Going for Gold - By Jacqueline Duke

 (Originally published in the Sept 25, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

The largest, deepest pool of equine talent ever assembled has arrived in Kentucky. And, no, it’s not the contenders for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Some 800 horses from all corners of the globe are converging on the Kentucky Horse Park for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, making Lexington inarguably the Equine Capital of the World from Sept. 25-Oct. 10.

During the 16-day run, horse-and-rider combinations from 58 nations will participate in eight internationally recognized disciplines: dressage, three-day eventing, show jumping, reining, driving, vaulting, endurance, and paraequestrian. For equine sport aficionados, it’s like having the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, World Cup soccer finals, and PGA Championship back to back in one location.

The United States made the successful bid four years ago to host the 2010 event, the first World Games ever staged on American soil. Securing, organizing, and producing the Games has been no easy task, particularly in the wake of a worldwide recession. Ticket sales have fallen well below the projected 600,000-plus, causing organizers to abandon free shuttle service and other amenities and to charge high prices for parking. The high cost of attending the Games has drawn much criticism. Other worries abound, from potential traffic nightmares to the impression downtown Lexington will make on worldly visitors.

Whatever trepidations might exist about its staging, the 2010 Games promise an unsurpassed level of competition in a venue whose scope and horse-friendly features far exceed those ever envisioned by Horse Park founders. The Games also will let the Bluegrass show off its finest product—the Thoroughbred—on course, at breeding farms, and, toward the end of the Games, at the Keeneland fall race meet.

While the Thoroughbred has a rich and well-known legacy as a racing animal, its contributions to other equine sports are significant both in terms of blood and accomplishment. When the Kentucky Horse Park held its very first competition, the 1978 World Championships for eventing, American Bruce Davidson and the ex-racehorse Might Tango galloped home on the new cross country course to take individual gold. The emergence of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event as one of the world’s premier competitions coincided with a run of great Thoroughbred eventers starting in the 1980s. Who can forget Davidson and his wonderful gallopers JJ Babu and Dr. Peaches, who won Rolex a record three times…Kim Severson and Winsome Adante…Phillip Dutton and The Foreman. Many ex-racehorses who didn’t quite find their stride on traditional ovals have found their stakes-winning form in the galloping lanes and over the taxing, tricky obstacles at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The Thoroughbred is well represented in the three-day event at the World Equestrian Games. The charismatic ex-claimer Courageous Comet, recent winner of the Rood & Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the Year Award, and rider Becky Holder will represent the United States as individuals, as will Madiba and Karen O’Connor. Three of the four members of the U.S. three-day team are also mounted on Thoroughbreds, one of them being Bruce “Buck” Davidson Jr., on the scene 32 years after his father’s great triumph.

It’s been many years since a Thoroughbred dominated international show jumping. And with the exception of the American-bred Keen in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, dressage has always been a warmblood’s game. Nevertheless, the Thoroughbred is represented in the ancestry of a wide range of World Games competitors, including the Dutch stallion Moorlands Totilas, whom connoisseurs consider perhaps the greatest dressage horse ever. And what would the modern Quarter Horse, and hence reining horse, be without the Thoroughbred? An infusion of heart here; a dose of agility, there—the Thoroughbred has contributed to the best qualities of horses bred for nearly every discipline.

The Thoroughbred-World Equestrian Games connection also exists in the form of Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, the international Thoroughbred owner/breeder who is expected to compete in the 100-mile endurance test. Chester Weber, scion of Live Oak Stud, is the national four-in-hand driving champion and a hot favorite for a medal. Tina Konyot, the national dressage champion, is the girlfriend of Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield, who no doubt will be in the stands cheering her on.

Ties to the Thoroughbred make it fitting, then, that the 2010 World Equestrian Games are taking place at the Kentucky Horse Park, in the shadow of the oversized statue of Man o’ War and under the curious gazes of champion retirees Cigar and Funny Cide. We welcome the Games to Kentucky and hope the 2010 edition is just the first.

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