Horse fans may say they’re going to the Rolex this year, but they’re not

Three-time champion Michael Jung on Fischerrocana at the Head of the Lake water jump, which in 2016 was draped with Rolex signage. This year the title sponsor is Land Rover, so expect to see more blue and less green.
Three-time champion Michael Jung on Fischerrocana at the Head of the Lake water jump, which in 2016 was draped with Rolex signage. This year the title sponsor is Land Rover, so expect to see more blue and less green. Herald-Leader

One day, the annual equestrian competition in Lexington at the end of April will be known as the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Just not this year.

But maybe by next year, if the efforts of Michael Curmi, director of experiential marketing for Jaguar Land Rover, pay off.

“With the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event — there’s my first plug — already as one of the most well-regarded equestrian events in the U.S., it really is the perfect fit with Land Rover, which is a prestigious auto brand,” Curmi said.

As the new sponsor, Land Rover is fighting more than 35 years of “the Rolex” as the signature event of the Kentucky Horse Park.

Until last May, the Swiss watchmaker had been the title sponsor, with such brand identity that for most people (in the U.S. eventing world, at least) know the competition by just the nickname.

Land Rover is well aware of the Rolex hangover.

“We understand there’s been some equity built up … but we have a feeling that shift is going to happen pretty rapidly. We’ll have a full communications and PR team on site.”

The British automaker is planning a few changes this year to the event, which will gradually replace the ubiquitous Rolex green with Land Rover blue.

Previous events that Land Rover sponsored, including the popular driving course and a tailgating competition, are getting more attention, as is the Ultimate Stable, where athletes will sign autographs and Land Rover reps walk you around the vehicles and describe the joys of driving a $52,000 Land Rover Discovery, whether it’s to the store or across the Serengeti.

Also, there will be a teen Land Rover off-road driving course, and a special course of mini Land Rovers for kids to drive, and Rover Lounges for dogs to get treats and fresh water.

Look for a new Land Rover presence on the cross-country course on Saturday, Curmi said. He wouldn’t give away the jump but said it will be impressive.

And of course the three-day event’s winner won’t get just a Rolex watch; now the rider will get a one-year lease on a brand new Land Rover Discovery, too.

“We want to make sure it wasn’t a sponsorship of just signage and branding,” Curmi said. “We want people to get in, enjoy and see what the product can do. It will be a very active space.”

Curmi wouldn’t discuss Land Rover’s financial commitment to the event or give specifics on what they think it will generate for the company except to say it’s “a sponsorship in a lifestyle area that’s really beneficial for us,” he said.

“A significant portion of Land Rover owners are interested in the equestrian lifestyle. It’s a great demographic and consumer set for us.

“When you think about what the fans and the participants are like, they are generally ‘can-do’ types, who engage in the outdoors and Land Rover promotes and embodies the same spirit.”

land rover event
In October, Land Rover announced that it would pick up title sponsorship as well as continue sponsoring the U.S. Eventing Team, including riders, from left, Will Coleman, Lynn Symansky and Lauren Kieffer. Beginning this year, the event will be the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Neilson Barnard on behalf of Jaguar Land Rover

Land Rover, which also had been involved for years, did not hesitate to move into the title role, which now gives the company two “legs” of the $350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. Land Rover also sponsors the annual horse trials at Burghley in England. The other leg, Badminton, is sponsored by rival Mitsubishi.

“We’re pretty confident in our own brand,” Curmi said. “The equestrian space is the perfect fit for Land Rover, and we look forward to having a deeper connection and presence in the space. ... We’ve been involved for more than 30 years and there’s been no flagging of interest in equestrian sports.”

“Not many equine events draw 80,000 people,” said Lee Carter, executive director of Equestrian Events Inc., which puts on the three-day event. “Long term our goals are to look for new ways to activate across the pond with Burghley and the Grand Slam of Eventing. ... They’re looking for very specific things on how they engage our clients and we’ll provide them with that. As Rolex wanted to sell watches, Land Rover wants to sell Land Rovers. And we’ll do what we can to help them.”

This year, for the first time, that will involve not only an top-caliber field of eventers including reigning champion Michael Jung going for an unprecedented fourth title, but also a championship-level invitation-only show jumping grand prix featuring 30 of the top riders in the world.

This year’s event won’t feel like Rolex is gone because it isn’t.

“Rolex is no longer the title sponsor but they’re still involved, still the official timepiece of the three-day event,” Carter said. “They will continue the partnership that’s been there for over 40 years, and they will still show their support for the event.”

In fact, because they still have all the name recognition but are paying less, Rolex might actually be getting even more for their money.

The decision to drop the title sponsorship, announced last May, didn’t originate in Kentucky. It seems Rolex is slowly reducing its footprint in equestrian sports primarily to show jumping; the only title sponsorships remaining are for show jumping events.

As long-term sponsorship deals with other equestrian centers in Wellington, Fla.; Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada; and Aachen, Germany, come to an end, many in the equestrian world anticipate that Rolex will not renew, just as in Kentucky.

Why remains a mystery. The company is opaque, with media kits that consist of glossy photos of horses and advertising copy. Even those, like Carter, who had dealt with the company for years can’t say why the company decided to reposition itself.

Rolex had gradually stepped away, last year dropping a long-standing gala on Saturday night, and not sending the head of the company to the event for the last two years.

“My understanding was it was a decision made out of corporate offices in Geneva. They stated it was a brand repositioning, they wanted to focus more on being the ‘official timepiece,’” Carter said.

There is no word on whether that means the company also will drop its sponsorship of Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park. The $1.2 million deal with the state of Kentucky runs through 2020.

No one responded to requests for comment from the Cabinet for Tourism, Arts and Heritage. And the U.S. Equestrian Federation declined to comment for this story.

The Rolex name on the stadium is widely thought to have been a factor in Kentucky’s failed bid for the 2018 World Equestrian Games because of a long-term sponsorship deal between rival watchmaker Longines and the Federation Equestre Internationale, the international ruling body for equestrian sport, which puts on the games. The state is pursuing the 2022 games.

Rolex’s decision doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the value that the event delivered for the sponsor.

“If you look at the landscape for corporate sponsorships as a whole, you don’t see many that last as long as ours did with Rolex. We were very fortunate,” Carter said.

For many horse lovers, cross country at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event is the best day of the best weekend of the year.

If you go

What: The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event is an annual world-class equestrian competition involving three disciplines: dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping.

When: April 26-29

Where: Kentucky Horse Park, 4089 Iron Works Parkway

Tickets: or at the gate. Prices vary.

Who: Top flight riders including reigning champion Michael Jung; former winners William Fox-Pitt, Phillip Dutton and Kim Severson; Buck Davidson, Boyd Martin, Oliver Townend and many more.

Besides a new title sponsor, this year’s event has a new competition, an invitational grand prix, featuring 30 of the best show jumpers in the world. The show jumping competition is free with admission on Friday or Saturday. Seating is limited, so go online to reserve seats for Saturday or call the ticket line at 859-254-8123.