A long journey to the heart of equestrian sport

After years of effort, Games' opening day cheered by all involved

lblackford@herald-leader.comSeptember 26, 2010 

After five years of planning and anticipation, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games began with a chorus of hoofbeats and voices as equine and human participants combined to put Kentucky at the center of equestrian sport.

The flash of cameras and a pink and red sunset backlit opening ceremony performances by equestrians and entertainers that sent the crowd to their feet several times.

Fédération Equestre Internationale President Princess Haya bint al-Hussein evoked Kentucky's frontier spirit and told the cheering crowd: "Nowhere else in this world can you find the unbridled spirit of Kentucky."

The smooth opening day and its evening ceremonies were a testament to the sometimes frantic preparation that went into production of the Games.

"What an incredible journey this has been," said Gov. Steve Beshear, who might have been speaking for the Games' organizers. "The view I have from this stage makes all the hard work worthwhile."

The day started much earlier with the first competition of the day, the Western sport of reining. A slow but steady stream of people made their way from the parking lots into a festival of white tents and colorful flags, where they could shop, eat and see athletes from around the world buzzing around the Kentucky Horse Park in numerous golf carts.

"I am exhilarated, amazed and profoundly grateful," said Kentucky Horse Park Director John Nicholson, who helped bring the Games to Kentucky. "To some extent, I can't even believe this is finally happening."

Organizers were happy about good weather, a lack of traffic issues and a sense of good will that permeated the park. Aside from some minor technical glitches with scoreboards, they reported no major problems the first day. Official attendance for the day was 23,081.

"It's very exciting and so well-organized," said Susan Vigliotti, who traveled from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her husband James and her daughter, Angelina, 13. The Vigliottis spent all of Saturday at the park, watching the reining, shopping and seeing some of the sights, such as the Kentucky Experience, which highlights Kentucky's cultural and culinary heritage. "There's so much to do, it's really nice," Susan Vigliotti said.

A sponsor with cash

Like many big sporting events, the journey to opening day wasn't always smooth.

Money has been the sorest point, as the non-profit foundation that operated the Games was hampered severely by the global economic crisis.

Luckily, the World Games 2010 Foundation had a title sponsor willing to fill many breaches. Alltech President Pearse Lyons not only handed over cash and people to help the Games' organization, he set up a number of different initiatives to raise interest and ticket sales, including a fund to allow more than 50,000 Kentucky schoolchildren to come to the Games.

Lyons now estimates he will have spent more than $32 million for the $10 million title sponsorship.

But he has said repeatedly the costs will have been worth it, as evidenced by the fact he's in talks to sign on as the sponsor of the next World Games in Normandy in 2014.

"If people can realize what an incredible place Kentucky is and take that message across the world, I will have achieved what I set out to do, and what I want for Alltech," he said Saturday.

The stakes are high, not just for the U.S. equestrian community, which had to convince the world the Games belonged in a country where equestrian sport is nearly unknown to a larger audience. Since their inception in 1990, the Games have been held in Europe, where horse sport is much more popular.

The Games could also help Central Kentucky's growing sport horse industry, which is still dwarfed by its Thoroughbred counterpart. The growth of equestrian sport is particularly important to the athletes, many of whom spend time in Europe where there are more competitions and more recognition.

"I hope it will be interesting and exciting," U.S. jumping team member Laura Kraut said of the Games, "and bring us more viewers, which will help us through more sponsorship and interest, and help the sport overall."

Come back to Kentucky

The Games' success could also affect the political fortunes of Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry and Gov. Steve Beshear as they seek re-election this year and next. Beshear, in particular, has tied his administration closely to the event, helped by the work of First Lady Jane Beshear, herself an ardent equestrian who serves on the WEG organizing board.

Local and state economic development experts also hope the Games will be worth some of the millions in taxpayer money spent on them with return visitors, and even new businesses. The Economic Development Cabinet, for example, is bringing 50 guests to the Games, many of them business owners who might relocate here.

The only clear winner so far, of course, is the Kentucky Horse Park, which regardless of the Games' outcome, will have millions of dollars of new year-round facilities, certifying its stature as one of the top equestrian venues in the world.

"We want people to come and realize we really are the Horse Capital of the world, and they have a reason to come back," said Alston Kerr, a WEG Foundation board member who has volunteered at the Horse Park for 30 years.

"I want them to come back to Kentucky and to the Horse Park because the experience we gave them was so fabulous."

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