By Barbara & Bill Schaffer
Lexington, KY — When Land Rover invited us to join them at the annual Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event in Lexington we weren’t sure what to expect. We knew Land Rover was the official vehicle, the presenting sponsor and that it was it was a competitive horse event, but little else. We had watched some of the competition on television occasionally and during the Olympic coverage, but didn’t understand the technicalities.
Our big draw is that Barbara is crazy about horses. (About 20 years ago she owned a beautiful Arabian horse when we lived in Central Oregon but he unexpectedly died of brain aneurism. Her horse, “Our Good Flag” or Flaggie, as we called him, was trained for dressage and endurance events – Barbara was not – but that’s another story.)
This trip was especially well-timed because we had planned a similar trip to Lexington and Louisville ourselves a few weeks earlier to visit horse farms and bourbon distilleries, but had to abort at the last minute due to major snow storms in the area.
So with great interest, and little knowledge, we headed for Lexington, the Horse Capital of the World, for the late April event. The entire “three-day” competition actually takes four days, because it takes two days to put 80 horses through the “dressage test” which is held in the Rolex Arena of The Kentucky Horse Park.
The Kentucky Horse Park property has a long history that dates back to 1777. In 1972 the Commonwealth of Kentucky acquired the 1,032 acre property for $2.7 million and began the transformation from working farm to Equine Theme Park. The Kentucky Horse Park opened in 1978 as the world’s only park dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse. The park is now home to more than 30 equestrian-oriented associations, four museums and some of the best equine competition facilities in the world. To learn more about the Kentucky Horse Park go to http://kyhorsepark.com/ .
The 38th Annual Rolex Kentucky 3-Day event is the third leg of the exclusive FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) Classics™ series which brings some of the world’s best riders and horses together in what is called “equestrian eventing.” This is the same type of competition we see in the Olympics, and this event is also the only four-star (the most advanced) equestrian event held in the United States.
This event could be considered the World Series or Super Bowl of equestrian events. Both the horses and riders are the very best athletes in the world. Although we did not get to be around the horses, much to Barbara’s dismay, we met several of the riders.
The Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event
The Rolex 3-Day Event is a triathlon of equestrian events which test the horse’s and rider’s skills and endurance. Contestants must complete each test in an allotted time while minimizing penalty points which judges assigned when an error is made. The event is scored entirely on a penalty basis. During the event the horses have to go through a series of physical examinations and inspections to ensure each is in the necessary condition to handle the rigorous competition. Here’s how it works:
The Dressage Test
We arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park on a sunny Thursday morning for the first day of the Dressage Test which is held in the Rolex arena. The “Test” takes place when the horses are said to be “on the muscle” or at their peak physical level in preparation for the Saturday Cross Country Test. Dressage is a assessment of horsemanship where the horse and rider perform a set pattern of movements to demonstrate their basic skills much like competitive ice skaters perform in the compulsory figures short program.
“This is Land Rover North America’s sixth year supporting this event and continues our long established relationship with the equestrian community,” said Kim McCullough, Vice President of Marketing, Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC. “Land Rover activities such as the off-road course and tailgate challenge enhance the overall experience for guests. This year we are adding a new driving course designed for children that will feature smaller scale Land Rover vehicles.”
During a break in the competition, we took time out to test the Land Rover Off-Road Course at the Park. We both drove on the specially designed demonstration course with one of the Land Rover driving instructors, negotiating a log bridge, fording through water and experiencing many of the fantastic off-road capabilities of the Land Rover Discover Sport and also the Range Rover Sport. The course is provided for anyone attending the Rolex 3-Day Event to get some seat of the pants time in a Land Rover.
This year, even children had a chance to participate. Children 4 to 8 years old had their own off-road adventure in an electric-powered mini Land Rover on a more gentle course of natural obstacles.
Of course, parties and receptions are an important part of a big event like this. The first night we were privileged to attend a reception at the Kentucky Governor’s mansion where we met and had time to chat with Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear and the First Lady Jane Beshear. Mrs. Beshear is the founder of the official charity of the 2015 Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event, Horses and Hope™. It raises money to provide breast cancer awareness, education, screenings and treatment referrals. It was at this reception that bourbon maker, Maker’s Mark unveiled their limited edition Commemorative Bottle and it was a perfect place for Bill to sample the new Maker’s Mark 46 bourbon.
The horses are not allowed to practice on the course, or even see the course in advance of the ride. The riders, however, walk the 3.98 mile course developing a strategy, counting strides and memorizing the course. Flags and markers show the route, but each rider tries to memorize it all.
After the second day of dressage, we attended a media reception at the Rolex suite at the arena and had a chance to talk with Zara Phillips, a competitor from Great Britain and granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II. She is delightful to talk to and very grounded.
The Cross-Country Test
It was raining and thunderstorms and possible tornadoes were predicted when we arrived Saturday in our Land Rover Discover Sport at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Cross Country Test. To try to avoid the bad weather the schedule was changed, by starting the competition 15 minutes earlier and shortening the interval between horses from 5 to 3 minutes. This reduced the competition time by two hours in hopes of finishing before the storms struck. The rain not only makes it difficult for the riders to see, it is slippery footing for the horses. It also makes it terribly uncomfortable for the thousands of spectators who walk the course and stand watching the riders. We were told the event normally attracts more than 100,000 spectators, but that number was down considerably due to the torrential rain.
From our vantage point in the Land Rover pavilion we were able to watch the riders negotiate several of the obstacles including the Mounds, which during one section requires the horse and rider to jump through an impossible looking circular obstacle surrounded by brush – it was kind of like threading a needle while riding a horse.
The nearly four-mile cross country course has 46 jumps at 29 obstacles. The course designer, Derek di Grazia set the average speed for the course at about 21 mph, with an optimum time of 11:14 and a maximum time limit of 22:28. Because the scoring is based on penalties, rider’s deviating from the optimum time are penalized 0.4 points per second. When the horse refuses an obstacle or activates one of the “frangible” devices (a log or bar designed drop when hit hard — to protect the horses) or rides “dangerously” more penalties are assessed. If the horse or rider falls, they are eliminated for the test.
The Cross Country Test is the most exciting of the three events and it demands the most of the horse and rider. Although we weren’t able to see it, a rider we became friends with, explained how the horses are pampered after a ride with baths, massages and other special treatments.
That evening was the Rolex Reception and dinner at the Keene Place at Keeneland. Keeneland is the Lexington racetrack and home of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup in October. While dining in a large tent attached to the historic home we did get an exciting thunder and lightning display along with heavy rain.
Continued with Part 2