October 18, 2013--The 70th anniversary of that history-making event takes place next year, but at the same time, Normandy is preparing for another momentous occasion -- the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The WEG is, of course, an amazing phenomenon. Let me throw some numbers at you: Eight world championship disciplines (and two exhibition disciplines) involving 60 countries and 1,000 competitors, all put together with the help of 3,000 volunteers from Aug. 23-Sept. 7, 2014.
It's an understatement to say staging something of that magnitude is a major challenge. Yet at the end of my first visit to Normandy last week, I concluded that both the region in Northern France and Alltech will be up to the task.
I have been to every WEG since the first one in Stockholm 23 years ago. We have seen varying degrees of success and efficiency. In the '90s, two locations, France and Ireland, won the bid but lost the Games when the financial backing wasn't there to carry it off. As time has gone on and the concept developed, however, there is a better perception of what it takes to present this enormous undertaking that does so much to raise the profile of horse sports.
Alltech, a forward-thinking animal health and nutrition company, has an advantage here. You'll remember Alltech was the title sponsor for the the 2010 WEG in Lexington, Ky., where it gained first-hand knowledge of the ups and downs involved. Now it's all-in for the 2014 WEG, which you'll see advertised on 76.5 million bags of feed. Alltech's input and support are crucial to the implementation of the WEG, as they should be; its reputation is on the line. The name of the event puts Alltech ahead of the acronym FEI and even the words "World Equestrian Games."
It's a commitment that guarantees this WEG will be well-played in every respect.
During a dinner in Normandy, I was able to spend some time with Fabien Grobon, the canny WEG CEO, who I first met at the 2010 WEG. He easily has made the transition from the world of tennis, where he was involved with the French federation, to the world of horse sports.
Naturally, we talked about Kentucky and how his experience there relates to this WEG.
Normandy and Kentucky both have a strong horse orientation, but the style differs. Normandy is not just a place, it's an experience. Long before the WEG horses arrive, the setting beckons. Visually, green and gorgeous Normandy is known for its agriculture. It's liberally dotted with cattle and sheep; not surprisingly, the cheese and butter are amazing. Calvados, a potent apple brandy, is the drink of choice for many in Normandy (just as bourbon is in Kentucky), but don't worry, you'll find plenty of wine to accompany the wonderful meals for which France is known.
Unlike the WEGs in Stockholm, Aachen (2006) and Kentucky (2010), all the Normandy competitions are not on one site. The hub of the WEG is Caen, a drive of about 2 and 1/2 hours from Charles de Gaulle airport and Paris. The bustling city, with a full array of restaurants, shops and entertainment, hosts show jumping, dressage, para-dressage, reining, driving, vaulting and the stadium jumping phase of eventing. Dressage and eventing will be in the city's 21,000-seat soccer stadium, where I am assured there are no bad vantagepoints.
Endurance will have a unique backdrop in quaint Mont-St.- Michel, an abbey atop a 264-foot-high island that also has housing and shops. The island is a scenic drive southwest to the coast from Caen. Southeast from the city is the Haras du Pin national stud, known as "Versailles for horses." That is where the eventing dressage and cross-country will take place.
Like everything else in Normandy, it seems, history is a big part of the picture at Haras du Pin, spread across nearly 2,500 acres. The current occupants of the stalls range from old-fashioned, very stout Percherons to a Barb (a gift from the king of Morocco) and modern sport horses. The stud features a museum, a great gift shop and a chateau, in addition to the obvious attractions.
Seafood is king in charming Deauville, a fave of the rich and famous, where the exhibition polo matches will be held. Horse ball, a combo of rugby (with its athlete contact) and basketball that is popular in France, is the other exhibition, which will be contested in Saint-Lo.
But if you don't feel like moving from Caen, there is still plenty to do. A trade fair, exhibitions and entertainment will be held in a "village" area that can be accessed inexpensively and provide hours of amusement.
Fabien and I talked about the venue and attracting non-equestrians to the games.
WEGs are memorable not only for the competition (how incredible is it to have eight world championships in a little more than two weeks), but also for the entire experience of being in a foreign country. There you will will find friends wherever you roam. It's not just the folks you know, though I guarantee there will be plenty of those. But with horses as a common interest, you'll meet so many people with whom you can share the excitement and discovery of the World Games.
There's still plenty of time to plan. Think about a sidetrip to the Normandy beaches or some of the other sights in this lovely region. Go to www.alltechfeiweg2014normandy.com for more info. Next year, I'll be doing preview articles for Dressage Today and Practical Horseman before I head back to France for the Games themselves. And in the meantime, we'll keep track of the selection trials and competitions leading up to the WEG on EquiSearch.