The week after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event has become the traditional time for airing the NBC broadcast of America’s premier eventing competition. This started because they used to run it immediately before the Kentucky Derby, as a lead-in, but it’s run standing alone for several years now.
In the horse world, few things are more controversial than the content and presentation of this annual broadcast. And this year has been no exception.
In the past, the producers have attempted to give the broadcast a live feel—culminating by showing the top 10 horses doing their show jumping rounds in their entirety, following pretty extensive cross-country coverage of the major players and about 30 seconds of dressage. In fact, for the last decade or so, the Rolex Kentucky show jumping has been shown live in Europe. They didn’t do it this time, though, and I don’t know why.
This year, a completely new production team took a different tack, by presenting the event more like a feature than a newsy sports broadcast—profiling about half a dozen riders and their horses, showing some relatively lengthy interviews, and interspersing it with snippets of competition. Think an NFL Films version of a Super Bowl, versus what you watch on Super Bowl Sunday.
Not surprisingly, people who couldn’t attend Rolex Kentucky in person or watch the extraordinary coverage available online on USEF Network have been, judging from online comments, rather disappointed by the new show. If you wanted to watch the full round in any phase of a given pair, you were out of luck. If you wanted to see a strictly linear recounting of the competition, you weren’t going to be happy.
But, honestly, I thought it was a good idea, an improvement over past presentations. In today’s world of instant Internet and tablet coverage, there’s no point in pretending that it’s live (or nearly live) coverage, because we know it isn’t. It’s silly to even pretend that viewers (at least most of them) are watching the TV show to find out who won. That news is a week old.
The new, featurey focus on several riders, showing them behind the scenes as well as in competition, made the viewer feel personally invested in their outcome. The format also allowed some of the best, in-depth description of how the sport and its scoring works that I’ve ever seen.
My wife, Heather, has been competing in eventing since the ‘80s, and her non-horsie parents still don’t understand the scoring—but this broadcast would have helped them and others like them. Heck, they even answered the question I’ve gotten most frequently from the non-initiated over the years: “Why is it called a three-day event when it runs over four days?”
OK, it wasn’t perfect. We’d have done some things differently. A graphic overview of the cross-country course would have helped viewers understand the enormity of the undertaking. Actually, more cross-country coverage in general would have been better—it’s the phase that always captivates people.
Still, I think this was one of the most successful depictions of eventing I’ve ever seen. Our riders came across as thinking, feeling, intelligent, normal folks. Our horses were shown with affection and brilliance. The story was compelling and easy to follow. All of those are good things on a TV show.
But, most importantly of all, the broadcast showcased, in words and pictures, the extraordinary bond between the riders and their horses. And that, to me, is the true heart of our sport. The extraordinary level of trust and care between horse and rider shined through in nearly ever scene, and it had to choke you up a bit.
It’s always fun to see horses on TV. It’s even better when at the end you feel like they got it right.
Oh, and California Chrome sure got it right in the Kentucky Derby the day before. Those of us who live here on the West Coast are really hoping that a California-bred will break the Triple Crown jinx after 37 years!