The best horses and riders in the world already are descending on Lexington for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Their names might not be as well-known as athletes like Venus Williams or Michael Phelps, but they are considered to be superstars just the same. The competition will be intense. Here are some of the names to know and people to watch for in all eight disciplines at the Games.
McLain Ward's name is synonymous with one of the most famous show-jumping horses in the world, Sapphire. The Brewster, N.Y., native and his liver chestnut mare have won most of the major show-jumping titles in the world and have helped the United States secure the last two team Olympic gold medals. They're expected to be top contenders for team and individual gold at the Lexington Games, topping off a year filled with triumph and controversy.
In April, Ward was in the lead at the World Cup finals in Geneva when World Cup veterinarians disqualified Sapphire for sensitivity in her front leg, which possibly could have indicated that something was applied to make her more sensitive to hitting the jumps. A second test showed no problems. The FEI later admitted it had been wrong, but the disqualification stood.
Some of Ward's supporters think Ward has been unfairly targeted in Europe because of his father, Barney Ward. In 1996, Barney Ward was sentenced to 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to arranging to have four horses killed as part of a widespread insurance scam. In 1999, McLain Ward was suspended from showing for eight months after one of his horses was found with plastic chips in the boots used to protect its legs at a horse show in Germany. Ward denied putting anything in his horse's boots but served the suspension.
Ward and Sapphire were part of the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, so expect them to go for the gold in Lexington. Other names to look for: Kevin Staut of France and his horse, Kraque Boom Bois Margo; and Meredith Michaels Beerbaum, an American who now rides for Germany.
If there's any equestrian pair as famous as Ward and Sapphire right now, it's Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, the Dutch rider and horse that swept through the European dressage circuit with record scores this summer. They're expected to win individual gold and help an already strong Dutch team do the same.
Other names to look for: U.S. riders Steffen Peters on Ravel and Tina Konyot on Calecto V, who wowed audiences at the freestyle dressage test event at the Kentucky Horse Park in the spring.
American Chester Weber has won seven national championships, the last one at the driving test event at the Horse Park last fall. But some of his fiercest rivals also are expected: Australian Boyd Exell, and Theo Timmerman and Koos de Ronde of the Netherlands.
Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton and her 13-year-old French-bred gelding Nobby are the first to hold world and European titles at the same time.
Others to watch: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and two of his sons are on the nominated list, making the United Arab Emirates team a tough one to beat. The French team also has been dominant.
Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt met a longtime goal of winning the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event at the Horse Park in the spring on Cool Mountain, the same horse he will bring to the Games.
U.S. rider Phillip Dutton, a former Olympic gold medalist, also will be returning to the scene of his 2008 Rolex victory.
Lee Pearson of Great Britain was a gold medal winner at the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Paralympics and is one of the top para-dressage riders in the world.
Rebecca Hart of Erie, Pa., is a four-time para-equestrian dressage national champion and earned a fourth-place individual award at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. In 2010, not only did Hart win the para-equestrian dressage national championship with Kerri Sowers' horse Kazan, but she earned the reserve champion rosette aboard her longtime mount Norteassa.
Shawn Flarida is the leading all-time money earner in the United States in reining and is expected to be tough to beat on his palomino stallion, RC Fancy Step. Canada's Duane Latimer, the 2006 Games' individual gold medal winner, and Italy's Dario Carmignani are expected to give chase.
Californian Megan Benjamin announced her retirement shortly after she won the individual gold at the 2006 Games to attend college at Cornell. However, she decided to get back into training to come to Kentucky and compete. The German and Austrian teams also are expected to be strong.