Lexington, Ky.—April 28
As I walked out to the Rolex Stadium to take pictures of the $225,000 Kentucky Invitational Grand Prix and saw clouds start to gather in the dark gray sky, my first thought as a photographer was, “How am I going to shoot this class so there aren’t big empty stands behind every horse and rider?”
After all, it had been a long day of cross-country competition. Most people coming to this grand prix were probably out on course for hours; it was getting close to the dinner hour, and now it was starting to rain? I live in Lexington and have been to many grand prix classes during the summer months in the same stadium, and we’re lucky to get 100 people out on a sunny, 75-degree evening.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I trudged around the far corner of the ring to see a grandstand filled with people in raincoats and ponchos. Even the corner I was standing in had gathered a little crowd of about 30 people shoulder to shoulder around the 20 feet of free rail space ready to watch the class.
And then Christine McCrea trotted in the ring to start the class, and from the very first vertical, I couldn’t stop laughing to myself because I was reminded of the joy of introducing this extraordinary sport to people. For the first few horses, the crowd was gasping with every effort—a perfectly normal effort over a perfectly average fence garnered claps and whoops; a clear go through the triple combination got full on roaring applause. A 12-fault round was applauded as heartily as a clear. It reminded me of the first time I took my dad to a grand prix, and he literally said, “Oh geez! OH GEEZ!” as the first horse went over every single fence, and that was a national level grand prix in Iowa.
When you see this sport day in and day out it’s easy to get a bit jaded about it all. You can forget how truly extraordinary these horses are, and then you watch as a crowd of 10,000 people cheer like they’re riding every fence. Kids snapped picture after picture as the horses cantered by and compared favorites; a gentleman asked me to explain the rules of the class to him; I overheard people trying to figure out amongst themselves how the faults and penalties worked.
All told, event officials reported the stands were sold out, and 10,000 people watched the class and cheered Paul O’Shea and Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu to victory. They had to turn 500 people away who wanted tickets, telling them to find any open rail space to stand and watch the class. When the rain grew steadier people got up to stand under the overhangs, but as soon as it let up they were right back out there. It was amazing.
I love this sport so much—it’s why I have the job that I have, and it’s why I spend nearly every penny I make on my own jumping horse. I travel all over this country covering all kinds of shows, and I can honestly tell you the Kentucky Invitational CSI3* Grand Prix is different. You can’t help but think back to the first time you saw a horse tackle a huge fence, that awestruck feeling of watching a massive 1,000-pound animal with a mind of its own kick off the ground and fly over a fence taller than you and as wide as a car.
I hope this class is a window to what our sport could be—what it should be—a chance for all kinds of different people to come and appreciate these extraordinary athletes we know and love so much.