Tom Eblen: Horse Park improvements on view at Rolex

Herald-Leader columnistApril 27, 2011 

People who haven't been to the Kentucky Horse Park in a while will see some big changes, thanks to a major makeover for last fall's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Improvements include the $40 million indoor Alltech Arena, the $25 million Rolex Stadium and $14 million in other improvements, plus a $15 million widening of Iron Works Pike and the nearby Interstate 75 exit. Some additional facilities and attractions will open this summer.

The 1,224-acre park in northern Lexington will be a center of attention this week, as the popular Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event begins Thursday and continues through Sunday.

"The infrastructure that is here now will help the quality of competition, from the irrigation systems to the fiber optics that will really benefit the television productions," said John Nicholson, the park's director.

New this year at Rolex is tailgating Saturday during the cross-country competition, which draws more local people to the park each year than perhaps any other event.

This week also marks the debut of the Ariat Kentucky Reining Cup in Alltech Arena on Friday and Saturday. The western horse sport was a big hit during last fall's Games, and this competition will feature competitors from that Gold Medal team.

The new reining competition is one of about two dozen horse events the park has attracted, either because of the facility improvements or news accounts from the Games. Major new competitions this year include the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championship, May 5 to 8, and the Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, July 27 to 31.

"It was a long time coming here, and I think it was the new facilities that persuaded them," Nicholson said of the North American Championships. "It's like a junior Olympics. The riders you see there will be in the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics in five or 10 years."

The park also has attracted the National Horse Show, one of the nation's top hunter-jumper events, to Alltech Arena, Nov. 2 to 6. It also includes the top competition for judging the form and control of U.S. riders younger than 18. The show was in Syracuse, N.Y., for the past eight years after leaving New York's Madison Square Garden, where it began in 1883.

Nicholson also hopes to attract more non-horse events, such as the Festival of the Bluegrass, the popular bluegrass music gathering at the park each June. Talks are under way with a major mountain bike competition and several dog events. The park also wants more trade shows, such as the New Home & Remodeling Marketplace that was there in February.

In addition to events, everyday visitors to the park will see improvements, such as the Arabian expansion at the International Museum of the Horse.

The park will soon reopen the restored Big Barn, a 475-foot-long barn built in 1893. The barn will become the hub of the park's horse-drawn transportation system and collection, and have an exhibit telling the colorful history of Iron Works Pike.

Built in the early 1800s to haul products from a Bath County foundry to the Kentucky River, the seven-mile stretch of Iron Works Pike between the park and Paris Pike is the gateway to some of the Bluegrass's oldest and most famous horse farms, and was the site of a Civil War skirmish at the intersection with Newtown Pike.

Reopening the Big Barn will create space elsewhere for a new children's area, which will feature horse-related activities that were popular with young Games visitors last fall, such as pony grooming.

In addition to giving local people more new things to see and do, the park is in a good position to repay Kentucky's investment, Nicholson says. The park's last impact study, in 2003, estimated its contribution to the state's economy at $163 million. Nicholson guesses that is now closer to $200 million.

"The place has never looked better," he said. "It is as if it is 1978 all over again — a new facility."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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