Friday, 6 May 2011

Rolex Kentucky 3 Day Event - Officially Fabulous

RK3DE 2011 "Officially" Over
As Nigel Casserley might say over the loudspeakers of the Horse Park “Official Rolex Time is over for another year”, the scoreboard is finalised and with it my own Grand Slam, having at last visited Lexington for the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day Event. [interesting how this is titled a “3 day event’ yet Badminton & Burghley are titled as “horse trials”, historic I guess?]

So far it’s been a great year for big four stars, in terms of top class competition, Badminton produced one of the best competitions for many years, and benefited from the best weather it’s seen for some time. Rolex hit a few milestones too. Mary King took the top 2 slots, a first at Rolex, she’s the oldest woman to win a 4 star, and, and, and….

I missed the dressage due to business commitments (or that’s my story), so when I arrived in Lexington on Friday evening to discover a leaderboard with far fewer European based riders than I’d expected near the top, I was a little disappointed. Had the Americans finally caught up with Europe? Had Bettina Hoy spent way too much time in the US coaching? Or was this just a bunch of warmbloods doing what they do best. Missing dressage and the first horse inspection did mean I also managed to miss the tornado warnings, phew!, and by the time I arrived the weather had turned warm and balmy, which meant I had packed the right clothes for the trip after all.

I do want to try and steer clear of analysing the competition itself in this post as that will have been done by so many others, who are probably better placed than me to do so. Instead, what I have been more interested in are the subtleties of how this event differs from our top three events back in the UK. I’ve been to very few US events and from all the coverage I’ve previously seen; Rolex is a whole other ball game.

The Grandstands Were Full & Buzzing With Excitement
Each of the Grand Slam events, and all fours stars for that matter, have their own unique characteristics, and Rolex is no exception. The horse park has this enormous outdoor arena with permanent stands and a superb raised platform for a catered facility that sponsors make use of. This is perhaps the most striking visual difference you notice when you arrive, and what an atmosphere that creates for showjumping day, I was overwhelmed by the buzz in the stands. There may have been a smaller field going through to the final phase compared to a UK 4 star, but the grandstands were full, if not completely sold out.

An American “warm-up man” (I didn't catch his name) supplemented Nigel Casserley’s very English commentary on the final day, and made all the difference for a number of European based riders, including Joe Meyer who has recently moved to the US, and was riding the 19-y-o Snip, I remember hearing a few murmurs of surprise at the huge roaring welcome Snip got when he entered the arena, in part due to the warm-up man.

Mary King Doing "Fan Time" at Rolex
The Americans are very experienced at branding and promotion, and whilst main sponsor branding at Badminton & Burghley is quite sophisticated these days, Rolex I think has these two licked, when it comes to ‘bringing the message to the people’, they are very creative. Throughout both days [Sat & Sun] announcers would advise which riders would be at which stands and when, giving the eventing nation a chance to meet, greet and engage with their idols. I caught sight of Boyd Martin skipping off a golf buggy and rushing to the Chronicle Of The Horse stand for an autograph session with his adoring fans, and it’s this type of activity that will make gate numbers continue to rise.

This sort of thing of course happens in the tradestands at UK events as part of rider sponsorship deals or to sell that biography that has a timely publication to coincide with an event, but none promote all these activities as well as Rolex does, nor do they execute branding as well as Rolex does. Anything that brings the competitors into closer proximity to the audience will lead to a more buoyant fan base. I’m surprised no one has attempted to live feed the press conferences out to the big screens or hold more open Q&A sessions for the audience.

"Official Rolex Time: 10AM" | Start Of Cross Country
The horse park is a decent size, easily capable of the capacity crowds that any of the other 4*'s achieve, and the 30,000 people that pitched up on Saturday for cross country made the place feel like a much larger crowd. I could easily see this becoming a much bigger event than it currently is quite quickly.

Interestingly they held a lunchtime break on cross country day and this had the obvious effect of sending a surge into the tradestands and massive queues for food & beverages. Whilst there were only 45 or so runners, I personally wouldn’t have a break in the middle of the day, as I think this is less productive for stand holders, I would have opted for a later start, but I could easily be wrong.

Derek Di Grazia’s cross country course, as you would have expected, was still very much influenced by his predecessor Mike Etherington-Smith [that's not a poor reflection on Derek, merely an obvious logistical reality]. But a nice evenly paced course that required a carefully planned strategy to execute on your minute markers without tiring your horse, all of which, of course, had to be read in conjunction with the ever changing ground conditions throughout the day, and I noticed a few European based riders out on course double checking the going last thing, with only minutes to spare before needing to be mounted. I think these factors are where the mistakes lay for others.

Tailgating | Very Popular
"Tailgating” was introduced this year, a sort of ‘park your car near the cross country course and set up a picnic by your tail gate’. Again lots of fun for all involved, and a really nice, relaxed way to enjoy the action. Blenheim do something very similar in their lakeside field with just as much success. I love seeing these types of things at events, the more smiles this year, the more bums on seats next year.

For the previous 7 or 8 years I've done something similar on an informal basis at Badminton by the lake for my clients and staff and it always proves an enormous and over subscribed success, and most years we've even added a fence sponsorship for a bit of interest.

One Of The Mounted Volunteers That Impressed Me
I know it can sound clichéd but the friendliness of all the volunteers and staff at the event really was very noticeable, they clearly enjoy being part of the whole thing, and I was particularly impressed with a couple of the mounted volunteers out by the double corners on cross country who, when that nasty fall happened, stayed calm, polite and didn’t get all dictatorial and flustered, when managing the swelling crowd that was gathering to get sight of the accident.

So for once I attended a 4 star event as a punter and thoroughly enjoyed it. I met lots of people I hadn’t seen for some years, some I saw only last week at Badminton, some I’d only ever emailed and talked to on the phone, some I’d never met before, and I had a few very interesting dinners, one of which ended in one person getting a lift home in the boot of a car! [by choice]

All in all I’ve had a hectic but fabulous week in the US, Rolex was just one of the fun bits. As is customary for anyone visiting a horse trials , sorry 3 day event, here’s a selection of handy cam footage:



Rolex Kentucky 2011 | Mary King's Winning SJ Round

Rolex Kentucky CCI**** | Mary King Show Jumping Round

Rolex Kentucky CCI*** 2011 | Sinead Halpin

Rolex Kentucky CCI**** 2011| William Fox-Pitt Show Jumping Round

Rolex Kentucky CCI**** 2011 | Oliver Townend SJ Round

If you haven't been to Rolex, go!

1 comment:

  1. The "warm-up man" is Brian O'Connor, brother of David O'Connor