You can see it from the parking lot. An imposing open structure of hunter green and limestone blocks, shading the seats that surround the large outdoor arena where, in earlier days, gladiators might have battled.
But on Friday, it was one rider, one horse performing alone for a bank of judges and a bevy of onlookersin the first competition held in the Kentucky Horse Park's new $25 million outdoor stadium.
The riders and their magnificent mounts got much of the applause. The rest of the day's praise went to the stadium. And, by inference, to the Horse Park and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games committee which, by the looks of things, has aced the first gate in showing the public its preparedness for next year's big show.
"The structure is amazing," said Penny Lowman, who has been to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event a dozen times since 1978. She remembers when the pond was at the center of the arena, and it was all more bucolic than it is now.
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"The pond was kind of a signature of the event," she said, but added that she doesn't miss it now — because, well, it's still there, though obscured some by added seating. And when that seating is framed by blue skies and flags that snap smartly in the wind, the pond is just window dressing.
"I miss it, but I don't miss it. The World Equestrian Games are so huge. It had to happen," she said, then asked if anyone knew of a good house to rent come October 2010.
"It's all very well done, just fantastic," said Mary Lou Davies of Asheville, N.C., who has been coming to the Three-Day Event with her husband, Gerald, for three years. "It's what you'd expect of Kentucky. It doesn't intrude on the landscape. It's not flashy. And the view from the stands is terrific. There's not a seat that has an obscured view, I don't think."
They, too, are planning to return to Lexington in the fall of next year.
Not everyone was talking views. There's much excitement about the indoor flush toilets. (Before, the only facilities near the stadium were port-a-potties.) Women get 30 stalls, men get 12, plus 15 urinals. Even in the thick of competition Friday, no waiting.
The one place where there was waiting was in front of the stadium, where, early on, everyone wanted a picture taken with the statue of Bruce Davidson Sr. and his horse, Eagle Lion, tackling a cross-country jump.
The statue, dedicated last year, was finished before the stadium and used to be seen jumping into the duck pond near the Horse Park Museum.
An absolutely thrilled Kim Deering snapped her almost-11-year-old son, Cole, with the pair.
"Everything here says 'wow.' I'm totally pumped for what's next," she said.
Working through the night
WEG and Horse Park officials grin somewhat sheepishly when the speed with which the stadium had to be finished is mentioned. In February, most of it was under snow and hardly any of the seats were installed.
"I think they had to work through the nights sometimes," says Rob Hinkle, vice president for operations of the World Games Foundation. Hinkle used to work for the Horse Park and so has seen this dramatic evolution.
"It's changed the park forever as far as what the world is going to see," he says. "It's gotten nothing but good reviews."
Certainly, the riders, many of them from Europe, have raved. Part of the praise has been for the synthetic footing, by German company OTTO Sport-und Reitplatz GmbH, which has a sandy consistency that drains quickly but doesn't get hard when it's dry. The new lighting for night events and the LCD Daktronic scoreboard have also earned high marks.
All of this together, as British rider Oliver Townend put it, is a "championship atmosphere."
Horse Park Director John Nicholson takes the longer view, beyond Rolex and even beyond the World Games, to the park as the premier destination in the country for equestrian sport.
He said he thinks that the new stadium and the new $40 million indoor arena, due to open in June, will make the state-funded Horse Park self-supporting and that eventually it will become an economic engine of its own.
Or, put it this way: For years, the Horse Park rested on its laurels as one of the most beautiful cross-country courses in the country. Now it can match nearly any other venue.
"We have always thought of ourselves as big league," Nicholson said. "Now we have a big-league facility."
The big-league facility does not yet have an official name. But for the low, low price of "in the single millions," Nicholson said, your name could be emblazoned there for the next decade. (Hint, hint, John Calipari.)
Some of the Rolex Three-Day event visitors had no idea there was more to the Horse Park than the stadium they were experiencing. Told about the indoor stadium, about the rolling green miles of the cross-country course, 16-year-old Brad Shuler of Aiken, S.C., stood slack-jawed. "Really?"
Then he wanted directions so he could walk there and see for himself.