This year marked the 18th time in 19 years I've attended the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event (writes my wife, Heather Bailey, in this week?s blog). Sixteen of those times I was there as either a member of the press or a member of the media center staff, but it's the other two times that have extra-special meaning for me.
There isn?t any part of this show I don't enjoy, but the moment that warms my heart and makes me feel nostalgic is what I call the ?crew shot.? it's a moment that many people never see, unless they're standing at the finish line or carefully watching the online cross-country coverage. It happens after horse and rider have cantered across the finish line of the cross-country course (either in triumph or defeat), when a mob of people comes running to greet the horse and rider. They give hugs to the riders and pats to the horses, as they start ripping the tack off and offering water to both.
If you're a top-level professional, some of that crew is probably paid grooms (although I've seen plenty of owners and family members in there, no matter how famous the rider), but if you're one of the first-timers (there were a record 13 this time) or a lesser-known pro, your crew is likely made up of friends, family and sundry others.
The first two times I went to Rolex, I was one of those crew. I was grooming for my best friend, a 20-something rider, trying to make a name for herself with, first, a backyard-bred Hanoverian with a heart as big as all out doors and front legs that looked like Charlie Chaplin?s and then with a rescued Mexican off-the-track-Thoroughbred.
I attended Kentucky those years at my own expense; I left the hotel in the dark and returned in the dark, and I was hungry, cold and tired much of the weekend. And it was utterly fantastic. I cried when she galloped across the finish line?both times. There were hugs, and tears, and moments when the stress made us all snap at each other (which was usually followed by more hugs and tears), and at the end of the weekend, with ribbons in hand, we watched the Kentucky Horse Park disappear behind us and tried to commit every moment of it to memory.
So I get a little misty when I watch that moment happen again and again at the finish line. This weekend, I saw Kristi Nunnink and her horse R-Star (?Rosie?) being looked after by her childhood friend Val Owen and Buck Davidson being aided by both of his parents, even though they were divorced years ago. I saw moms wielding sweat scrapers, dads carrying muddy tack, and barn rats of all ages walking, carrying, spongeing and scraping. I saw owners who wouldn?t be out of place in the fanciest of society pages up to their arms in mud and ice water and husbands and parents watching cross-country rounds through their fingers on the in-box TV screen, like teenagers watching the latest exploits of Freddy or Jason.
For the riders who come home clear, it's all high fives, slaps on the back, and smiles and champagne all around. For those whose weekends don't go as planned, it's tears and hugs and ?It?ll be OK, you'll get ?em next time.? I suspect that's when those contributions of friends and family are even more important. Everybody loves a winner, but it's the guys who don't win that need people around them who can make them feel like a winner.
Eventing has always been a sport of teamwork, especially between the horses and their riders. But the ?team? is really a huge conglomeration of people who love that horse and rider in such a pure way that they give up money, time, sleep and their natural hair color just to be there to support them (because watching someone you love do a four-star, no matter how well they do it, causes gray hair).
I know the riders appreciate their crews. But when I watch the footage shown online or on TV, I often wonder if those watching at home know who that group of people rushing to the horse and rider are, or if they just think, ?Wow, a lot of groupies that person has.?
I've been a paid groom at big competitions, as well a ?friend groom.? I've groomed for my husband at many events, and I've groomed for horses I owned or bred who were being ridden by professionals. it's a labor of love that's both heavy on the labor and heavy on the love. And I wouldn?t trade those memories for the world.