Blind rider’s reining lesson a dream come true

October 9, 2010

Anne Cecilie Ore began riding at age 11 and was soon a show-jumping competitor. Trouble was, she could barely see the jumps in front of her and had no peripheral vision.

Ore’s eyesight kept getting worse. By age 14, she was totally blind.

But blindness has never stopped Ore, who turns 32 on Monday, from achieving her equestrian dreams.

The resident of Olso, Norway, trains in Germany and is an active para-dressage rider in Europe. She competed last week as part of the Norwegian para-dressage team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but was disappointed with her 6th and 7th-place scores.

Before leaving America, Ore had one more goal to achieve. She had always wanted to learn reining — that Western-style sport of flashy horsemanship where riders gently guide their mounts through dizzying spins and sliding stops in a cloud of dirt.

When WEG board member Becky Jordan heard about Ore’s wish, she knew how to make it come true. She arranged for Ore to have a reining lesson with her daughter, Lyndsey, 22, a two-time world champion who performed at the Games’ reining exhibition Sept. 30.

Ore arrived at the Jordans’ Scott County farm Saturday morning with a delegation from the Norwegian team in tow. Lyndsey Jordan introduced her to Blazin, a laid-back, 10-year-old quarter horse who wore the first Western-style saddle Ore had ever used.

With Jordan calling out cues, Ore walked Blazin around the ring, then they cantered. Within 15 minutes, Ore and Blazin were a team. There was no obvious sign that the rider couldn’t see where she was going.

“It was just amazing to me how well she was able to go around the arena,” Jordan said afterward. “Once she made the first couple of laps around she knew exactly where she was.”

Within a half hour, Jordan had given Ore the spurs off her boots and was teaching her to guide Blazin through spins and sliding stops.

“The cues are a little different from sport to sport,” Jordan said. “But I would tell her what my cues were and she just had it. She knew exactly what she was doing. Her posture and positioning on the horse were just beautiful. She’s a very good rider.”

When it was time to dismount, Ore was all smiles.

“It was like a dream since I was 11,” she said. “The really fun stuff was the sliding and the spins. When the spins are slow you get really dizzy, but when you go faster you are not so dizzy. Not like I had imagined it.”

Ore wasn’t the only one smiling.

“She is fearless,” Becky Jordan said. “That was just amazing.”

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Volunteers make the Equestrian Games work

October 8, 2010

Some of the key performers at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games won’t win a medal — or even get on a horse.

But the show could not go on without the 6,000 volunteers who came from around the world to assist competitors, take tickets, direct traffic, drive golf-cart shuttles and perform a million other vital but unglamorous tasks.

“These people are absolutely critical in the entire scheme of the Games,” said Alltech President Pearse Lyons, whose company has been giving volunteers donuts each morning and snacks each afternoon. “They are the face of the Games, and without them we could not have put on such a successful show.”

You see volunteers everywhere at the Kentucky Horse Park, wearing yellow or blue Ariat polo shirts and caps — and, usually, a big smile.

Unfailingly cheerful volunteers greet me each morning as I step off the LexTran shuttle and each evening as I leave the park. All day, I see volunteers managing lines, giving directions, answering questions and ferrying people around this giant obstacle course of pedestrians, golf carts and bicycles.

“People just need information and direction; that I’ve got,” said Amy Waddingham, a volunteer from Colorado, who was energetically organizing school groups and moving them through the front gate like a veteran traffic cop.

The volunteer corps is getting good reviews.

“Some of them are a little bit too strict to the rules, but they are very friendly,” said Giel Hendrix, a journalist from the Netherlands. “They have made a good impression.”

“We’ve been getting a lot of good reports,” said Erin Faherty, WEG’s volunteer services director, whose management team arrives at 4:30 a.m. each day to begin checking in that day’s volunteers. “But there have been some logistical challenges, especially getting people where they need to be, when they need to be there, on a 1,200-acre park.”

About 1,200 volunteers work the Games each day. A record 1,700 volunteers were on duty last Saturday, when the park had its highest attendance of 51,000 people for the cross-country competition.

Volunteers work at least six nine-hour shifts. In return, they get food and free grounds-pass access for any day of the Games they’re not working. They get to keep their uniforms.

Volunteer planning and coordination began several years ago. By January, Games officials had confirmed about 1,200 volunteers.

Last winter, officials launched an aggressive campaign to recruit general and security volunteers — especially Kentuckians who wouldn’t have to spend a lot of their own money for lodging during the Games.

“My husband is always going on fishing trips with the boys, so this is my to-do,” said volunteer Becky Kauffman of Southern Pines, N.C., who was driving media shuttles. She was lucky to have a high school friend in Lexington to stay with, she said.

The trick for organizers is having enough volunteers at the right places and the right times so they are neither swamped nor bored.

Most volunteers said they were well-trained, except when it came to enough familiarity with the park layout to give directions. “There have been some issues, but I’ve been surprised by how well it’s going,” said volunteer Sue Stodola of Frankfort.

But Nadja Davidson of Carp, Ontario, was critical of the training, organization, food and logistics for volunteers. Davidson said she drove 16 hours from Canada and was spending $1,600 to stay in the area to volunteer. She felt Games organizers had been “inhospitable to volunteers … I would treat strangers in my own home better.”

“The organization for us has not always been on the top, but, on the whole, it is working,” said Sven Hedberg of Sweden, who is a volunteer translator. His sister lives in Mount Sterling, so he and his wife had a free place to stay.

“It’s been wonderful,” said volunteer Tom Timm of Niles, Mich. His wife, Linda, a teacher, agreed: “I had to take an unpaid leave to do this, but it has been well worth it.”

In addition to the Games volunteers, several hundred Rotary Club members from across the country have worked concession stands to raise money to fight polio.

Many Rotarians are professionals — such as the lawyer behind the checkout counter at lunch the other day, and the architect who was cleaning up trash at picnic tables. They both told me they were having a great time.

“We’ve had so much fun!” said former Lexington Vice Mayor Isabel Yates, an 80-something Rotarian who spent four days working at coffee stands with her friend, Beanie Pederson. “We’ve met people from everywhere — New Zealand, Australia, Brazil. It has really been something.”

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Some nice scenics from WEG today

October 8, 2010

The temporary stands at Rolex Stadium were reflected in the lake as people passed by Friday evening on their way to the jumping competition at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The photo below shows just how big those horse murals are. Photos by Tom Eblen

Cross-country Saturday was the day to ‘do’ WEG

October 2, 2010

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games had been in town for a week, but this seemed to be the day everyone said, “Let’s do it!”

And why not? It was Saturday. The weather was perfect. And it was cross-country day. Even locals who aren’t equestrians know that cross-country is the annual highlight of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event — horses and riders racing across fields, splashing through water and making breath-taking jumps.

The record crowd of 50,818 started building early, creating the closest thing to a traffic jam Lexington has seen during the Games. Cars waiting to exit Interstate 75 North at Ironworks Pike backed up for more than a mile at times.

As usual, some of the happiest spectators were those on one of the LexTran shuttles running continuously from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park.

“This is a historic event,” said Holly Codell of Lexington, and not just because she was taking her son, Jack, 12, to one of the world’s great sporting events.

“We’re riding a LexTran bus for the first time,” she said, snapping an iPhone photo of Jack, who looked ready to die of mother-induced embarrassment. “This was so easy, and the bus is nice and clean.”

After several days of entertaining horse-crazy friends from Boston, Codell said she was developing new appreciation for her hometown. “You forget living here how beautiful Lexington is,” she said.

The horse park’s advantage — a huge facility with all of the venues in one place — has also been its curse during the Games, forcing visitors to walk long distances to see everything. But there seemed to be more directional signs and shuttles on Saturday. There were many more maps, posted at strategic locations or being passed out by volunteers.

On the cross-country course, cheers went up each time a horse and rider cleared a jump. Locals smiled each time the announcer mentioned one of the Kentucky-named jumps in his proper British accent: Fort Boonesborough, Red River Gorge, Land Between the Lakes.

Everyone seemed to be an amateur photographer. Crowds gathered around each jump with fancy cameras, small point-and-shoots and even cell phones waiting to capture the decisive moment.

“I’m getting some good shots with my wimpy little camera,” said Vanessa Deroux, who came from Seattle to see the Games. “This is great. I couldn’t miss the opportunity.”

For those who needed a diversion from horses, Land Rover was offering free test drives on its own cross-country course. Several hundred people waited in line to drive a Range Rover through water, over hills and across a tilting wooden bridge.

While much of Lexington’s population seemed to be at the park, there were plenty of internationals, too. Many proudly wore their national colors, or literally wrapped themselves in their flag.

Monika Gottschalk and Christiane Somerfeldt of Cologne, Germany, were decked out in tri-color clothing and had German flags sticking out of their backpacks. This was their fourth World Equestrian Games, and they were having a blast: spending all day at the horse park and shopping downtown and at Fayette Mall each evening. “All of the people here are so friendly,” Somerfeldt said.

The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s “Big Lex” blue horse stickers seemed to be especially popular with Europeans. One Italian journalist had a dozen decorating her backpack.

After leaving the crowds on the cross-country course, I was surprised to see so many people in the other side of the park. The giant food tent was packed at lunch for the first time during these Games, and the Normandy, France, pavilion was jammed with people trying to watch the cooking demonstrations.

The trade fair was doing a booming business, and the Alltech Experience and Kentucky Experience pavilions and Equine Village were comfortably crowded.

“Come on ladies — you need a Corvette. Your hair would look so good in the wind!” Daryl Lyons called out to passersby at the Kentucky Experience, where he was selling $20 raffle tickets for the $80,000 Bowling Green-made sports car.

“We’re having fun,” said Christian Hahn of Prospect as he and his three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, took a pizza break. “We did the kidzone, rode a pony, pet a penguin and now we’re going to find some horses to watch.”

As John Morgan and his wife, Linda Carroll, wandered the cross-country course, they said they had been going to WEG events all week, from the endurance race to one of the James Beard gourmet dinners.

“We’re about WEG’d out,” he said. “But it has all been just fantastic.”

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Translators help bridge language gaps at WEG

September 30, 2010

Love of horses is the universal language at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. But when that isn’t enough, the volunteers from Language Services are standing by.

Sandy Suffoletta of Georgetown has a staff of 90 volunteer interpreters (spoken) and translators (written), chosen from more than 400 applicants from across the nation and several foreign countries.

They work at the Kentucky Horse Park each day and are available by phone around the clock to assist the athletes from 58 nations and everyone else at the Games, from grooms and veterinarians to journalists and spectators.

“We try to be available at any time and place language facilitation is needed,” said Suffoletta, who did similar work at the Olympics in Atlanta and Vancouver, as well as the equestrian World Championships that opened the Horse Park in 1978.

Language Services has volunteers fluent in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Czech, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Japanese and Hungarian. Others are available by phone should Turkish, Hindi and Hebrew skills be needed. Several volunteer applicants spoke Chinese, but there is only one athlete here from China, and she speaks fluent English.

As I spoke with Suffoletta in a trailer behind the Media Village that is the Language Services command post, we were frequently interrupted by telephone and two-way radio calls for assistance. “We hadn’t had a request for sign language until now,” Suffloletta said after taking a call about a spectator needing help. “But I do have people I can contact.”

Language Services volunteers began work before the Games at the quarantine facility at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, where many grooms, athletes and team officials entered the country with their horses.

“They come off the plane exhausted,” Suffoletta said. “To have the opportunity to be met in their own language was important. And they were very appreciative.”

Many international visitors are like Americans, who may have learned another language when they were young but don’t use it enough to be proficient, she said.

“A lot of what we do are little things, like helping them know where to get the passes they need, getting them to the right place at the right time, helping the athletes do interviews and press conferences,” Suffoletta said.

“Every volunteer has a story to tell about why they’re here, and we all love horses,” said Marcelle Rousseau, who grew up in Atlanta and now lives in France. Both she and her husband ride, so being a French interpreter at the Games seemed like a natural thing to do.

Interpreters have helped remedy misunderstandings and defuse a few tense situations, such as a few grooms who were dissatisfied with their accommodations.

“When you are upset, you don’t tend to think well in another language,” Rousseau said. The same goes for when you are tired. Interpreters were waiting at the end of the endurance course to remind the exhausted competitors to unsaddle their horses and go to the scales to be weighed.

“An important role we have is to be ambassadors,” Suffoletta said. “We want to leave people with a lasting impression of Kentucky, that they spoke my language and were able to help me.”

How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort

Equestrian Games’ opening day is a hit

September 26, 2010

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.”

Sixteen things to do during the 16 days of WEG

September 22, 2010

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games promise to be much more than the Olympics on horseback. Get ready for an international festival and non-stop party in our backyard.

So, here are 16 things you should do during the 16 days of the Games:

1. Watch the opening ceremonies

The Games officially begin Saturday evening in the main stadium with a 2 ½ -hour show that has 40 acts and a cast of 1,500 people and 200 horses. If you don’t have tickets, WLEX-TV will have live coverage at 7 p.m. Headliners include Muhammad Ali and Wynonna Judd; opera stars Denyce Graves, Cynthia Lawrence and Ronan Tynan and an ensemble from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Plus a 100-piece orchestra debuting British composer Jamie Burton’s “World Equestrian Games Fanfare.”

2. See the best of something familiar

The reliable crowd-pleasers of equestrian sports are jumping and cross-country riding, as Kentuckians who attend the annual Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event already know. Those events and the 100-mile endurance race should draw big attendance to the Games on the first two weekends.

3. Try something new

Want to see horses and humans do things they don’t even dream about at Keeneland? Buy tickets to vaulting, which is human gymnastics and dance on the back of a moving horse. Or reining, where riders in Western gear guide horses through spins, circles and sliding stops.

4. See para-dressage

This is the first time human athletes with physical disabilities have competed in a World Games. Cheer them on; you may be amazed by what they and their horses can do.

5. Learn more about horses

The Equine Village showcases the variety and complexity of American horse culture. There will be exhibits, performances and demonstrations involving every kind of horse you can imagine, and many you can’t. This is likely to be one of the Games’ most popular venues.

6. Have the Kentucky Experience

Much of the Kentucky Horse Park’s grounds has been turned into an international festival, and the Kentucky Experience pavilion gives visitors a glimpse of the state’s highlights. You can dip a Maker’s Mark bottle in red wax, sit behind the wheel of a Corvette, listen to all kinds of local music and learn things about this state you probably didn’t know.

7. Have the Alltech Experience

The Games’ title sponsor, which does nothing in a small way, has a four-acre pavilion showcasing its products and global initiatives, which include trying to solve hunger, climate change and disease. After seeing the science exhibits, enjoy Alltech’s Bourbon Barrel Ale or Dippin’ Dots ice cream. There is a special kids’ area that includes penguins and petting sharks from the Newport Aquarium.

8. Eat, but not like a horse

There will be much good eating at the Games, from gourmet dinners cooked by celebrity chefs to special concession-stand fare. The Games are being catered by Patina Restaurant Group, which operates many high-profile venues around the country. “We’ve been sampling some of the concession food and it’s off-the-charts,” Games CEO Jamie Link said this week.

9. Shop non-stop

The Games’ trade show will have more than 300 merchants, selling everything from sportswear, jewelry and art to that custom-made saddle you have always wanted.

10. See the unexpected

Many sponsors and vendors have set up cool exhibits to showcase what they do. Among them: the UK solar house, which was displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Rood & Riddle pavilion, which showcases the high-tech Lexington horse hospital and will have speakers including Hall of Fame jockeys Pat Day and Chris McCarron.

11. Enjoy the Alltech Fortnight Festival

This statewide concert series during the Games is jam-packed with talent: Loretta Lynn, Charlie Daniels, Tony Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and many more. The Chieftains will perform a benefit concert with a Haitian children’s choir.

12. Take in the Spotlight Festival

Downtown Lexington will be rocking from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day during the Games with food, arts and crafts vendors and concerts at Cheapside and Courthouse Plaza. Entertainers include bluegrass legends J.D. Crowe and Sam Bush.

13. See horse art

Horse Mania was just the beginning. Equine art of every variety is on display around town, most notably at the horse park’s International Museum of the Horse, the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum.

14. Check out alternatives

HRTV is presenting its own International Equestrian Festival, with exhibits, vendors and speakers at Lexington Center. And a few miles up I-75 from the horse park is the Georgetown Equine Expo.

15. Soak up color

Spend some time just walking around the horse park or downtown and taking in the scene. Introduce yourself to visitors and ask them what they think of Kentucky.

16. Say farewell

Singer Lyle Lovett will headline the Games’ closing ceremonies on Oct. 10. Although less elaborate than opening ceremonies, it should be another good show. By then, we’ll all be exhausted — but at least a little sorry to see the non-stop party end.

A quick introduction to Lexington for our visitors

September 19, 2010

Welcome to Lexington. We thought you would never get here.

We have been getting ready for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games for five years — and thinking about them even longer.

The Kentucky Horse Park opened in 1978 with the World Championship Three-Day Event. Each year since then, the park has played host to what is now called the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Years of improvements have made the Kentucky Horse Park perhaps the world’s finest equestrian facility. It is a big contributor to the local economy, with museums, horse shows and other events. But we have always had something bigger in mind, and that is what brought you here.

After the first World Equestrian Games were held in Sweden in 1990, we considered going after the second Games four years later. We competed for the 2006 Games but lost to Aachen, Germany. Our 2004 bid for this year’s Games was chosen over Normandy, France, which will host the 2014 Games.

Over the past few years, Lexington’s city motto may as well have been, “Clean up! Company’s coming!” We have raced to complete many long-deferred highway, street and sidewalk improvements. Be careful: some of the cement may still be wet.

As you can see, our natural landscape is gorgeous. John Filson, one of the first people to visit and write about Kentucky, described this place in 1784 as a “new Eden.” But much like Adam and Eve, we have not always appreciated it.

Lexington has tried for a half-century to control urban sprawl, with mixed success. Only recently have most people in the Bluegrass realized it is not a good idea to continue paving over the landscape that makes us unique. It gives me hope that eventually more people will realize that blowing up Kentucky’s mountains to extract coal isn’t such a good idea, either.

The Bluegrass has many beautiful, old buildings. The oldest ones date from a time two centuries ago when Lexington was the most progressive city on what was then America’s western frontier. We would have many more of those old buildings, but we spent the last half of the 20th century demolishing them, often to make way for nothing more special than a parking lot.

And how, you may wonder, did Lexington end up with a fenced pasture in the center of town? Don’t ask; it’s too embarrassing.

Central Kentucky is filled with good, friendly people who genuinely want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. There are many fine restaurants, museums, galleries and other attractions, although they are not always easy to find. Ask one of us for recommendations.

Kentuckians are proud of their home, but we have a bit of an inferiority complex. That’s partly because many of us are afraid of change, suspicious of new ideas and wary of taking risks. We have always been too quick to settle for second-best.

But that’s not just a Kentucky trait; transplants often have a clearer view than natives do of a place’s worth and potential. A good example is Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who came to Kentucky three decades ago and started Alltech. His energy and money are a driving force behind the Games you are about to see.

Kentuckians are working hard to show you a good time, but glitches are inevitable. Be patient. And if you get anxious, try a bottle of Alltech’s Kentucky Ale or a few sips of Kentucky wine or bourbon. (By the way: 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey is made within a two-hour drive of Lexington. Most distilleries offer free tours. Some even give samples.)

So, welcome to Lexington. You love horses. We love horses. This should be fun.

A brief Bluegrass history lesson as the Games begin

September 12, 2010

How did Central Kentucky become the Horse Capital of the World? A clever combination of good geology, good marketing and good luck.

When the first white settlers arrived in the 1770s, they discovered that horses grew strong and fast from drinking the limestone water and munching bluegrass grown in the mineral-rich soil. Race horses became a big business until the Civil War made a mess of things.

By the late 1800s, Northeast industrialists discovered the “sport of kings” and began breeding and racing operations in New York and New Jersey. But savvy Kentuckians lured them here with a clever marketing campaign built around an Old South myth of the mint julep-sipping Kentucky colonel. That story is told in the soon-to-be-published book, How Kentucky Became Southern, by retired Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

This is a big year for horses because of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept. 25 to Oct. 10. The Games will be at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a great place to learn about our equine heritage.The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has information about horse farm tours. And every April and October, you can see “racing as it was meant to be” at Keeneland Race Course.

But horses are just one part of Central Kentucky’s rich and colorful history waiting to be explored. This has been a popular tourist destination since Native Americans began wandering through about 13,000 years ago. When white surveyors first came here in 1750, Kentucky was a hunting ground for the Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee and other tribes.

By the 1770s, Britain’s colonies along the East Coast were getting crowded, and real estate speculators began eyeing land beyond the mountains. Richard Henderson bought much of Kentucky from the Cherokee in one of history’s biggest private land deals. Henderson tried to form his own colony, Transylvania, and hired a frontiersman named Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap.

Boone also built Fort Boonesborough along the Kentucky River, not far from James Harrod’s fort at Harrodsburg, the first permanent settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Harrod’s fort has been reconstructed at Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg, and a reconstruction of Boone’s fort can be seen at Fort Boonesborough State Park (for information on both, go here).

Authorities were not amused by Henderson’s land grab, and they voided his claim. Kentucky became a Virginia county and then, in 1792, the 15th state.

Land-hungry settlers rushed to Kentucky, in part because of author John Filson, whose 1784 best-seller, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, described this region as a “new Eden.” One place still recognizable from Filson’s descriptions is the Kentucky River Palisades, or steep limestone cliffs. You can see them on the one-hour Dixie Belle River Cruise from Shaker Landing.

The Shakers, a religious sect, sought their own Kentucky Eden, founding a utopian community in Mercer County in the early 1800s. The Shakers made elegantly simple furniture, architecture, crafts and music. But they didn’t believe in sex, which is why there are no more Shakers. The restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg is a great place to visit, stay overnight, eat and shop.

People found that Central Kentucky’s limestone water made good whiskey as well as strong horses. More than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon is still made here, and several distilleries welcome visitors.Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has tours but isn’t part of the official Bourbon Trail.

Agriculture and trade made Lexington the most prosperous and cultured town in western America in the early 1800s. Young men came from all over to study at Transylvania University, and Lexingtonians proudly called their town the “Athens of the West.”

Loyalties were divided during the Civil War. Lexington was a big slave-owning town, but it also had been home to Henry Clay, who for decades fought harder than anyone else in Congress to preserve the union. Mary Todd, a Lexington girl, might have been married to Abraham Lincoln, but that didn’t stop many of her relatives from fighting for the Confederacy.

Lexington has several historic home museums that offer a glimpse into aristocratic 19th-century life, including Waveland State Historic Site (; the Mary Todd Lincoln House; Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate; and the Hunt-Morgan House.

Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are filled with history. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation has mapped a Bicycle Tour of Historic Lexington (drive if you must), and Doris Wilkinson, a University of Kentucky sociology professor, developed an African-American Heritage Trail.

For an overview of local history, visit the Lexington History Museum downtown. A good place to explore Kentucky history is the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

This column is from the LexGo Guide to Central Kentucky. To read other articles from the Guide, click here.

Headley-Whitney shows equine art’s variety

August 29, 2010

As I drove away from the Headley-Whitney Museum on Old Frankfort Pike last week, I had to swerve around a minivan with Michigan plates stopped in the road. Its occupants apparently were fascinated by the young horses and their mothers standing along the fence.

Lexington residents see horses all the time, but they are a novelty for most Americans. A century ago, horses and their images were everywhere.

That’s one idea behind the Headley-Whitney’s new exhibit, The Horse in Decorative and Fine Art, which opened earlier this month and continues until December.

While planning for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall, museum executives decided they wanted to show visitors the diversity of equine art, especially pieces held in Kentucky collections.

The result is an eclectic exhibit of works that show the special relationship between man and horse. The exhibit ranges from modern paintings, sculpture and fine jewelry to a horse carved in stone more than 5,000 years ago.

Pieces were borrowed from 16 Kentucky museums and collections, 27 private collectors and seven out-of-state institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of American History, The Jockey Club in New York, and the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, N.Y.

“There’s something here for almost everyone, from the serious collector of equine art to people who are just interested in horses and horse culture,” said Sarah Henrich, the museum’s executive director.

The exhibit’s most notable element is the largest group of paintings ever assembled by 19th-century artist Thomas J. Scott. Many were painted in Kentucky, and they show several prominent racehorses of that age. The best example is Scott’s 1857 portrait of the great sire Lexington. The portrait is on loan from the Smithsonian.

The itinerant Scott was a well-known and prolific equine artist and journalist in his day, but he was almost forgotten after his death in 1888. His legacy is being rediscovered thanks to two Kentuckians, Gordon Burnette of Lexington and Genevieve Baird Lacer of Shelbyville.

Burnette began researching Scott several years ago after finding one of his paintings on the curb in a recently deceased neighbor’s trash. He teamed up with Lacer, the biographer of Scott’s well-known teacher, Edward Troye, to find out more about Scott and track down his surviving work. They recently published a catalog of Scott’s known work. The catalog is for sale at the museum and some local bookstores.

Burnette recently found the only known photograph of Scott.

“I know there are hundreds of his paintings out there that we don’t know about, and a lot of them are probably still around Lexington,” Burnette said. “I hope this exhibit raises awareness of Scott and more come forward.”

What makes this Headley-Whitney exhibit fascinating is the range and variety of the pieces. Arranged among paintings, sculpture, jewelry and elegant silver racing trophies are a lot of surprises.

There is a horse-themed quilt made in Warren County in 1882 that is in pristine condition, and a child’s homemade hobby horse from Maysville “that was obviously well loved,” curator Amy Gundrum Greene said.

There is a Currier and Ives lithograph of a horse scene, its original pencil-sketch study, and a quiz that visitors can take to find 10 differences between the first draft and the finished work. Other printed images of horses range from a 1505 engraving by the famous German artist Albrecht Dürer to a John Wayne movie poster from the 1950s.

One display case contains carefully colored drawings of Western Indian horses by 19th-century Native American children who were taken from their families to be “civilized” in a Pennsylvania boarding school. “It was their way of working out what was going on in their lives,” Greene said.

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Hats Off Day highlights Kentucky horse industry

July 27, 2010

Drive past the suburbs and you quickly see that horses are a big industry in Central Kentucky. But a lot goes on beyond the plank fences that you might not realize.

In addition to farms, there are feed companies, tack and equipment suppliers, van fleets, sales and insurance agencies, fence-builders, farriers and some of the world’s most advanced animal research labs and clinics.

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t come to Lexington from all over the world for some kind of horse event. This week, for example, the Kentucky Horse Park is playing host to North American Young Riders, as well as large reining and hunter jumper competitions. And the International Symposium on Equine Reproduction, held every four years, is meeting in Lexington for the first time.

Dr. Tom Riddle, co-founder of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital on Georgetown Road, was thinking several years ago about the equine industry’s size, diversity and challenges, and he decided an annual event was needed to raise public awareness.

“When people think about Kentucky, they think about horses,” Riddle said. “But they don’t know just how much it involves.”

Riddle’s idea evolved into Hats Off Day. The sixth such annual day will be Aug. 7 at the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition to Rood & Riddle, the main sponsors are Alltech and Hallway Feeds.

This is the only time each year when the public gets all-day free admission to the Kentucky Horse Park, which can save a big family big bucks. Last year, more than 12,000 people attended Hats Off Day.

This year’s event could be especially popular, because in two months, the park will host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. In addition to seeing new and improved facilities, people will get free admission to the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum and A Gift from the Desert, a special exhibit of 350 artifacts and paintings about horses in Arab history and culture.

Hats Off Day festivities begin at 4 p.m., when horse farms and other equine businesses give away logo hats while supplies last. (Last year, about 1,500 hats were given away.) There also will be exhibits, a silent auction and free pony rides for kids, plus a chance to ride an Equicizer — the mechanical horse simulators that Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron uses at his jockey-training school.

The highlight of the evening will be the Rood & Riddle Kentucky Grand Prix, a $50,000 international show-jumping competition. Since 2003, the event has raised more than $275,000 for charity. This year, proceeds will benefit the Kentucky Equine Humane Center and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation.

Kentucky’s equine industry claims to provide more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs and an annual economic impact of $4 billion, plus a good share of the state’s $8.8 billion tourism industry. But the industry’s fortunes have suffered with a decline in thoroughbred racing’s popularity and efforts by other states to attract breeding stock.

The horse industry’s health is obviously vital to Riddle’s business and many others, but he and partner William Rood usually deal with equine health on a more micro level. Rood & Riddle employs more than 220 people, including 57 veterinarians, who care for horses at a 24-acre complex with high-tech equipment that would rival that of most human hospitals. Rood & Riddle treats more than 10,000 horses a year from all over the world.

Riddle said Kentucky’s horse industry needs more public support.

“The average person in Kentucky thinks of the average horse farm owner as an extremely wealthy person who may or may not live here and does this as a hobby,” he said. “That’s just not the case. By far, the majority of farms are business operations with mortgage payments, and they must work seven days a week to keep their business going.

“The majority of the people in this industry are hard-working folks just trying to earn a living,” Riddle said. “I hope people will come out, have a good time and leave the horse park knowing a little more about our industry, and how it’s good for the entire state.”

If you go

Hats Off Day
Where: Kentucky Horse Park
When: Aug. 7. Gates open 9 a.m. Events begin at 4 p.m. in the indoor arena
More info:

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Kentucky Horse Park seen as great place for WEG

April 25, 2010

Perhaps more than at previous Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Events, the Kentucky Horse Park itself was one of the stars of the show.

Many of the equine journalists and spectators who came this year were assessing the park with an eye toward the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which will begin in 152 days.

Most liked what they saw. A lot.

“The facilities were fabulous to begin with, but they’ve made many improvements,” said Diana De Rosa, a New York equine photo journalist. De Rosa said she has attended every previous World Equestrian Games and none had facilities as good as Kentucky’s.

“The beauty of the Kentucky Horse Park is that it is self-contained,” she said, noting that events at previous Games were sometimes scattered over great distances. “Even the British who were talking about the Kentucky Horse Park said ‘This is the place!’ ”

The new indoor arena for vaulting and reining is “truly amazing,” De Rosa said. “It’s so much better than what the other countries have had. It should attract a lot of international events to Lexington in the future.”

Coby Bolger, an American-born journalist based in Madrid, agreed. “Kentucky is showing us all how to do a World Games,” she said, both in terms of the facilities and the major commitment of the lead sponsor, Lexington-based Alltech.

Bolger, a former competitor, said another big advantage to the horse park is that eventing venues are permanent and well-tested, rather than temporary and new.

“This already was a four-star site,” she said. “There is no other concern for the riders than riding.”

Spectators at Saturday’s Cross Country competition were mostly enthusiastic about the park, both those there for the first time and those who have been coming for years.

“It’s fantastic,” Greg Ziegler said of the park as he waited at the Head of the Lake jumps with his sleeping six-month-old daughter, Lucia. “Seeing all of the changes at the Kentucky Horse Park over the past four years is really impressive.”

The Zieglers were there waiting for the next rider: wife and mother Tara Ziegler, who was competing in her fourth Rolex (and who, a few minutes later, would become one of three riders to fall at The Hollow jump.)

No official crowd count was available Saturday because of a glitch in the system controlling handheld ticket scanners, but the crowd seemed smaller than in some previous years. The Cross Country event always brings out a lot of casual spectators from Lexington, who might have been scared away by the threat of rain.

As it turned out, it was a perfect spring day during the competition. Rolex organizers canceled the lunch break and sped up the event, managing to get the competition finished before storms rolled in. It was a smart move.

Jesse Zehr and his family were making their first trip to the horse park with a group of 30 Amish who came down on a bus from Grabill, Ind. Many of them raise Dutch harness horses, and they found the equestrian sports interesting and the horse park “awesome,” Zehr said.

But Robert and Marsh Davis of Goochland, Va., hunt riders who have attended every Rolex since 1993, were disappointed by what they considered the horse park’s money-driven focus on the fall Games.

“You pay more each year and get less, but I guess they have to pay for the World Games,” she said. “It’s disappointing.”

Robert Davis doesn’t plan to attend the Games. His wife will, but only because she can avoid high hotel prices by staying with a niece who attends the University of Kentucky.

Tim Hoon, a Louisville native who now lives in Atlanta, plans to be back in the fall to volunteer at the Games. A Western cross country rider for 26 years, he plans to retire in Lexington in a few years “and volunteer at the horse park and Keeneland.”

“There is no other place like this on the globe,” Hoon said. “It’s a world-class facility, and what I like about it is that it celebrates the horse in all forms.”

Hoon is looking forward to the Games, although he has no idea what his volunteer duties will entail. “I may be giving directions to port-a-potties,” he said with a laugh. “But a little bourbon at night and I’ll be fine with whatever.”

Diverting money from PDR would be a mistake

February 28, 2010

When I moved back to Lexington in 1998, I realized just how much my hometown had sprawled in the 22 years I was away.

It wasn’t a complete surprise, of course. I had visited Lexington several times each year and watched things change around my parents’ home in a once-rural part of southern Fayette County. Farm after farm was carved up into subdivisions, shopping centers and estate lots.

Any healthy city needs to grow, and Lexington has managed growth better than most. Sprawl was limited by the Urban Services Boundary, created in 1958 and expanded a few times since then, as well as by minimum lot sizes for rural homes — 10 acres from 1964 to 1999, when they were increased to 40 acres.

Still, it was clear more than a decade ago that unless more was done, Lexington could eventually lose the rural landscape and unique agricultural soils that made it famous as the Horse Capital of the World. The World Monuments Fund has declared the Inner Bluegrass Region one of the planet’s 100 most endangered environments.

So, in 2000, the Urban County Council created the Purchase of Development Rights program. The goal was to permanently protect 50,000 acres of Fayette County’s most sensitive rural land — 27 percent of the county’s total land — with voluntary conservation easements by 2020.

So far, 24,126 acres have been protected, and program manager Billy Van Pelt expects to reach the halfway goal of 25,000 acres later this year. Landowners have either donated easements or sold them for an average of $2,500 per acre.

Conservation easements lower property taxes for landowners, because the cash value of their land is much less if it can’t be developed. “But nobody is getting rich off this,” Van Pelt said. If anything, it costs landowners in long-term economic benefit.

So far, the PDR program has cost $57.6 million — $31.5 million of which has come from state and federal grants. Van Pelt said the PDR program currently has applications from landowners wishing to sell about $8 million worth of conservation easements.

“The sooner we get to our goal, the sooner we’ll know when, how and where we’ll grow,” he said. “We need to preserve our farmland and plan for growth in the future.”

This year’s PDR program budget is $1.1 million, or about $4 for each Fayette County resident. That’s a pretty small amount in the grand scheme of things. But I’ve seen a few letters to the editor recently questioning the program’s value. And a couple of council members have made offhand suggestions that maybe PDR money should be diverted to other needs.

That would be a big mistake. While balancing the city budget won’t be easy this year — and perhaps for several years to come — Lexington must guard against the temptation to shortchange investments in long-term prosperity. Few of those investments are more important than protecting Fayette County’s unique landscape and environment.

Everyone knows Fayette County contains Kentucky’s second-biggest city, but many people don’t realize that it also has the state’s second-most valuable agricultural economy. Much of that comes from horse breeding, which provides 6,300 jobs. The horse industry also gives Lexington its global brand and is the anchor of its tourism industry.

Protecting Fayette County’s farmland is a good short-term deal for taxpayers. That’s because, unlike homeowners, the owners of farms and open land pay more in taxes than they use in taxpayer-funded city services.

But preserving farmland and open space is also an important long-term investment. In addition to preserving a large agricultural economy, it protects the environment from pollution. And it provides the open space and scenic beauty that are important factors in the hard-to-quantify “quality of life” attribute that makes people want to live in and around Lexington.

It also hedges Lexington’s bets for the future. For example, locally grown food could become increasingly important as rising oil prices make long-distance transportation of food more expensive.

“In our minds, PDR plays a critical role in Lexington’s economic future,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of The Fayette Alliance, a non-profit organization that focuses on land-use issues and sustainable development policy.

“If we’re going to preserve this rural land, we can’t leave it up to chance and politics,” said van Nagell, whose own family has donated conservation easements for the Fayette County land where they have raised cattle and row crops for 200 years. “We need to preserve this land in perpetuity.”

For more information

To learn more about Lexington’s Purchase of Development Rights program, visit the city’s Web site by clicking here.

To see PDR easements donated and granted as of September 2009, click here to see a searchable database.

Internet radio show covers 2010 Equestrian Games

September 7, 2009

I was interviewed last week by Horse Radio Network, an Internet radio venture that is covering the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and other horse sports for an international online audience.

Hosts Samantha Clark and Glenn “the Geek” Hebert talked with me and Niki Heichelbech of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau about Central Kentucky and what there will be for Games visitors to see and do while they’re here.

You can listen to the show by clicking here.

If horses go, the Bluegrass landscape will follow

June 14, 2009

Marlendale Farm has been in Ellen Clark Marshall’s family for six generations.

What the General Assembly does in the next week or two, she thinks, could determine whether it stays in the family much longer.

Marshall’s parents stopped breeding Thoroughbreds on the 200-acre farm on Newtown Pike nearly 40 years ago. Since then, the insurance agent and her two sisters have leased most of the land to other horse breeders.

But the standardbred breeder who has rented 130 acres for six years isn’t renewing his lease in December. He’s moving his horses to Pennsylvania to take advantage of lucrative incentives funded by slot machines at the state’s racetracks.

As we sat on her patio looking out over lush green pastures, Marshall showed me a long list of other horsemen she said she has approached, without success, about leasing her farm. Many of them also are shipping horses to Pennsylvania and other states with slots-enhanced race purses and breeder incentives.

“I’m frantic trying to find someone to lease this farm,” she said. “How am I going to pay my taxes, my insurance and maintenance? The farm pays for the farm.”

Unless the General Assembly approves legislation backed by Gov. Steve Beshear to allow slot machines at Kentucky race tracks, Marshall fears she will have to sell her land.

That could include the home where Marshall has lived for most of her life. The oldest part of the home is an enclosed log cabin built decades before her ancestor Caleb Tarleton acquired the property in 1826 from John Bradford, publisher of Kentucky’s first newspaper.

As small horse operations leave for other states, Kentucky risks losing its signature industry, Marshall said.

“People are going to go where the money is to sustain their operations,” she said. “Where does that leave me? Where does that leave my 200 acres?”

More than who owns the land, Marshall worries about the land itself. Central Kentucky’s unique landscape is disappearing at such a pace that the World Monuments Fund has identified it as one of the 100 most endangered places on earth.

If horses follow tobacco as a declining industry in Central Kentucky, landowners who aren’t independently wealthy will have little choice but to sell their property for development. As suburbia sprawls, the lush green pastures will disappear.

Some opponents of slots at tracks are skeptical of giving the horse industry a monopoly on expanded gambling. Others worry about gambling’s social costs. Still others fear that expanded gambling will prop up the horse industry in the short run, only to kill it in the long run.

State Sen. President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said he recognizes the horse industry’s competitive disadvantage but opposes expanded gambling. He recently proposed raising $83 million a year for race purses and breeder incentives through a lottery ticket surcharge and other taxes and fees.

But Beshear would not add Williams’ plan to the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Monday. The governor wants lawmakers to vote on his slots proposal.

Solutions to the horse industry’s economic problems may be debatable. But Carter Duer, the breeder who is ending his lease on Marshall’s farm, said the problem is real.

Most people in the Kentucky horse industry aren’t billionaires who breed and race as a hobby. “It’s the way we make our living,” Duer said.

Duer said he stopped leasing a second Lexington farm two years ago and shipped those horses to Pennsylvania. His last remaining local operation will be the 360-acre Peninsula Farm on Ironworks Pike, which he owns.

“I’d move them all up (to Pennsylvania) if I could, but I have too much invested here,” he said. “There’s no advantage in Kentucky, except Kentucky itself.”

As Marshall and I talked on her patio, Wayne Ball, who does maintenance on her farm, joined us. He ticked off a list of people shipping horses out of state and farms up for sale. “We’re losing our grip on the horse industry,” he said.

“No,” Marshall replied. “We’re throwing it away.”

From trash to treasure, an equine art mystery

May 10, 2009

After one of his Courtney Avenue neighbors died and her house was sold, Gordon Burnette noticed several old paintings left by the curb with some other junk.

One in particular caught his eye: a picture of a mare and foal. Written on the back was the mare’s name, the artist’s name and June 1882.

The painting was in bad shape, though, so Burnette left it on the curb.

Later, his son saw the paintings and brought them home. “He said, ‘You like horses. You can have this one,'” Burnette recalled.

A little Internet research told Burnette that the mare, Miss Russell, was a great trotting broodmare whose 1898 death was reported in The New York Times.

The artist, too, was special. Thomas J. Scott was one of the most prolific equine portrait artists of the late 19th century. Beyond that, though, little is known about him. And aside from a few prized paintings, the fate of most of his work is a mystery.

Scott and his paintings have become an obsession for Burnette, a tool-and-die maker who over the past six years has become an amateur equine art sleuth.

Since January, he has been working with author Genevieve Baird Lacer to research Scott and track down his largely forgotten work.

While Scott painted more than 150 horse portraits, Burnette has been able to find only about 30 of them. Perhaps the most important one is a large portrait of the great Thoroughbred stud Lexington, which hangs in the clubhouse at Keeneland.

Another, of Lexington’s dam, Alice Carneal, is in the Georgetown and Scott County Museum. Others hang locally at Waveland Museum and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. And there are some in the Jockey Club of New York and the National Museum of Racing at Saratoga, N.Y.

Most of Scott’s other known paintings are privately owned. Burnette and Lacer suspect there are dozens more out there — many of them in Central Kentucky — decorating the walls of families who have no idea what they have.

Burnette has had his painting of Miss Russell professionally restored, and he recently bought another Scott on eBay — an 1874 portrait of the stallion Acrobat. Burnette isn’t so much interested in collecting as in documenting Scott and his work — and in bringing Scott the fame he thinks he deserves.

Eventually, Lacer and Burnette hope to gather enough information and images to publish a book about Scott. They also dream of putting together an exhibit of his work during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Lacer became interested in Scott because he was one of only two known students of the great equine portrait artist Edward Troye, whom she profiled in a 2006 book.

“Engravings of Scott’s paintings appeared in all of the leading horse publications,” Lacer said. “That’s how we know he was so important at the time. But later, he was forgotten. We don’t know why.”

Scott was born in Pennsylvania in 1830 and graduated from the Philadelphia School of Pharmacy in 1846. Apparently, his artistic talent and passion for horses led him to Lexington in the 1850s, where he studied with Troye and painted some of the greatest Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds of the age.

Because photography was then in its infancy, Lacer said, “We wouldn’t know what these great foundation horses looked like if these men hadn’t painted them.”

When the Civil War began, Scott joined the 21st Regiment Kentucky Volunteers (Union) and served under the artist Samuel W. Price as the unit’s hospital steward. After the war, Scott lived and painted in the Northeast for several years before returning to Kentucky.

Newspapers and horse publications of the day have frequent mentions of Scott and what he was painting at the time, but little other information about him.

Scott probably didn’t earn much as a painter, so he might also have worked as a pharmacist. He was a journalist for one of the leading horse publications, Turf, Field and Farm. He wrote under the pseudonym “Prog,” which means to wander and beg for food. He died in 1888 at St. Joseph Hospital and is buried in Lexington Cemetery.

If you think you might have a painting by Thomas J. Scott, you can contact Burnette and Lacer at They have created a Web site,

“These paintings have been revered by families so much that many of them remain in private collections to this day,” Lacer said. “If you have a horse portrait that looks old and you don’t know the origin of it, we might be able to help you identify it.”

Click on each image to enlarge it.

Consider Rolex a bonus for living in Lexington

April 25, 2009

Who comes out for cross-country day at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event?

Mostly horse people — thousands and thousands of horse people, from across the country and around the world. Many of them are serious horse people.

You can tell the serious international horse people because they converse in French or German, or have accents as British as the Rolex’s play-by-play announcer. Some are impressively overdressed, but they seem not to mind as temperatures on a sun-splashed Saturday rise well into the 80s.

You can tell other serious horse people because their less-impressive clothing contains the logos of Rolexes past, other major horse events or their local riding club. They carefully mark notes in the program and comment to one another about each rider’s performance and technique.

Others may be dressed normally, except for a telling accessory. Take, for example, the woman in the white sun dress, straw hat and knee-high Gore-Tex and leather riding boots. This was not a day for waterproof boots. My guess is that she bought them from the Irish vendor and thought they were easier to wear than carry.

The Rolex trade fair in one corner of the Kentucky Horse Park is its own little world of temptation for serious horse people. In addition to waterproof boots from Ireland, there is everything from made-to-measure saddles and English riding apparel to handy gadgets like the Jiffy Steamer hay storage device.

A growing number of horse people come armed with expensive cameras and long, heavy lenses. Others seem just as happy with the results from their little point-and-shoots. The wonders of digital photography and auto focus have made it easy to capture the magic of a beautiful animal and a skilled rider as they thunder down the course and glide over a jump.

A major Rolex demographic is little girls who love horses and older girls who are getting good at riding them. They are accompanied by camera-toting fathers, and mothers, many of whom used to be those little girls.

Johnny Smith was there with his daughter Jordan, 19, who has been riding since she was 8 and has always wanted to come to Rolex. They decided just last Wednesday to make the trip up from Dallas, Texas. They drove all day Friday and were having a great time.

“I hope to do eventing someday,” Jordan Smith said. “I want to be here someday.” Her father talked about how many camera memory cards he had filled up.

Between the competitors’ rides, the little girls give constant loving to the outriders’ horses. Some are veterans, such as Safari, a 14-year-old draft cross who was working his ninth Rolex with owner Maureen O’Daniel of Lexington in the saddle in formal (and hot) riding attire. Others are new, such as Lil’ Mo, a 5-year-old retired thoroughbred racehorse who has found a new career as a hunter-jumper for Lei Ruckle of St. Louis.

The little girls’ younger brothers seem more interested in the funnel cakes in the food area, not to mention the Kettle Korn and deep-fried Oreos. The littlest siblings just want to play in the muddy creek that runs through the course.

There are many people here who would like to be horse people, if only they had more money or time or land.

Karen and Paul Lehman, who moved to Scott County from Florida last year, hope to have horses someday. At the moment, they’re busy with 7-month-old Brandon and another baby on the way. “We’re just getting into the whole horse thing,” she said.

I also suspect many of the 40,600 people who came out Saturday are like me — they don’t own horses or ride horses or even really know much about them. Rolex, like Keeneland, is one of those bonuses you get for living here. It’s a good excuse to get out and walk around on a beautiful day in a beautiful place and see some of the world’s best horses and riders do amazing things.

In 516 days, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will begin its 16-day run at the Kentucky Horse Park, bringing together the world’s best athletes in eight equine disciplines. Hundreds of thousands of horse people will be here, including many of the world’s most serious horse people. Tickets go on sale Sept. 25.

But Games organizers also want to make sure they leave room for average, local people who just want to come out to see some horses and riders do amazing things. That’s why some general admission tickets will be available. (Prices will be announced late this summer.)

“Our event will be as much for the Lexington resident as for the international horse person,” Games spokeswoman Amy Walker said. “We want people to come out and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Think of it as one of the bonuses of living here.

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Spring comes to Keeneland early in the morning

April 3, 2009

Before the sun is up, horses are on the track.

Riders in thick jackets and leather chaps ease them up the stretch and gallop them back down, around the turn.

Hooves pound. Steam puffs from big nostrils. The grandstand casts a giant shadow holding winter’s last chill.

Behind the rail, rows of green benches wait to be straightened. Their only occupants are the last fat drops of an overnight rain.

Men and women with rags carefully wipe each grandstand seat. Mop the floor. Hang the bunting. Above them, birds dart in and out, looking for a perch.

Down by the racing office, people stand with steaming cups of coffee. Many wear caps embroidered with the names of famous farms and recent champions. Three Chimneys. Big Brown.

Conversations are spiced with accents from down the road — and New York, and Ireland. Warming up yet, John? How have you been? Two exercise riders chat in French. Hot walkers speak Spanish. Between two owners, whispers in Japanese.

Some stare off into the distance, closely watching one of a dozen horses breezing by. Others pace with cell phones, telling someone far off that their horse looks good, is exercising well, will be ready to race. You should be here. Man, it is so pretty!

The rising sun casts a soft glow on flowering white trees and limestone walls. Freshly mown grass rolls out like an emerald carpet, rippled with the shadows of fences and trees. The track’s edge is a patchwork of budding green, flowering pink, forsythia yellow.

The stone-framed tote board and video screen forms a dark wall in the infield, waiting for a big jolt of electricity to bring it to life. Soon, it will chronicle the rise and fall of afternoon fortunes.

Out back, crunchy fine gravel leads to white block stables beneath severely trimmed trees. The remaining limbs reach skyward like arthritic fingers, waiting for leaves to hide their ice-inflicted wounds.

Outside the stables, grooms with white buckets of warm water carefully wash each tired horse. Steam rises from silky coats of chestnut brown and dappled gray. Ankles are carefully felt.

Many cars and pickup trucks are parked outside the stables, New York and Florida plates scattered among the Kentuckys. Old bicycles that were pedaled out Versailles Road in the dark stand propped against trees.

The track kitchen is alive with clattering plates and conversation. I’ll take the special. Sausage or bacon? Apples or grits? Coffee in a thick stone mug. That’ll be $5.26. Customers gaze at framed photographs of champions on the walls — and dream.

By mid-morning, sunshine reaches into the paddock and touches the big, white sycamore tree. Raindrops begin to dry off neatly trimmed boxwoods along the rail. A man with a leaf blower sweeps grass clippings from soft pavers.

A beer truck and an ice truck release their cargo. Kegs are stacked by concession stands and boxes beside rows of betting windows in the dim underneath of General Admission. Men with yellow ladders move from one rafter-mounted TV screen to another, pulling off fabric covers.

White metal tables, each with five chairs, stand beside pansies freshly planted in green washtubs. The sound of a sweeping broom echoes from a stone corridor that leads to the clubhouse. In a gift shop window, colorful Derby hats wait for just the right pretty head.

Soon there will be people; lots of people. Colorful dresses, navy blazers, khakis and bright ties. White parasols along the grandstand balcony. A sea of sunglasses and sunburns below.

Burgoo and beer. Crab cakes, fried green tomatoes and bread pudding bathed in sweet bourbon sauce.

It must be spring. It must be Keeneland.

Click here to watch a video of the sights and sounds of Keeneland by Herald-Leader photojournalist David Stephenson

Click on photos below to enlarge.