Horse fans from around the globe will be heading to Lexingtons Kentucky Horse Park this fall for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The international competition, held every four years since 1990, will feature the best riders and drivers in eight disciplines dressage, show jumping, eventing, vaulting, reining, combined driving, endurance, and paraequestrian, which involves disabled riders over 16 days.
This is the first time the event has been held outside Europe. The championships are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and volunteers to the Bluegrass, although some of them may be staying in hotels more than an hour away.
The global economic downturn has taken a toll on travel. Ticket sales for the events, once predicted to top 600,000, now look more like half that. With spectators expected to buy tickets to multiple days, the daily attendance may be similar to that of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Still, an economic study, commissioned by the WEG Foundation, has predicted an economic impact of $167 million for the state.
The Horse Park won the prestigious event in December 2005, beating out Normandy, France, after working for nearly a decade to get the nod from the Federation Equestre Internationale, the governing body of horse sports.
The state hosted a cocktail party at the 2002 games in Jerez, Spain, to schmooze the horsey heads of state, and gave away 720 bottles of bourbon, only to lose the 2006 games to Aachen, Germany.
Under Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky renewed its efforts in 2004. Suddenly, everywhere equestrians gathered, there was Kentucky: a reception at the world dressage championships in Las Vegas, a booth at the federations meeting in London. Perhaps most importantly, the state agreed to put up a $2.5 million financial guarantee.
The games picked up momentum when Nicholasville-based biotech giant Alltech signed a $10 million title sponsorship deal in 2006.
Organizers said in 2005 that it would probably cost $30 million to put on the games but that they expected to reap much more than that in ticket sales, sponsorships, TV deals and other revenue generators. Cost estimates have since risen to more than $77 million.
Most of the money has been raised privately by the WEG Foundation, which has repaid the original financing from the state. And WEG officials have said they are within sight of their $25 million sponsorship goal.
But all hasnt gone smoothly: plans to build a 250-room hotel at the park, using private development money, were scrapped after investment money dried up in the economic downturn. Separate efforts to build a hotel and condo complex, called CentrePointe by its developers, in the heart of the city also were put on hold.
And lawmakers quashed plans to let Kentucky distilleries give out free bourbon samples at the games Kentucky Life pavilion.
But, largely using government bonds, the park has built a $36.5 million indoor arena, made more than $24 million in improvements to its outdoor arena with permanent grandstands and lights, revamped the park entrance, and more.
And the main roads leading to the horse park have been widened to accommodate expected traffic, with historic fences moved back, stone by stone, to preserve the flavor of the Bluegrass.
Blue Grass Airport also got a face lift and a new runway, in part to handle increased air traffic for the event.
Lexington and the region have undergone a transformation to prepare for hosting the world, building new roads and sidewalks downtown, and constructing the 8.5-mile Legacy Trail hiking and biking path that will link downtown to the park.
And auxiliary events have sprung up like mushrooms, including:
- The Alltech Fortnight Festival, a diverse entertainment event that will include a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and star conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Norton Center in Danville.
- New galleries and exhibits at the horse parks museums, including A Gift From the Desert, based on the contributions of the Arabian horse, sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation.
- Spotlight Lexington, a city-sponsored free festival downtown that will feature entertainment, food and a main stage that will host athlete ceremonies.
- The popular Horse Mania public art exhibit, this time including foals, that made a timely return to the city earlier this year to ride the wave of equine enthusiasm.