Lexington horse officials anticipate imminent announcement of host for 2018 WEG

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJune 1, 2014 

Sometime next week Kentucky will learn if the Horse Capital of the World will again host the competition known as the equine Olympics.

The Kentucky Horse Park, which hosted the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, is one of two final bidders for the 2018 games. Next Monday, the Fédération Equestre Internationale will meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, to decide between Lexington and Bromont, Canada.

An announcement is expected that day, according to the FEI.

This time, unlike when the state sought the games in 2005, there will be no prestigious delegation heading abroad to pitch the state.

Instead, Jamie Link, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Steve Beshear, said he will be waiting by the phone in case the FEI bureau has questions.

"They said they know the property very well, and how well it went in 2010, and don't need a presentation," Link said. "And obviously, we want to avoid the expense of doing that. I don't think it helps or hurts our chances. Our proposal was pretty comprehensive. Lot of aerial photos, drawings and diagrams from 2010."

The success of the 2010 games, which generated hundreds of millions in economic impact ($201 million according to a state study or $400 million according to an FEI study), led to Lexington jumping in when the FEI re-opened bidding for the 2018 games last summer.

Originally, the games had been awarded to Bromont, which is outside Montreal, but problems with financing led the horse sports governing body to reopen them.

If Lexington wins the games, Link said that a major financial commitment from Kentucky or Lexington will be unnecessary because of the millions invested in the horse park, roadways and downtown cityscape ahead of the 2010 games.

"I think without a doubt — and everyone knows — we have the best facility. We know we can do it quite well, and I hope the FEI feels the same way," Link said.

There have been some changes since 2010.

For instance, Spycoast Farm, where many workers and attendees parked on Ironworks Pike, probably couldn't be used for parking because it has been developed for showhorses now.

And some of the players have changed: John Nicholson, longtime director of the Kentucky Horse Park, recently left and has taken a post as a consultant with the Virginia Horse Center Foundation.

Ted Nicholson, who has been selected interim park director and is a candidate for the post full-time, said he's looking forward to hearing if Kentucky will host the games again.

The park is ready, he said. And he plans to focus on ways to improve the guest experience for the various users of the park, from tourists to campers to horse show attendees and more.

Also new will be Chris Welton, who took up the reins as CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation just yesterday, replacing John Long, who also chaired the World Games 2010 Foundation.

Welton will bring his strong background in sports sponsorship, including with the Atlanta Olympics, to equestrian sports.

"I'll lend whatever assistance I can. My chief responsibility will be managing the USEF and making sure we grow equestrian sport in the U.S.," Welton said. "We'll have our own sports sponsorships, but there should be a lot of synergies with what the games will be trying to do. And there could be some ways we collaborate and provide opportunities for sponsors to have more than just a relationship with one or the other."

The USEF will support the private bid committee, which could become the organizing committee, should Kentucky win the games, he said.

The World Games 2018 Foundation was organized in March, with Kentucky Horse Park Commission chairwoman Alston Kerr, Jack C. Smith Jr. and Joseph H. Terry as directors.

All three were on the 2010 Games Foundation board, along with first lady Jane Beshear, Alltech founder Pearse Lyons, and many other community leaders.

The organizing documents for the 2018 Games said the goal is to pursue the "Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2018."

But Susanna Elliot, spokeswoman for Alltech, said the Nicholasville-based animal nutrition giant which put more than $32 million into its 2010 title sponsorship and untold millions into the 2014 games in Normandy this summer, is not a sponsor for 2018.

At least not yet, anyway.

Sponsorships were a major problem for the 2010 games; the global economic recession hit in 2008, just as the organizers were expecting sports marketing dollars to start rolling in.

Instead, organizers struggled for two years and eventually had to turn to private multimillion-dollar donations from Lyons and from FEI President Princess Haya bint al-Hussein.

But that is unlikely to happen again, Welton said.

"I remember '09-'10 were particularly bad for anyone involved in the business," Welton said. "I couldn't imagine a worse time. I would certainly like to believe things will be a lot different."

Equestrian sport has lot of untapped potential, Welton said. "We have very attractive demographics, and a lifestyle element," he said. "But I think some work needs to be done. I'm not sure the equestrian community has enunciated to the corporate community why they should be associated with equestrian sport. That could be good for the games as well as the sport."

Sponsorships may be one of the only glitches in Lexington's proposal.

The stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park is sponsored by Rolex; the FEI recently signed a 10-year sponsorship deal with rival watchmaker Longines.

The conflict was reportedly one of the reasons that another U.S. site — Wellington, Fla., — withdrew its bid for the 2018 games. (Rolex is a major sponsor there as well.)

Link said Kentucky's bid proposal made it very clear that "the contract for the naming rights on the stadium is between the Horse Park and Rolex USA. The organizing committee would have no jurisdiction over that. Any existing agreements would stay in force and we'd have to work around those limitations. ... We'd make every effort to honor existing commercial limitations but would not have any control."

The city of Lexington also would have to step up again. Recently, Link briefed the city council on the upcoming bid and heard some encouraging words.

One council member asked if there was anything they could do to support the bid.

"Several million dollars?" Link suggested in jest. That drew a big laugh from the council.

In reality, the city was responsible for a lot of the public success of the games. Lextran's special bus service to the Horse Park was widely hailed by patrons and volunteers alike.

The Spotlight Lexington music festival drew crowds downtown to hear great acts and Link said he hoped the city would consider reviving that.

The ongoing revival of downtown Lexington was enhanced by the games, Link said, noting how Spotlight Lexington grew into Thursday Night Live music events at the old courthouse.

"Look at the Legacy Trail, which was done with grant funds," Link said of the bike path from downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park. "Use of the Legacy Trail is incredible, and has enhanced Lexington's bicycle and pedestrian culture."

Mayor Jim Gray's office has been working with Beshear's office to plan for the games.

"In 2010 the state invested in wonderful new facilities at the Horse Park, with hopes of attracting the world's best equine events. Bringing back the World Equestrian Games would certainly prove the wisdom of those investments," Gray said. "If Lexington is fortunate enough to be selected as the site of the 2018 Games, the city will work closely with the state and the Horse Park to make the Games a success, building on our international reputation as the Horse Capital of the World."

Some changes might be made to address a major complaint: the steep ticket prices.

"I recognize the pricing structure would need to be re-evaluated to see if there is a better budgetary model," Link said. "Do you package events together? Do daily passes? What better ways do you do ticketing?"

And what about Link, who ran the 2010 Games? Would he resume his role running the 2018 games?

"If the games are awarded, the organizing committee or the foundation would need to determine how they as the governing body would want to proceed with hiring of staff, and general planning for 2018," Link said. "I don't know if they would ask me to or want me to. ... That was a long two years. I would want to help in any way possible."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl

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