Tom Eblen: Spectators say Horse Park is a star

Perhaps more than at previous Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Events, the Kentucky Horse Park itself was one of the stars of the show.

Many of the equine journalists and spectators who came this year were assessing the park with an eye toward the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which will begin in 152 days.

Most liked what they saw. A lot.

"The facilities were fabulous to begin with, but they've made many improvements," said Diana De Rosa, a New York equine photo journalist. De Rosa said she has attended every previous World Equestrian Games and none had facilities as good as Kentucky's.

"The beauty of the Kentucky Horse Park is that it is self-contained," she said, noting that events at previous Games were sometimes scattered over great distances. "Even the British who were talking about the Kentucky Horse Park said 'This is the place!' "

The new indoor arena for vaulting and reining is "truly amazing," De Rosa said. "It's so much better than what the other countries have had. It should attract a lot of international events to Lexington in the future."

Coby Bolger, an American-born journalist based in Madrid, agreed. "Kentucky is showing us all how to do a World Games," she said, both in terms of the facilities and the major commitment of the lead sponsor, Lexington-based Alltech.

Bolger, a former competitor, said another big advantage to the horse park is that eventing venues are permanent and well-tested, rather than temporary and new.

"This already was a four-star site," she said. "There is no other concern for the riders than riding."

Spectators at Saturday's Cross Country competition were mostly enthusiastic about the park, both those there for the first time and those who have been coming for years.

"It's fantastic," Greg Ziegler said of the park as he waited at the Head of the Lake jumps with his sleeping six-month-old daughter, Lucia. "Seeing all of the changes at the Kentucky Horse Park over the past four years is really impressive."

The Zieglers were there waiting for the next rider: wife and mother Tara Ziegler, who was competing in her fourth Rolex (and who, a few minutes later, would become one of three riders to fall at The Hollow jump.)

No official crowd count was available Saturday because of a glitch in the system controlling handheld ticket scanners, but the crowd seemed smaller than in some previous years. The Cross Country event always brings out a lot of casual spectators from Lexington, who might have been scared away by the threat of rain.

As it turned out, it was a perfect spring day during the competition. Rolex organizers canceled the lunch break and sped up the event, managing to get the competition finished before storms rolled in. It was a smart move.

Jesse Zehr and his family were making their first trip to the horse park with a group of 30 Amish who came down on a bus from Grabill, Ind. Many of them raise Dutch harness horses, and they found the equestrian sports interesting and the horse park "awesome," Zehr said.

But Robert and Marsh Davis of Goochland, Va., hunt riders who have attended every Rolex since 1993, were disappointed by what they considered the horse park's money-driven focus on the fall Games.

"You pay more each year and get less, but I guess they have to pay for the World Games," she said. "It's disappointing."

Robert Davis doesn't plan to attend the Games. His wife will, but only because she can avoid high hotel prices by staying with a niece who attends the University of Kentucky.

Tim Hoon, a Louisville native who now lives in Atlanta, plans to be back in the fall to volunteer at the Games. A Western cross country rider for 26 years, he plans to retire in Lexington in a few years "and volunteer at the horse park and Keeneland."

"There is no other place like this on the globe," Hoon said. "It's a world-class facility, and what I like about it is that it celebrates the horse in all forms."

Hoon is looking forward to the Games, although he has no idea what his volunteer duties will entail. "I may be giving directions to port-a-potties," he said with a laugh. "But a little bourbon at night and I'll be fine with whatever."