It was horses that drew thousands of visitors from around the world to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
But many hoped that those well-heeled equestrians would be as passionate about shopping as they were about dressage, reining and vaulting.
Vendors from Chile, Ireland, Canada and, yes, Kentucky, set up shop in white outdoor tents and indoor booths at the Horse Park.
Registration for the 300 spaces started in 2007, said Debbie Blair, manager of the Trade Show at the Games, with fees ranging from $10,000 to $17,500, depending on the location and size of the booth.
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Among the first to snag a space in what is now a sold-out Trade Show were Susan and Bill Buchanan.
"There were a whole lot of other venues we could have chosen," said Susan Buchanan, "but we thought this was the smartest choice."
The Buchanans, from the Niagara Escarpment north of Toronto, own Horsefeathers, which sells sterling silver jewelry with an equine theme.
Initially, not all vendors were happy. There were complaints that there was very little traffic into the Trade Show because of inadequate signage and that there was no place for shoppers to sit and eat or rest.
Games officials said they have addressed those concerns.
Vendors agree that business has picked up since late last week, when the main gate exit was rerouted through the Trade Show. But their success varies widely. Booths selling equestrian gear and souvenirs seemed to be doing well; high-end jewelry and other expensive items not directly related to riding or caring for horses — not so well.
Mostly happy sellers
"We haven't had a bad day since we've been out here," said Wayne Musick, owner of The Boot Store, which has two large booths selling boots, hats, belts and other clothing.
Musick said he has sold out of some of Ariat's official WEG clothing, which has been very popular. "We've restocked several times," he said, pulling merchandise from his Nicholasville store and warehouse. Has it met his expectations? "Very much," he said. "It's been really good."
Bob Mickler's, the well-known equestrian goods retailer in Lexington, also was doing a booming business. "We're doing great," said Anita Wilkerson. "We had our biggest day" on Sunday.
"It's OK, but it's not as much business as we expected to get," said Shujaat Kemma, who traveled from New York City to sell fine Indian carpets, jackets and scarves. "People who come in here do buy. But if we had more people coming in, it would be better."
Kemma's biggest criticism was that the big Trade Show tent didn't have a big sign outside saying "Trade Show." Instead, the sign over the door advertises Lexington-based Big Ass Fans, which has one of several dozen booths inside.
"I think people look and all they think is that this is just a big-ass building," Kemma said.
Chairs and boots
While the expected vendors of equine equipment such as horse treadmills custom saddles like those from Devoucoux of France that sell for more than $4,000, and boots like the waterproof Clare from Dubarry of Ireland for $479 are plentiful, many unexpected items are available.
Cross Bar Gallery of Oklahoma City sells a crimson-colored padded cowhide chair with embroidery details for $2,899. Shipping? That's 10 percent to 15 percent more.
In addition to the high price of a booth at WEG, the costly logistics of getting merchandise to the Horse Park and an economy that is anything but robust meant vendors were taking a big chance.
In another life, Pete and Tana Rhodes of Stockbridge, Ga., both engineers, built subdivisions for a living.
Then the market for new housing tanked and, "our little hobby business is now a real business," Pete Rhodes said, referring to GemMagic, their store at WEG.
Rhodes, who says he's a postal history buff, offers a 14-karat gold pendant for $975 that's modeled after a Pony Express stamp showing a rider on a mustang going flat out.
The booth space, Rhodes said, cost $15,000 and the hotel an additional $5,000.
"Before we came out of the chute," he said, "we were already $20,000 in the hole."
Is it worth it, the Buchanans, the Canadian owners of Horsefeathers, were asked? To travel such a distance for 16 days for this special event in the hope that customers will be in a spending mood?
"Business today is always a gamble," Susan Buchanan said with a smile. "But it's better than staying at home."