Tom Eblen

Consider Rolex a bonus for living in Lexington

Who comes out for cross-country day at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event?

Mostly horse people — thousands and thousands of horse people, from across the country and around the world. Many of them are serious horse people.

You can tell the serious international horse people because they converse in French or German, or have accents as British as the Rolex's play-by-play announcer. Some are impressively overdressed, but they seem not to mind as temperatures on a sun-splashed Saturday rise well into the 80s.

You can tell other serious horse people because their less-impressive clothing contains the logos of Rolexes past, other major horse events or their local riding club. They carefully mark notes in the program and comment to one another about each rider's performance and technique.

Others may be dressed normally, except for a telling accessory. Take, for example, the woman in the white sun dress, straw hat and knee-high Gore-Tex and leather riding boots. This was not a day for waterproof boots. My guess is that she bought them from the Irish vendor and thought they were easier to wear than carry.

The Rolex trade fair in one corner of the Kentucky Horse Park is its own little world of temptation for serious horse people. In addition to waterproof boots from Ireland, there is everything from made-to-measure saddles and English riding apparel to handy gadgets like the Jiffy Steamer hay storage device.

A growing number of horse people come armed with expensive cameras and long, heavy lenses. Others seem just as happy with the results from their little point-and-shoots. The wonders of digital photography and auto focus have made it easy to capture the magic of a beautiful animal and a skilled rider as they thunder down the course and glide over a jump.

A major Rolex demographic is little girls who love horses and older girls who are getting good at riding them. They are accompanied by camera-toting fathers, and mothers, many of whom used to be those little girls.

Johnny Smith was there with his daughter Jordan, 19, who has been riding since she was 8 and has always wanted to come to Rolex. They decided just last Wednesday to make the trip up from Dallas, Texas. They drove all day Friday and were having a great time.

"I hope to do eventing someday," Jordan Smith said. "I want to be here someday." Her father talked about how many camera memory cards he had filled up.

Between the competitors' rides, the little girls give constant loving to the outriders' horses. Some are veterans, such as Safari, a 14-year-old draft cross who was working his ninth Rolex with owner Maureen O'Daniel of Lexington in the saddle in formal (and hot) riding attire. Others are new, such as Lil' Mo, a 5-year-old retired thoroughbred racehorse who has found a new career as a hunter-jumper for Lei Ruckle of St. Louis.

The little girls' younger brothers seem more interested in the funnel cakes in the food area, not to mention the Kettle Korn and deep-fried Oreos. The littlest siblings just want to play in the muddy creek that runs through the course.

There are many people here who would like to be horse people, if only they had more money or time or land.

Karen and Paul Lehman, who moved to Scott County from Florida last year, hope to have horses someday. At the moment, they're busy with 7-month-old Brandon and another baby on the way. "We're just getting into the whole horse thing," she said.

I also suspect many of the 40,600 people who came out Saturday are like me — they don't own horses or ride horses or even really know much about them. Rolex, like Keeneland, is one of those bonuses you get for living here. It's a good excuse to get out and walk around on a beautiful day in a beautiful place and see some of the world's best horses and riders do amazing things.

In 516 days, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will begin its 16-day run at the Kentucky Horse Park, bringing together the world's best athletes in eight equine disciplines. Hundreds of thousands of horse people will be here, including many of the world's most serious horse people. Tickets go on sale Sept. 25.

But Games organizers also want to make sure they leave room for average, local people who just want to come out to see some horses and riders do amazing things. That's why some general admission tickets will be available. (Prices will be announced late this summer.)

"Our event will be as much for the Lexington resident as for the international horse person," Games spokeswoman Amy Walker said. "We want people to come out and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event."

Think of it as one of the bonuses of living here.

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