Although the 128th Alltech National Horse Show has barely kicked off, show officials already are hailing the new Kentucky version a success and looking at how they can build on that next year.
"I think we've had a major rebirth," said Mason Phelps Jr., National Horse Show president, as the five-day competition got under way Wednesday. "The enthusiasm and the energy of this horse show are like nothing I have seen in years."
Show treasurer Allan Shore of Bedford, N.Y., said that they were thrilled to see top competitors such as Great Britain's Nick Skelton, who won the Washington International Horse Show's $100,000 President's Cup Grand Prix last weekend, and Christine McCrea, who last week won a gold medal for the United States at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, coming for the Alltech Grand Prix on Saturday.
"It's been really exciting to see the interest that's come along," Shore said. "We now have people clamoring to come."
Shore said that in addition to top riders and horses, the National has drawn great interest from vendors — more than 100 applied for the 60 trade show spots that ring the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
Katie Whaley, owner of Hats by Katie from Paris (Kentucky), was one of the lucky ones who got a spot. Although there were few people looking Wednesday, Whaley, whose mother, Kate, rode jumpers at the National when it was in Madison Square Garden, anticipates crowds will grow as the week goes on.
"It's going to build," she said. "You can just feel the vibe."
Organizers jokingly referred to Wednesday as a live dress rehearsal, and the crowd reflected that. There was only a scattering of spectators on hand to see Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear and the opening ceremony.
If the crowds grow, so will contributions to nine charities that will get 50 percent from ticket sales for their session. One charity, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, has already won big: a black-tie gala Tuesday night, hosted by Alltech, raised $50,000.
Alltech owner Pearse Lyons said feedback he's been hearing after the gala indicated the National "has been raised to a whole new level. ... I think it's going to be wonderful."
Phelps said other show sponsors also have been enthusiastic. "We are looking at a positive bottom line this year," Phelps said. "With Alltech, we've been able to raise more than $1 million in sponsorships."
The show will give away more than $700,000 in prize money, including the $250,000 Alltech Grand Prix, which features the largest prize for an indoor show in the United States.
Phelps said the National and Alltech were in negotiations for extending the title sponsorship.
"We'll sit down and talk turkey next week," he said. "It's been a marriage made in heaven. Nobody could have predicted that. It's been an outstanding relationship."
Next year's show probably will include an expanded lineup of classes, including Saddlebreds and possibly carriage horses.
And Phelps said the National has applied to the Fédération Equestre International, the international governing body of horse sports, to bring back one of the highlights of past Nationals: a Nations Cup, a team competition, country against country, pitting the top U.S. riders against those from around the world.
Lyons, who said Alltech wanted to be involved next year as well, also has ideas about improving things. "I think downtown has to be involved. I think we have to have something similar to a Fortnight Festival," Lyons said, referring to the music festival Alltech sponsored in conjunction with the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
His ideas range from involving more local restaurants to highlighting Kentucky's musical, theatrical and artistic heritage.
"I sense (the National) needs something else — something that will reach out to the community at large," Lyons said.
He said developer Dudley Webb, who owns the vacant CentrePointe property downtown, once asked if he'd be interested in helping to bring Cirque du Soleil to town. Lyons would.
"Cirque du Soleil, a circus, a carnival," Lyons said. "I'd like to see the Wild West."