Our new handicapper reflects on the impact of this event and the legacy of Jimmy Wofford’s role.
When Jimmy Wofford started doing the preview of the riders for Kentucky, it was the most important issue of the year for the eventers, and many other equestrians finally followed the best week of the year because of it. He was funny, irreverent and harsh, but always truthful. He had favorites and supported them unabashedly. When you saw your name on that list you would cringe a little with trepidation, yet you had to read his assessment with respect because, well, he saw more from the outside than we could from the horse’s back.
Apparently the first year went over so well that no one would speak to him when he arrived at the show. So of course when I was asked to step up to lose a bunch of friends and spend the week of Kentucky in silence, I said absolutely!
There will be no replacing Jimmy, and I take this responsibility with respect to the legacy he created very seriously. I will have a different take from Jimmy because my past is much different. I’ve competed here on quality and also brought horses just for the ride. I’ve had some of my best days here and some that taught me how hard it is to get the bluegrass stains out of white breeches. (Pressure washing after soaking in soapy water works best for reference.) No illustrious wins, one close second was the best I could do. I’ve had students successfully run around here, and a horse my father and I bred, but my love for this sport was built on the quest to have a Kentucky horse. Jimmy helped fill the stands, and I for one will miss reading his insight and am humbled to submit my review. I’ve done a lot of reading of stats with the help of my wonderful wife, Jennifer Carter (who rode the aforementioned homebred around twice).
There has been much said about the difficulty of running the event this year, and I will only touch on parts of it. When the event was canceled because of lack of funding, the eventing community did what it does best: rallied around a few driven and opinionated women of action who, in a ridiculously short time frame, created enough grassroots support to fill the budget gap. They took any noes and maybes and turned them into yeses. The result is here to be witnessed, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to Sara Kozumplik Murphy, Lynn Symansky and Dorothy Crowell. They took it upon themselves to do what seemed impossible. Due to their and many others’ efforts, a small group of riders will get the opportunity to wake up Saturday morning sick to their stomachs!
When I heard the fundraising goal required to run the event, I figured the best week all year was going to be sadly just another week. I won’t delve into how we could ever have ended up in this situation, but there should be some accounting for the lack of understanding of the importance of having a five-star in Kentucky for the elite riders.
I also was uncertain about raising money for what is, after all, just a sport, when there are so many needy causes that lack necessary funding. Then I thought back to my teenage dreams, shared around a TV with my family as we watched the videos from this site hundreds of miles away. Dreams that became goals, goals that became memories, and then dreams again. I considered all the other riders who, like myself, would start a journey because of watching heroes (horses and riders) of the sport battle it out for a title. Horses that inspire and make you see the same qualities in your own partner. Heart, power, speed and promise. What would become of a dream with no direction? Nothing good, I’m sure of that.
What about those who don’t make it? Is there any less value in a dream that stays a dream? I don’t think there is. We all need some inspiration at all ages, and this is the sport that can do that. I have most everything that matters in my life because of this event. My closeness with my family from declaring the dream; my parents traveling the continent with me to shows; all that time shared from watching those videos over and over again. I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to be near my dream and met my wife there. I’ve helped many students work on the same dream, some of whom achieved it, and many who grew in a different direction. But the time spent immersed in the journey? Those memories will stay with them all until they are in the nursing home. That’s a lifetime of joy given by this simple event.
To witness the competition is to gaze upon the Everest of our sport, and its impact should not be underestimated. It’s right here in our backyard, and what a backyard. The world would be a little less bright for many without this event. So here’s to the real heroes of the event; that’s all of you who rallied to make a difference for so many who will never ride here but will be carried to a better place as they visualize themselves and the greatest animal that gallops the earth doing so across the bluegrass. Those are the winners of this year’s competition.
Let’s make the future more secure by realizing what we have. It’s not only about having a qualifying event for the privileged few at the highest level, it’s about all the people who will never ride here yet can’t get enough of the spectacle that is Kentucky.
This year’s competition is a bit strange to predict, as some horses will be more settled due to the lack of spectators on site, and that will allow them to stay more focused on the task at hand, but the great riders and horses will step into the limelight regardless.
What a field we have coming, as when Badminton canceled again this year, it shifted some serious quality to run here, making a large and competitive field! Maybe not the best year to try to come up with the top 10? (You’ll notice I went with 12.) I have gone back and forth trying to make that prediction, but as it is sport, everything is up for grabs. Everyone who has persevered and been able to drive through the entrance with a horse for this competition has achieved so much. Some will not achieve the goals they have set, and some will shock even themselves with their successes here.
Course designer Derek di Grazia will have the difficult task of providing a true test in an Olympic year while giving the ones aiming for a completion the satisfaction of doing so. I don’t envy him, but he usually finds a way to balance his courses appropriately.
Finally, as a separate competition, we have the CCI4*-S running alongside, giving more to watch, and I believe a better pathway to development of future five-star horses and riders. I hope they continue this division in the future so the spectators in the coming years will have many more hours of horses to enjoy.
Here’s to the greatest weekend all year and the reason we are all here: love of the horse. By the way, the first Kentucky video that I watched until it was worn out? It was from 1986, when Jimmy came out of retirement and took the title on The Optimist. Thank you, Jimmy. You’re a legend, but you already knew that.
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