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February 6, 2011

Overall Horseman Of The Year: Jane Beshear, John Nicholson, Jamie Link, John Long

Photo curtesy of Alltech

"A lot of serendipity was involved with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games,” suggested John Nicholson, for whom the 16 days in September and October were the climax of a 16-year dream.

“People were doing things 30 and 40 years ago that led to these Games, when they really didn’t know that they were doing it.”

That serendipity began back in 1974, when Bruce Davidson won the individual gold medal at the World Three-Day Event Championships, giving the United States the right to hold the 1978 World Championships. His victory dramatically pushed forward the founding of the Kentucky Horse Park, and the success of those historic championships led to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 1979. Without the creation of the country’s biggest and most diverse horse park, and the annual hosting of the three-day event, the bid for the 2010 WEG would have been just a dream.

Perhaps most serendipitous, though, was the only slightly more than accidental formation of a WEG “dream team,” the four people we’re honoring here for their leadership of the staff and volunteers who would produce the first World Equestrian Games ever held outside of Europe. The Games set records for attendance and TV coverage and finished on budget, despite the Great Recession.

Nicholson has been the director of the Kentucky Horse Park since 1996 and became the president of the 2010 WEG Foundation, the non-profit organization that ran the Games. John Long has been the chief executive officer of the U.S. Equestrian Federation since January 2004, and he committed the USEF to full support of the Games when Nicholson first visited him three weeks after taking office. Long became the chairman of the WEG Foundation in early 2008.

Jamie Link knew almost nothing about horse sports, but in what he thought was the twilight of his varied career in Kentucky state government, he became deputy director of the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007. Two years later, Nicholson and Long asked him to lend them his administrative expertise by becoming the foundation’s chief executive officer.

Finally and critically, Jane Beshear, the first lady of Kentucky and an ardent event rider and foxhunter, served on the foundation’s Board of Directors. Beshear tirelessly promoted the Games, acted as the official Kentucky state ambassador, and guided state support in the final critical years before the Games commenced.

These four—who each live in or near Lexington—certainly weren’t the only people whose efforts made the 2010 Games a far more spectacular event than had seemed possible, even well into 2010. Three vice presidents did all the heavy lifting in competition, sponsorship and logistics and deserve full credit (see sidebar), along with some 4,000 staff members under them. More than 7,000 volunteers did jobs glorious and necessary, and almost always with a smile. And Pearse Lyons lent the support of his previously little-known company, Alltech, an alliance that made these Games work.

But Nicholson, Long, Link and Beshear provided the vision, the will and the leadership that pulled all these aspects together for the biggest event ever in U.S. horse sports. For that, they’re the Chronicle’s Horsemen of the Year for 2010.

In The Beginning Nicholson had been deputy director of the Kentucky Horse Park for four years when, in 1994, he left to run Equitana USA, the giant equestrian trade fair the owners were trying to franchise to Louisville, Ky., to augment the German version. There he met Michael Stone of Ireland, who was trying to organize the 1998 WEG at Punchestown. (The funding would fall through for those Games, forcing their relocation to Rome.)

Nicholson worked on Equitana from the owners’ headquarters in Orlando, Fla., and there he connected with Rob Hinkle, who’d also previously worked for the KHP and was then running events (especially horse events) for Disney World. Nicholson remembers one night when they had dinner at the Epcot Center and sketched out their dream of a WEG at the KHP on dinner napkins. And when he returned to the KHP to become director in 1996, he began to lay the foundation toward a bid he hoped to make for the 2006 WEG.

Hinkle returned to the KHP a few years later to manage the grounds, and he and Nicholson began upgrading the park’s competition facilities. Nicholson also paved the way for the American Horse Shows Association (now the USEF) to move to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1998, and then-President Alan Balch became an outspoken proponent of the KHP’s 2006 bid.

Along with representatives from Aachen (Germany), Nicholson and Balch made a final presentation to the FEI Executive Bureau at the 2002 WEG in Jerez, Spain, and lost in a 3-2 vote. They were horribly disappointed, but they learned their bid had two significant problems.

The first problem was the so-called “Seven Years War” between the AHSA and the U.S. Equestrian Team for the title of national and Olympic federation, an often-bitter conflict that would be resolved in December 2003 with the creation of the USEF. But in 2002, the FEI’s leaders were understandably anxious about Kentucky’s ability to host the WEG with a divided federation.

The second problem was a huge potential stumbling block—the importation of horses with positive titers for piroplasmosis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed positive horses to be imported to Atlanta in 1996, but they were placed under a strict quarantine protocol that the European riders “found humiliating,” said Nicholson.

“Consequently, there were FEI people who’d sworn a blood oath that there would never be an international champion-ship again in the United States.”

So in 2003 Nicholson appealed to veterinary experts in Kentucky for help. State veterinarian Dr. Robert Stoudt and his assistant Dr. Rusty Horn were immediately interested, despite the perceived danger to the state’s ultra-important Thoroughbred industry. They enlisted Dr. Peter Timoney of the University of Kentucky, and they started to do research to develop a protocol

“that would be based on science, not on politics or emotion,” said Nicholson.

Their research showed that positive horses represented little risk to Kentucky’s Thoroughbreds.

“And we learned something even more significant—that the American dog tick, which is the vector, becomes dormant in August. So one of the first decisions we made was that the World Equestrian Games would be held in September, not in August,”as had been done in 1990, 1994 and 2006, said Nicholson.

“This isn’t much talked about now, but it was a huge deal then.”

Added Nicholson,

“It took me a long, long time to admit it, but I think it was a blessing in disguise that we were given the additional time. There is value in having lots of time to plan and get all the different groups coordinated, because these Games have become nearly Olympian in level.”

Under Way

Long (and the USEF’s new president, David O’Connor) put the new USEF firmly behind the KHP bid in early 2004, and, as luck would have it, later that year sports-marketing genius Jim Host would be appointed Kentucky’s secretary of commerce, making him Nicholson’s boss.

Shortly after that, though, Nicholson discovered they had a big legal problem: Since the KHP is a state-owned facility, the Kentucky constitution requires any dispute arbitration to be adjudicated in Kentucky, but the FEI constitution requires all dispute arbitration to be done in Switzerland—requirements that meant Kentucky officials couldn’t sign a staging agreement with the FEI. So they created the 2010 WEG Foundation as a third party to sign the agreement.

With these problems solved, Nicholson and Long went to the 2005 FEI General Assembly and won. Now they had to get the KHP ready, especially upgrading the main stadium ($25 million), building the indoor stadium ($45 million) and making another $14 million in improvements.

The problem was that Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose administration had staunchly supported the KHP and the bid, was defeated in 2007 by Steve Beshear, and at first Nicholson and Long weren’t sure what the political fallout would be. Their worries were quickly abated. Gov. Beshear proved to be an even bigger supporter, and he moved the stalled funding necessary for these projects from one department to another. The new main stadium, now the Rolex Stadium, was built in a staggering nine months, in time for the 2009 Rolex Kentucky event.

“That was a 10- to 20-year master plan that we were able to compress into less than three years,” said Nicholson.

“While we appreciated what Gov. Fletcher had done, it was as if we were enjoying divine protection. There couldn’t have been anybody more enthusiastic about getting these things done than Gov. Beshear,” said Nicholson.

The Alltech Effect

Host would subsequently, and briefly, become the foundation’s first CEO, and his friendship with Lyons would bring Alltech on board.

That sponsorship is what would set these World Games apart from their five predecessors; the finances and manpower of Alltech, the brainchild of an Irishman who lives in Lexington, would do far more than just float the production through hard economic times.

“Alltech was far more than just a sponsor—we couldn’t have done it without them, and the Games were only just the beginning” of what Jane expects to see Alltech do. Alltech has already signed on to be a sponsor of the 2014 WEG in Normandy, France.

Long said that Lyons influenced this WEG in a very public way and in a behind-the-scenes way.
Link, who joked that his hair turned gray dealing with the WEG finances, said Alltech’s involvement was especially helpful in global promotion and marketing, and two months before the Games began, Lyons sent in more than 150 employees (including two of his executive assistants) to fill key staff positions until the WEG was over.

Alltech kicked in $10 million as the title sponsor, but their total investment was roughly $32 million over more than four years. Most of that didn’t go to the WEG as cash; most of it was in promotion (including construction and staffing of the giant Alltech Experience pavilion in the trade fair) and in human resources. That investment helped move an astonishing 507,022 spectators through the KHP gates over the 16 days. Link said that, as of early January, the final accounting hasn’t been completed on the WEG books, but that it “will be less than” the previously published budget of $76 million. He said that, since the WEG is a private foundation, it’s not legally required to make public its accounting, but “I’m pleased to say that we’re not going to lose one dime.”

The Legacy

The city of Lexington and the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Horse Park, and U.S. horse sports are reaping the benefits of the financial and competitive success of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. These Games have left a legacy beyond any other international equestrian championship, including the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

This year, the KHP is hosting 19 new events there because of the new indoor arena and the renewed Rolex Stadium.

But Link believes that’s just the beginning.

“I hope we made some new equestrian fans. We’re well-renowned for Thoroughbred racing, and I hope that it showed a whole new realm of horse sport to Kentucky,” he said.

“These Games were a game-changer for Lexington and central Kentucky in two ways,” said Nicholson.

“One, there’s a real recognition that horse sports have taken their respected place next to the Thoroughbred racing industry as an important part of why we can lay claim to being the horse capital of the world. Second, the confidence that has been produced in Lexington and central Kentucky in hosting major international events. Our community is ready to do this again, and the effects going on in our community are going to last for decades.”

Long said that the tentacles of the excellent attendance, the extraordinary amount of TV coverage (see sidebar), and the 300,000 video downloads reach far into horse sports, especially the lesser-known disciplines. The effects of the para-dressage championships, held for the first time at a WEG, have gone in a completely unexpected direction. Long said that a group of disabled veterans from the Iraq war watched the WEG and have contacted them about using the sport as therapy. He said that USEF staffers are now working with the government’s veterans-affairs office and other regional associations to turn this interest into action.

“That’s why I say that the effect of the WEG was transformational,” said Long.

“You can plan and plan, but when you get right down to it, it’s the conversations between smart people that lead to things you didn’t expect. That’s the fun part: You come up with unexpected things that no one in their right mind would have planned for. Who would have expected that we’d be working with Iraqi vets after the World Games?”

Said Jane,

“We were determined to make this more than just the eight disciplines. We wanted to make this a festival of the horse, which we could do better than any other WEG because of the horse park, and I think we succeeded in introducing the horse, and our passion for him, to an almost entirely new audience.”

Of course, the organizers did catch criticism (sometimes heated). The biggest complaints surrounded ticket and hotel prices and transportation into and around the KHP. The transportation complaints were largely made by U.S. spectators (and media) who were accustomed to their own way of getting into and around the KHP, methods that usually didn’t work because of the security requirements. But all four honorees said that, next time, ticket sales and their relationship with local hotels will be different.

Long wished they could have discouraged the Lexington hotels from doubling or tripling their rates.

“But it’s a free-market economy, and they did what they thought they could get,” he said.

London has passed a law that bars hotels from charging more than 5 percent above their average daily rate for the last three years during the 2012 Olympic Games, Long said, hoping Lexington could do something similar next time. Link would want to have a contract with hotels before making the next bid.

Ticket prices, said Link, were established during the heady days of 2006, after discussion with other WEG and international event organizers,

“and they said they seemed appropriate. Maybe they would have been had the economy been different, but by that time it was already done.”

They adjusted prices, mostly by offering special packages, in the last few months, a move that boosted sales. Long said they learned too that the world isn’t yet ready to only buy tickets online.

Despite these criticisms, our honorees hope that the fans who came, as well as the staff, volunteers, riders, drivers, vaulters and officials, still went home with memories like the ones they cherish.

Long will remember the WEG’s first day, just before the opening ceremonies.

“When the gates opened, several of us were down there watching the first people come in, and it was an emotional experience—to suddenly realize that the day had finally arrived,” he said.

But he cherishes a broader observation even more. After the dressage team championship medals had been awarded, he went to a favorite downtown restaurant and, with the restaurant’s owner, counted people wearing 11 different team jackets and speaking 14 different languages.

“That’s what sport does—it brings everyone together for awhile. All of the craziness—the wars, the politics, the bitterness—it all stops for awhile when you watch a great athlete and a great horse do something that just takes your breath away,” he said.

Said Jane with a smile,

“Being the mother of two grown sons, I felt like I had been pregnant for four years, and when it started it felt like we were in the delivery room. There was no question that this baby was going to arrive, and then she arrived with grace and dignity and tremendous success.”

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