September 25, 2010 -- After the waiting, the anticipation and yes, the hype, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games finally are upon us in all their amazing reality at the Kentucky Horse Park.
I wasn't quite believing it actually had happened until I walked into the stadium tonight for opening ceremonies and saw a cavalcade of horses and celebrities in the center of the same arena where I'm more accustomed to watching the dressage and show jumping phases of Rolex Kentucky.
It's the same arena, but not the same arena. Small bleachers have been replaced with towering versions that were filled (except for one small corner) with fans, true fans, who were in horse heaven.
Culver Academy's Black Horse Troupe, the largest remaining cavalry unit in the U.S., made an impressive flag-filled presence as the World Equestrian Games chorus (doesn't every WEG have one?) and a symphony orchestra did justice to our national anthem. It was all pretty impressive and overwhelming, with a huge crowd that appreciated every moment.
The University of Kentucky cheerleaders with their silver pompoms, an Indian chief and his braves, accents from around the globe and country music, as well as celebrities--Kentucky native Muhammad Ali (in a teal Ford Fairlane convertible from the early '60s), William Shatner, jockey Chris McCarron--made this a night to remember that is just the start of an event none of us will ever forget.
As always, the parade of athletes intrigued and inspired, just as it does in the Olympics. Practically every nation had something distinctive about them. The riders from Bahrain wore desert garb; the Aussies had a kangaroo on top of their golf cart (no, not a real one, a blow-up kanga.) The U.S. team, led by four-in-hand driver Tucker Johnson and eventer Karen O'Connor, naturally drew the biggest applause and cheers, but the spectators were polite to everyone and I think everyone marching felt very welcome.
The world has come to see what we have to offer, and it's a lot more than Wynonna Judd singing, "My Old Kentucky Home" (though her performance certainly was spine-tingling.)
Let me put it this way: It's going to be one amazing WEG.
While I feel as if I've been living with the prospect of the 2010 WEG for eons, imagine how it's been for John Nicholson, the park's executive director working every day amidst the construction and the pressure. I'm sure it's equivalent to what athletes feel in their long run-up as they go for the gold. I chatted with John during my travels today, and here's how he sees it:
Oh, the opening ceremonies were so dazzling I nearly forgot about the competition. Reining started today in the brand new Alltech arena, and the U.S. took the lead in the contest for medals that will be awarded tomorrow.
The aggregate scores of Craig Schmersal on Mister Montana Nic (223.5) and 2006 WEG individual silver medalist Tim McQuay (220.5) aboard Hollywood Tinseltown, got America off to a good start with 444 points, followed by Austria (432.50) and Brazil (425).
Tim is looking to get another individual medal, and was generally pleased with his ride, but seemed really thrilled simply about being in the WEG.
But it was Stefano Massignan of Italy who topped the rankings with 224 points on Yellow Jersey, a fabulous palomino standout in a field flush with palominos.
Actually, this eventually might be good news for the USA. The personable Stefano, who is married to a woman from New Mexico, is moving there later this year and hopes to become an American citizen. The reining team as melting pot; I can see it now.
One of the big draws for reining today was someone on yet another palomino, dressage queen and Olympic multi-gold medalist Anky van Grunsven on Whizashiningwalla. Despite being resplendent in sparkling orange and black, she's not quite reining royalty yet, finishing 14th with 211 points, but she had a ball. Though Anky was critical of her spins, she liked her circles (she noted that doing them well was a legacy from her years in dressage.)
Anky hadn't counted on coming to the WEG. The Dutch dressage team, considered a shoo-in for the gold, didn't need her, and she was only the alternate for the reining squad. But a horse that was on the team had problems, so she moved up. She had a blast. Let her tell you about it.
There were so many little things I liked about the reining. They played one of my favorite songs, "Meet Me In Montana" when Mister Montana Nic was running his pattern. Lyle Lovett was singing (not in person) when his horse, Smart and Shiney, was going for the Italian team. Smart and Shiney (yes, ANOTHER palomino) had the longest, most luxurious mane. I just wanted to wrap myself in it. It hung well below his neck and floated in the air when he did his spins. No more mane-pulling for me; my horses are gonna get a new hairstyle!
As you can imagine with an event that is as promotional of things Kentucky as it is of horses, there's a lot of bourbon on the side here. I went into the Kentucky experience and bellied up to the bourbon tasting bar. Since I was working, I couldn't have any, but I enjoyed myself vicariously by watching Donna and Greg Chandler of Indianapolis doing some sampling. Greg is a polo player and he said he'd like to see that in the WEG, along with some steeplechasing.
If I pass that suggestion along to the group that is putting on the next WEG in Normandy, France, four years from now, I'm sure all involved will pass out en masse.
This is the biggest WEG since the concept began in 1990, and it's as big as I can imagine any WEG could be. I wish everyone good luck and I'll keep you posted, starting with the reining team finals and endurance tomorrow.
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