In April, when Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event rider William Fox-Pitt won the gold watch on his sixth try, he thanked the person who made it possible — Jane Atkinson, director of the Rolex Kentucky event.
Atkinson has helped shape the careers of three decades of equestrian athletes, but her influence goes beyond the sport of eventing. In various roles over the years, she was involved in creating the Kentucky Horse Park, was key to Kentucky hosting the 1978 World Three-Day Event Championships and was a driving force in the state's successful bid for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
But, for equestrians such as Fox-Pitt, her biggest impact has been personal.
"She has always made us Brits feel very welcome, and she manages to make every competitor feel the same," he wrote recently in an e-mail message. Rolex Kentucky is "a world-class event because of her," he said, and the fact that the World Games are in Lexington "is a testimony to her huge success and respect within the sport."
John Nicholson, Kentucky Horse Park director, agrees.
"The bid for the World Equestrian Games didn't start even eight or nine years ago," he said. "It started really 40 years ago, when Jane and people like Jane were present at the creation of and nurtured the Kentucky Horse Park."
Many throughout the state have been involved in bringing the Games to Kentucky. But some go so far as to say that without Jane Atkinson, the Kentucky Horse Park probably wouldn't be hosting the first Games outside of Europe. Nor would the Horse Park be what it is today.
While the park was initially envisioned as a tribute to the Thoroughbred, Atkinson "was the first one to say publicly that it should celebrate all breeds," Nicholson said. That all-breed philosophy was the groundwork for the events like the Games that feature mostly warmblooded horses, not Thoroughbreds.
Atkinson's love of animals is so great that she rarely goes anywhere without a horse (she brought her five-gaited Saddlebred mare with her to college at the University of Kentucky in 1962, and she still rides as often as she can) or a dog (at least a couple are usually in her offices on the Horse Park grounds).
She has strong opinions. ("If you don't have a cross-country course, you don't have an event.") And loyal followers. (Many Rolex Kentucky volunteers return year after year, and some have been there since the beginning.)
"They're old," said Atkinson, 65, of the volunteers, "but we're all old now."
'Two red mules'
Atkinson's energy and inventiveness are legendary. While working for the state in 1974, she was asked to pull together a "Parade of Breeds" (now a Horse Park staple) for the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kentucky Horse Park.
"My best coup was two red mules," she said. They came with a plow to break the ground and then-Gov. Wendell Ford stepped right up.
"He grabbed that plow like he knew what he was doing," she said. "He clucked to those mules, and they went off, and he dug a furrow."
A native of Indiana, Atkinson is devoted to Kentucky. She wants the thousands who come to the Bluegrass for the Games to see more than the horses, more than the Horse Park.
So she worked state tourism themes into the jumps for the eventing cross-country course. There's a miniature Floral Clock representing the Capitol in Frankfort, the road to Kentucky's first settlement at Fort Harrod, complete with Conestoga wagons, and bourbon barrels to remind visitors of Kentucky's other signature industry.
She will continue as manager of the eventing competition for the World Equestrian Games, and they will be her grand finale; she will turn 66 on Oct. 9, the day before the games end, and officially retire.
"It just seemed like the time to do it, after the World Games," she said. "It was time. I've been here 26 years."
An audacious start
In 1974, U.S. rider Bruce Davidson won the individual gold medal at the eventing world championships at Burghley in England. In the era before the multidisciplinary World Equestrian Games, Davidson's win gave the U.S. the right to host the next championships in four years.
That fall, Atkinson was hired to run the Kentucky Horse Council, then a state agency. She set about convincing the state to make a bid for the eventing championships. That took a little doing, because the Horse Park, purchased by the state in 1972, was still little more than a former standardbred horse farm with a steeplechase racetrack where the first High Hope Steeplechase had been held in April 1974.
And eventing, sometimes referred to as the triathlon of horse sports because it combines dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping, wasn't a well-known sport in Kentucky.
"We just kept talking to them. We went through several governors," she said.
Eventually, the state put in a bid for the eventing world championships.
"I think the thing that sold us, aside from the fact that the park is gorgeous and perfect for a three-day event, was Gov. (Julian) Carroll," she said.
When the East Coast delegation from the horse shows group came to Kentucky, the state took them to lunch at Spindletop Hall. Then, after Atkinson gave Carroll an impromptu 10-minute briefing on the sport of eventing, the governor jumped in.
"You would have thought he was born and raised on this park. You would have thought he had evented all his life. You would have thought the man knew it all. It was amazing. I was just gob-smacked," she said. "I've never seen anyone who was such a quick study. I know that impressed them no end."
Kentucky got the bid.
Equestrian Events Inc., which Atkinson would later run, was created to put together the 1978 World Three-Day Event Championships.
Horses and riders came from all over the world, as did thousands of spectators, who flooded the recently opened Kentucky Horse Park. And Bruce Davidson again won the individual gold and the U.S. team won team bronze.
"It worked out very well; it was a financial success. The state got its money back," she said.
The Horse Park was launched, and the American Horse Shows Association asked Equestrian Events to host an annual U.S. eventing championship, which later became the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, now an international top-level competition.
Atkinson started out in charge of just the dressage portion of the event. ("I like all different breeds and wasn't interested in this job, or I didn't think I was," she said.)
But by 1985 she was running everything, taking the event to world-class stature alongside annual four-star or Olympic-caliber events, such as Badminton and Burghley in Great Britain.
"Our purpose is to provide a training and testing ground for riders and horses so that the United States can be competitive in international competition ... We do that," Atkinson said.
And Rolex Kentucky gave the state the kind of standing it needed in the equestrian world to win the World Games, now eight equestrian championships at one competition.
"The FEI knew that here in Kentucky there is a nucleus of people who know how to put on an international event. ... We wouldn't have been looked at if we hadn't had the success of the world championships in '78 and then gone on with it, I don't think," Atkinson said.
That expertise undoubtedly helped sway the FEI selectors in 2005 to award the games to the first site outside of Europe, Nicholson said.
"When we began in the late '90s to earnestly talk to the FEI about a Kentucky world games, the world had some idea of what we could do here because of what the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and what Janie's leadership had done," Nicholson said.
To Atkinson, the riders are the best part and a key to her legacy.
"The biggest thing is the fact that I have been able to meet and call as friends some of these riders, that I would never have been able to know otherwise," she said.
"I would like to see more people introduced to the world of eventing. I would like to see the people of Kentucky introduced to more disciplines. I would like to see the general public see, appreciate and want to watch horse events. ... We need to nurture that."