Eventing fans and top-level competitors were disappointed to learn today, Feb. 2, that the country’s biggest event, the Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L, will not run in 2021.
A year after the 2020 event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s edition faced financial difficulties relating to the pandemic that were too much to overcome.
Officials from Equestrian Events, Inc., the company that organizes the event, announced that a CCI4*-S will run instead over the last weekend in April with the potential for a CSI3* grand prix show jumping competition to take place as well.
We spoke with EEI Executive Director Lee Carter to learn more about the decision to cancel this year and the future of the longstanding fan favorite event.
COTH: What made it possible to run the four-star but not the five-star?
Carter: Cost is a big thing. You start digging into the five-star requirements with prize money and CCTV and other costs associated with running the five-star; it becomes a little bit of a challenge.
For us, it made more sense to look at the four-star. We know the U.S. team needs that for qualifying for Tokyo. We felt like that would be the better option for us to focus our efforts on.
You have the jumps and the stabling and other important pieces there for the five-star. Is there a reason that couldn’t be run without spectators?
It really comes down to the financial cost. If spectators want a refund, we’ll give them a refund; same with sponsors and other vendors. We have a reserve fund right now that will cover all of those refunds. If everyone said, “We want a refund” right now, we can do that 100 percent.
What’s left is a very small pool of dollars. We would be unable to produce the five-star because of the cost associated with it—the prize money, infrastructure—those kinds of things. With the four-star the revenue is a little bit different. We have a larger pool of four-star horses than there are five-star horses. We can run other levels, which we can do with the five-star too, but running them with the four-star is a different revenue model not built on spectators. So at the end of the day, it came down to finances. How can we stretch a dollar a little bit further and provide the opportunity for a wide range of people to come here and compete and still have the integrity for the association moving forward?
Was there a possibility to run it behind closed doors like Badminton?
There wasn’t. Running behind closed doors would be the same for us as running without spectators. We have to refund all the same funds. Financially, behind closed doors or whatever, it doesn’t make sense for us. We’re not in that financial position to be able to do that.
Was there a benefit to canceling now versus waiting a bit longer?
We’re 11 weeks out. We were at a point of no return. We had been unable to or held off on signing major contracts for vendors to provide services for the event—details we knew competitors needed to come because we had some interest from overseas. We needed to either move forward with an absolute certainty that April was going to happen with spectators, or we needed to make a decision that that wasn’t going to happen and what was next.
We worked closely with [the U.S. Equestrian Federation] and had numerous conversations. This was a joint conversation. It was not made in a vacuum. They were great through the whole process, but we had to decide that this was the point where we had to start making serious plans and move forward.
We’ve had the second strain of the virus that’s out there now and creating some uncertainty in the communities, and we felt this was the right decision and the right time to make it.
How much did the state of Kentucky’s policies go into your decision?
[Kentucky is allowing spectators at sporting events] at different levels and different sports. The commonwealth’s current plan dictates that you can have 50 percent capacity at events or a venue, provided everyone is socially distant and meets the CDC and COVID guidelines they’ve set forth.
The state was very supportive. We had been talking with the [Kentucky] Horse Park—they’re open for business, and cabinet level officials and Governor Beshear’s office, the secretary of Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage—and they were very supportive. Governor Beshear has outlined a process for events to happen and meeting certain requirements, and we were as prepared to meet those as we were prepared to meet the parameters for USEF, but again, it really came down to that there are so many unknowns that are evolving daily with the virus that we just had to decide.
So spectators are a large part of your revenue?
Yes. Gross number [for EEI’s events total revenue is] somewhere around $5-6 million a year. $5 million without the [USEA American Eventing Championships] and then upwards when we add that in. Ticket sales are about 40 percent of that. It’s a big chunk of that puzzle. When you don’t have that revenue, it’s kind of hard to make the numbers work.
We only sell tickets for the five-star and the grand prix. The five-star event makes up about $4 million of that revenue.
How many spectators would be required to make sponsors happy if you did bring them in?
We had talked about 50 percent. We felt that 50 percent was the number we could say to our sponsors that was a good enough crowd to justify their investment but also was a good enough crowd that would financially make it feasible for us to run.
I’m certain we’ll [think about a virtual trade fair]. We’re swimming upstream on this, but we are looking at options there. With this other show we’re trying to develop, there will be some small vendor opportunities as there are at every horse show right now.
Were you able to look at Tryon [North Carolina] and Great Meadow [Virginia] and learn anything from those events running under 2020 restrictions?
We looked at everybody that ran. The challenge is that Tryon and Great Meadow are great events, but they’re not really trying to run with the spectator level that we do. They’re more competition focused. The events we looked at more closely were ones that had a spectator component to them. That was what we knew would be the determining factor for us, so we spent our time trying to see what they were doing and what we could implement on our side.
What will the event in April offer to fans?
We want to figure out a way that even if they can’t be here on the grounds that they can watch it and enjoy it. We don’t know the levels yet, but if we’re able to offer multiple [competition] levels—we know that people grew up, and it was their dream or their goal to be able to compete in Kentucky on the last week of April. We might not be running the five-star, but there’s something mystical about the Kentucky Horse Park that last weekend of April. It’s almost magical. I think that there will be an energy to it that folks could come and compete on that weekend and ride in Rolex stadium—I think it could be real fun.
We’re looking at some national level opportunities. It will be more than one division. We’re trying to figure that piece out. How neat would it be if there was a preliminary or modified level class and to be able to compete in that same kind of climate and atmosphere?
If guidelines change for the better or things improve by April, would spectators be allowed?
If things improve, that would be our goal. We would work with U.S. Equestrian on that. We’ll follow their guidelines and what they set forward.
How’s the state of EEI right now?
We applied for the first Payroll Protection Program and received that. We applied for an economic disaster loan that was available through the CARES Act and received that. We just received the second round of payroll protection. That helps. We are a 501(c)(3) and have limited resources. It gives us a little bit more breathing room. Because of that, we’ll be able to make it work. It doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult at times and challenging at times, but I do think we can make it work.
What is the likelihood of running the five-star in 2022?
I think it will run. We’ll have some challenges and bumps along the way, but I have zero reason to think we won’t be able to run. Had you asked me last March or April if we’d run the 2021 event? Well yeah, we’re going to run it. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that things can change, and you’re going to have to adapt. But without question, I see no reason why we can’t run the 2022 event. We’re going to be flexible and nimble and do whatever we’ve got to do to get there. I know the board of directors of our organization has given a lot to this group, as has the entire eventing community, and we’re going to honor that and do whatever we can to keep it going.