For its opening ceremonies, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games put on a wide-ranging show, but there was no mistaking where the event took place.
From a bluegrass jam during the Olympics-esque parade of nations to featured roles for numerous Lexington-based artists to appearances by basketball coach John Calipari and the University of Kentucky cheerleaders, the ceremonies had a distinctly Kentucky feel.
And that was by design.
"It's the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of something this big," said John Nardolillo, conductor of the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, which played for most of the three-hour ceremonies, backing international talents including opera star Denyce Graves and Irish tenor Ronan Tynan. "To have all that talent in one place at one time is incredible."
The orchestra also played behind Kentuckian Wynonna Judd, who was joined by a swell of voices as she sang My Old Kentucky Home in the Kentucky Horse Park's outdoor stadium.
As of 10:30 p.m., Games officials could not give an official attendance number for the ceremonies. The outdoor stadium seats about 25,000, and one bank of seats behind the stage was left open. Throughout the rest of the stadium, a smattering of empty seats could be seen.
Games officials estimated that 500 to 600 of the 800 athletes expected to participate in the Games marched in the 58-country parade of nations. The loudest cheer, like at any Olympics, came for the home nation, the United States. These are, after all, the first World Equestrian Games held on U.S. soil.
About two hours into the ceremonies, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, president of the Fédération Équestre Internationale, proclaimed, "I declare the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games open," though they actually began during the day Saturday — which is usually the case at the Olympics, too.
The opening event went well beyond the announced 2½ -hour time it had been expected to run, as it made room for many elements. There was a "prayer for all nations" delivered by representatives of Native American tribes. There were introductions of officials including Mayor Jim Newberry and Gov. Steve Beshear.
And there was special guest Muhammad Ali. Cheers of "Ali! Ali!" rose from some sections of the crowd as the native Kentuckian and heavyweight champion rode around the stadium floor in a classic teal convertible along with Pearse Lyons, president and founder of the Games' title sponsor, Alltech.
"Thank you Kentucky for welcoming us to horse heaven," Princess Haya said, and her characterization was represented on the stadium floor as the ceremonies moved from formalities to entertainment.
And that's where the show got quite unique.
A musical travelogue of the United States began in New York with a ballet to the music of West Side Story, which included a crowd-pleasing pas des deux between equine artist Mario Contreras on horseback and Brittany Butler of the Lexington Ballet.
Then the program moved into opera, with Graves joined by Lexington-based soprano Cynthia Lawrence and tenor Greg Turay, who both also have international opera careers.
"This is the perfect venue for Kentucky to show its cultural prowess," Tedrin Blair Lindsay, a member of the American Spiritual Ensemble and University of Kentucky musicologist said. "It says Kentucky is all of this and more."
Ron Pen, a UK professor of musicology, said he was pleased that although the show, produced by University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey, had a strong classical music element, it made time for music indigenous to the state.
"Music that springs from the soil had the greatest power to effect us," said Pen, who joined bluegrass stars Cherryholmes and several other artists in the bluegrass jam that accompanied the parade of nations.
The band also played in a "salute to Kentucky" segment that included the bluegrass classic Orange Blossom Special. But the acts that got the biggest cheers from the crowd were the equestrian stars such as Tommie Turvey and Dan James, The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, Eitan Beth-Halachmy and others who dazzled the horse-savvy crowd with equine feats.
The ceremonies proceeded with few problems. However, toward the end of the event, Games officials reported that there had been a "medical incident" involving a performer. The performer was taken to the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. No further information was available late Saturday.
Witnesses said they saw a performer slide from his horse on the way out of the arena and fall to the ground. Medical personnel performed CPR.
A portion of the ceremonies was carried by WLEX (Channel 18), whose start was delayed by a college football game running long and who signed off at 9 p.m. to return to NBC network programming.
That meant the crowd at home missed moments such as Stacy Westfall riding bareback while Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter, sang In a Young Girl's Mind, and the Mardi Gras parade accompanied by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
The ceremonies ended with Tynan and the Haitian Harmony children's choir singing The Impossible Dream, leading the games back into the competition phase, where the world's greatest equestrian athletes resume the pursuit of their dreams Sunday.
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.