Supporters of the prestigious Alltech National Horse Show who hoped its move to the Kentucky Horse Park would breathe new life into the event were pleased with the zest, the glitz and glamour of guests at a pre-show, black-tie gala Tuesday night.
The gala was held in the Horse Park's Alltech Arena, where the 128th National Horse Show begins Wednesday.
National board member Eric Straus declared the move to Lexington "not just good — it's great."
"The facility is fantastic. The support from the community has been incredible. The timing and the calendar make this the perfect location for a championship horse show," Straus said.
The gala was hosted by Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech, the Nicholasville-based global animal nutrition giant, and his wife, Deirdre.
The event was a fund-raiser for the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, on Catnip Hill Pike, a horse rescue center which takes all breeds of horses.
The 400 guests included executives of the National Horse Show, horse owners, trainers from out of town, and a generous number of locals, including businessman Jim Host; Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland; Meg Jewett, owner of Walnut Hall and L. V. Harkness & Co.; landscape designer Jon Carloftis; and former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.
Mason Phelps Jr., president of the National Horse Show Association, expressed delight as the evening unfolded and guests streamed in. A former Olympic rider who competed in 1968 on the U. S. Equestrian Team in eventing, Phelps said of the show, "I live and die for this event."
For 100 years, the National was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City, where it always had a social role. The Social Register, the blue book of the bluebloods, was originally drawn from a list of boxholders at the National Horse Show — "the Vanderbilts, Rockefeller, people of that ilk," Phelps said.
The event opened New York's winter social season, a time when men came to the National at night in tuxedos and women wore evening dresses.
Phelps said one of his goals was to bring the glamour and excitement back to the National, and Tuesday night's event helped set the tone for the five days ahead. There will be a room in the Alltech Arena called Gracie Street Garden, created by Palm Beach interior designer Douglas Mutch, which will be set aside for after-parties for competitors and sponsors each night.
Horse show spokesman Marty Bauman said he wouldn't be surprised if a few folks show up in evening clothes for the night competitions this week. "But people don't have to get dressed up. We want people to come and enjoy the show," he said.
In recent years, the National declined in popularity with the general public, though in the equestrian world it remains a major competition.
Phelps said he finally told the board, "We need to be radical and forward thinking. Let's give it one more shot and go for the gusto." That's when they decided to take the show to Lexington and the Kentucky Horse Park.
Phelps said he has put New York City and Madison Square Garden behind him.
"It's a new era," he said. "We are creating a new tradition, and this is the first night of that new tradition."
As for celebrities, well, this is not New York City. But a few daughters of famous fathers will take part in the National this week. Jessica Springsteen, daughter of Bruce Springsteen, is a competitor, as is Paige Johnson, whose father, Robert J. Johnson, founded Black Entertainment Television. Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be an ambassador for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.