Note: Because of newspaper deadlines, this column was filed Saturday night before Opening Ceremonies began. For a full report on that, click on these links for stories by Rich Copley and Linda Blackford. Click here for a photo gallery.
The first day of WEG was a WOW.
That seemed to be the consensus among locals, visitors, athletes and officials at Saturday’s opening of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The weather was perfect. The crowd was large, but never uncomfortably so. The facilities were beautiful, the pavilions were impressive, the events ran smoothly, the glitches were minor and everybody seemed to be having a good time.
I took the LexTran shuttle to avoid traffic. It was a quick and easy ride from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park where there was … no traffic. In fact, Iron Works Pike was so clear I couldn’t believe how many people I saw in the park.
Even for those who didn’t attend the reining competition, the only event Saturday, there was plenty to see and do. The Horse Park has been transformed into a horse-themed world’s fair, with exhibits and horsemanship demonstrations at the Equine Village, more than 300 vendor booths and pavilions and the impressive Kentucky Experience and Alltech Experience complexes.
“It has exceeded my expectations, even though I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Doran Bradford of Lexington, who was there with his wife, Anne, and their two young sons. “We’re having a good time.”
A Chinese vaulting competitor sat beside the Bradfords at lunch and told them all about her sport. “That was really neat,” he said. “I’ll probably be more interested in these sports now after coming out here.”
The Kentucky Horse Park drew rave reviews from some international equestrians. Having all of the venues in one place is an advantage over previous Games, although they noted the park’s size makes it a challenge to navigate.
“It’s a fabulous facility, but it’s huge,” said Francesca Sternberg, a reining rider from Great Britain who will be competing Sunday but spent Saturday taking her children around the trade fair. “The show grounds are outstanding. They’ve done an impressive job.”
Many international teams had golf carts and bicycles to help them get around. For spectators, though, the Games mean a lot of walking — and dodging golf carts and bicycles. (Some shuttles are available for elderly and disabled visitors, but you can’t bring a bicycle into the park.)
“It’s a fantastic place, and the people are so nice — friendly and helpful,” said Jenny Champion, who had hoped to be on the New Zealand endurance team but ended up coming as a spectator. “The park is so big you need a map.”
But Eduardo Tame, a Mexico team official and tour operator, complained that the prices he had to pay for buses, hotels and other necessities for the 120 people he brought to the Games were outrageous.
“I have been to every Equestrian Games and Olympics, and this is the most expensive of all of them,” he said. “I’m really surprised with these prices.”
Spectators complained a little about food prices but noted the food was quite good and prices weren’t out of line with other special events. The main food tent, staffed by Rotary Club volunteers from across the country, had so many food and checkout stations that there was rarely a line.
“I’m genuinely delighted to see everyone’s hard work coming together,” said Alltech President Pearse Lyons, the driving force behind the Games, who spent the day greeting visitors at the 4-acre Alltech Experience.
“This has all been in my head so many years it’s nice to see it happen,” added his wife, Deirdre, who designed much of the Alltech Experience.
The Kentucky Experience pavilion also was a big hit, as much with Kentuckians as with those from elsewhere. Visitors could hear bluegrass music, see exhibits about all parts of the state, sample Kentucky’s “unbridled spirits” — bourbon and wine — and sit behind the wheel of a Corvette.
“People keep asking, ‘Can I have it?'” said Coni Sheppard, who was watching over the Bowling Green-made sports car. “I tell them that, for $75,000, I’m sure they can fix you up.”
“These Games are going to be wonderful for this state,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, who toured the pavilion after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and joined Beam Global Spirits CEO Matt Shattock in dipping souvenir Maker’s Mark bottles in red wax.
“What fun!” Roger Leasor, the president of Liquor Barn, said as he wandered the trade fair. “I’ve always liked being in places where you hear a lot of languages and accents, and now you can do it in Lexington — at least for the next 16 days.”