Amy Wilson’s latest update, from Tuesday’s Herald-Leader.
Middle photo: Outrider Heather Bellis-Jones of Paris spent much of the day having little girls admire her horse, T.J. Left to right are Haley Penland, Kadison Leaphart and Kelsey Louthan, all of Greenville, S.C.
Bottom photo: Sisters Ruth Travis of Franklin, Tenn., left, and Linda Palumbo of Orlando, Fla., enjoy a “girls’ weekend”.