Martha Lambert of Louisville comes to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event every year. So when she heard tailgating spaces would be available for the first time, she quickly reserved one and started inviting friends.
"This is the best idea they've had since they started the Rolex," said Lambert, who competed at the Rolex three times in the 1990s. "I wonder why they haven't done it before?"
Lambert was one of more than 100 people, companies and organizations that paid either $275 or $325 for a space along the crest of the meadow where much of the cross-country course was built. Each spot included eight admission tickets. Only a handful of spots went unused.
"There was an excellent response," said Vanessa Coleman, ticketing director for Equestrian Events, the Rolex's organizer. "We've already had people say 'you need to make this a tradition.'"
It certainly helped to have a picture-perfect day — lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, following a stormy month that dumped more than a foot of rain on Lexington.
"Yes, we're responsible for the weather today, too," Coleman joked with tailgaters as she walked from spot to spot to check on things.
Lundy's Catering took advance orders, but also sold a lot of last-minute food as tailgaters saw what their neighbors were having. "I think it's going to be a hit," said Alissa Lundergan, one of the company's owners.
But most tailgaters brought their own food and drink — impressive homemade spreads, served with plenty of champagne. Chad Ross of Frankfort loaded a big gas grill into his pickup truck to cook brisket and pork tenderloin for his family and friends from Missouri.
"We come to the Horse Park as often as we can," said Wendy Long of Huntington, W.Va. She and her husband, Larry, are such horse sport fans that their license plate reads: Jump Over. "This is such a nice way to enjoy the Horse Park and the Rolex," she said.
Becky Coleman of Tifton, Ga., comes to Rolex every year to photograph the competition. Her husband, Tony, isn't a horseman, but he agreed to come this year and was happy to have the tailgating spot as a place to relax. "She's big into it," he said of the Rolex. "I figure if Mama's happy, everybody's happy."
Practical Horseman magazine had a spot to entertain supporters, as did the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America. Society members were there to cheer on eight competing horses with Irish draught bloodlines.
Land Rover had the most elegant tailgating space — six spaces, actually, with six brand-new Land Rover and Range Rover models. Their tailgates were lifted to display a spread of gourmet food for Land Rover owners and other customers to enjoy.
"This was perfect for us," said Kim McCullough, the company's brand vice president. "People naturally tailgate with a Land Rover."
Land Rover, the event's vehicle sponsor, also was operating an off-road demonstration course. While the company doesn't actually sell vehicles here, dealers report the efforts have produced many good leads, McCullough said.
Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, had a tailgating spot to do some marketing for its equine studies programs, which have 110 majors, and equestrian team. About 30 students were attending Rolex.
"We hope to attract potential students," said Lucy Cryan, who directs the university's equine program. "And we decided to get the word out to alumni to stop by and say hello."
Most tailgaters said they hope to get a spot next year — and for years to come.
"It is awesome being able to do this," said Randi McEntire, who comes each year with a group of fellow horse enthusiasts from Charleston, S.C. "We're already talking about next year and how we're going to improve on our setup."
The group was tailgating under a University of South Carolina Gamecocks tent and digging into the smoked chicken, cold cuts, fresh vegetables and ample liquor selection that Kent Gramke had assembled.
"Good company, good weather, good food — that's what makes the event," Gramke said. "And horses," his friend Sherry Lilley quickly added.