Tuesday, May. 28, 2024

Ask Any Competitor: Christina Gray Is The “Easy Button”

Competitors, trainers or even officials often come running into her office, their minds afire because of a schedule conflict, because there’s no water in the barn, or because they needed a ride to the airport 20 minutes ago. They’re ready to plead for a solution or to start a fight about it.

But Christina Gray will just listen calmly to their story, nod, and then pick up her walkie-talkie or cell phone to get someone to address the panic. Problem solved.

That’s why, as Staples says in their ad campaign, you can call Christina Gray “The Easy Button.”

PUBLISHED
ChristinaGray-T.jpg

ADVERTISEMENT

Competitors, trainers or even officials often come running into her office, their minds afire because of a schedule conflict, because there’s no water in the barn, or because they needed a ride to the airport 20 minutes ago. They’re ready to plead for a solution or to start a fight about it.

But Christina Gray will just listen calmly to their story, nod, and then pick up her walkie-talkie or cell phone to get someone to address the panic. Problem solved.

That’s why, as Staples says in their ad campaign, you can call Christina Gray “The Easy Button.”

The experience and demeanor of the 29-year-old Californian will be thoroughly tested this month as the new director of competition for Equestrian Events Inc., which runs the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Lisa Ball is also new at her job, since she’s only been the EEI president since last October. While she feels as if she’s been paddling furiously to get up to speed, she’s been amazed by Gray’s ease at the helm. “Her heart is really in the event and in the sport, and she is so in control of everything,” said Ball.

Actually, this will be Gray’s third year of sitting in the Kentucky cockpit, since she was hired in the early spring of 2009 and then spent two years shadowing her legendary predecessor, Janie Atkinson, at Rolex Kentucky and at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

“I watched how Janie dealt with her different volunteer chairmen and how she interacted with the [EEI] board, which is a volunteer, working board, learning how they all interacted together and the infrastructure Janie had set up,” said Gray.

“Janie didn’t actually give me any words of advice,” Gray continued. “She said, ‘This is how I’ve done it, and you’ll learn to make it your own.’ I’ve just tried to live up to her expectations and fill in her shoes.”

West Coast competitors know that Gray will fill those shoes well. They’re happy for Gray that she’s taken over the country’s premier event, but they’re sad for themselves. The thought of going to Galway Downs (Calif.) or Woodside (Calif.) or Rebecca Farm (Mont.) and not seeing her sitting behind the desk when they arrive was almost unimaginable. Fortunately, she’s not completely gone, and she’s filled her own shoes with capable successors when she can’t be there because of her Rolex Kentucky obligations.

Robert Kellerhouse, the organizer of the Galway Downs and Woodside events, hired Gray to be his show secretary in 2003, “because I needed help! Over the years she’s grown to become an integral part of our shows’ success. Her attention to certain details has allowed me to take the event in directions I never thought possible. She’s always handled the office for me, and that allows me to keep my plans moving forward,” he said.
Investment Banker?

ADVERTISEMENT

Gray grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., about 60 miles north of San Francisco, and at age 6 she started to ride at the European Pony School run by Yves and Christine Sauvig-non at their Oak Ridge Stables. She continued on in their training program, and when Oak Ridge started running events in the mid-’90s (from beginner novice to intermediate), Gray joined in, doing everything from picking rocks on the cross-country course to processing entries.

“It was something I enjoyed doing, so I did more than others, and it eventually grew into a career,” she recalled.
But before that, she left for college, at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, majoring in financial services management, because she thought she was going to be an investment banker. Since the Oak Ridge event was in July, she remained a part of the competition, which by the time Gray graduated in 2002 had grown to more than 300 entries before its demise in 2004.

“I didn’t think this is what I would be doing, but I decided I had to be happy with what I was doing, so that’s how this started,” said Gray. Ball said that Gray’s financial training and experience handling other events’ finances has allowed her to educate the EEI board about where money comes from and where it goes.

Her business as show secretary and organizer’s assistant grew stead-ily after she began at Galway Downs, which hosts international events in the spring and fall and one or two more horse trials each year. When she got the job at Twin Rivers, which also hosts two international events and more each year, she moved to Paso Robles, where Twin Rivers is located in central California. From there she could travel relatively easily to the northern and southern parts of the state, as well as to the events she worked in Washington, Montana and Arizona.
Eventually she was working at 20 competitions a year, a number she’s cut back to 14, in addition to Rolex Kentucky. She can’t personally be at all of them, especially the events before Kentucky, so she hires two to three other people to fill in for her.

And the organizers aren’t complaining, because Gray has a way of getting things done, with no muss
and no fuss.

“Her role in Kentucky will only help to make her a better part of our team at Galway Downs and Woodside,” said Kellerhouse, admitting, “Watching Christina in action in her new role is kind of different for me, in that I need to keep my thoughts to myself and let her run the event the way she sees fit.”

Succeeding A Legend

The first time Gray saw Rolex Kentucky was as a groom in 1998, the first year it was a four-star, “so it’s kind of weird to come here full circle.”

She added, “I’m very excited and honored that I’ve been put in this place, filling Janie’s shoes—she’s a legend, and I hope to be able to continue in the great way that she did for the last 25 years.”

EEI employs four full-time staff members and one part-timer to run Rolex Kentucky, along with contractors for things like catering, tents, electricity, TV and media relations. Gray estimates that several hundred people
are paid to work before or during Rolex Kentucky, but then there are dozens of volunteer committees who
deal with everything from sponsorship and ticket sales to competition stewarding, jump judging, crowd control and prizes.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Like any other event, we count on volunteers. It’s just that our volunteer base, instead of being a hundred, is a couple of thousand,” said Gray. This year, for the first time, volunteers could sign up online.

The fans who come on April 28-May 1 will see some new things this time, like tailgating and an international reining competition (see sidebar). But Gray promises that other, subtler advances are underway too.

“It’s already such a great competition. Now how can we use the communication tools we have today to make it so much better?” said Gray. “Our No. 1 priority is the competition, but there’s more. We’d like to continue to grow the base of eventing fans with the local people.”

To do that, Gray moved the popular party at Spindle-top Hall for sponsors and competitors from Thursday night to Wednesday night, so that both groups can go to the kick-off event of the community concert series in downtown Lexington. Rolex will be the title sponsor of the event-themed evening.

“I hope this will get the riders to see the downtown that we all miss during the event and that it will allow the people who live here to see who we are,” said Gray.

Last September’s WEG has given Rolex Kentucky a big boost among the local Kentucky population, which previously had largely thought the only horse sport was Thoro-ughbred racing.

Gray spent much of the WEG sitting in the Rolex Kentucky booth in the trade fair, and she was sur-
prised how often she had to explain their event to local fans.

“It was amazing how many local people said this was their first time at the Horse Park and first time hearing about Rolex,” she said. “They were really ecstatic to hear there was a big competition that happens every year here and that they could keep coming to see it. We told people, ‘Hey, you can come back out and relive it every year!’ ”

The WEG left other positive effects, like improvements to the Rolex Main Stadium and to the footing on the cross-country course, but it also gave them less time to prepare for this year’s event. The usually quiet and reflective summer months became hectic, because almost everyone who works at Rolex Kentucky also worked at the WEG and because they needed to have tickets ready for sale at the WEG.

“We really want to try to build off of what the WEG brought us. It was a huge leap in getting the community to learn more about the KHP and Rolex,” said Gray, noting that their volunteer list has grown and they’ve had more vendors than ever wanting to be in the trade fair.

Still, she said, “In every decision I make, the tradition of the event is something I try to hold in my mind. When-ever I try to do things to keep up with the times, I ask if it’s something that needs to be done, or should I keep it the same to make it a better, stronger event?”

Categories:

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

No Articles Found

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse