Friday, Apr. 12, 2024

A Timely Tradition

It’s been nearly three decades since Rolex USA signed on as the title sponsor of the Rolex Kentucky
Three-Day Event, shaping the sport’s signature event and guiding the future of the sport.

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It’s been nearly three decades since Rolex USA signed on as the title sponsor of the Rolex Kentucky
Three-Day Event, shaping the sport’s signature event and guiding the future of the sport.

Plenty of big-name sponsors sign on to underwrite sports events, cheerfully manning their VIP tents for a year or two before letting their contracts lapse, but seldom do the relationships endure much longer than that. So, as Rolex and Equestrian Events Inc., prepare to celebrate their 28th anniversary together combining forces on the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the rest of the sports world is sitting up and taking notice.

“Any time a sponsor associates themselves with an organization for five or six years it’s a breakthrough,” said former U.S. Equestrian Team Treasurer Pat Tone who helped broker the original deal. “Rolex has taken Kentucky as the foundation piece for their sponsorship and built a worldwide franchise for themselves and for equestrian sports.”

The company that is Rolex backs 150 elite events around the world in the arts, golf, motor sports, yachting, tennis, skiing and equestrian sports. But the company does more than simply offer financial support for the events.

“It’s actually pretty rare that we get involved with a new project,” said Colleen Bennett of Rolex USA. “We want to make sure that we can be involved with the project over the long run, so we consider each new opportunity very carefully. We’re not just sponsoring any event to get our name on it.”

While the equestrian world benefits enormously from the dedicated support of Rolex, the relationship provides the luxury watchmaker exactly the kind of image association they’re seeking.

“It’s about aligning ourselves with precision, competitiveness, elegance and grace, and horse sports embody all these features,” explained Bennett. “Kentucky attracts the best of the best, and we aim to align ourselves with that top tier of competition and sportsmanship.”

Tone added, “I think it’s really been a two-way street. The event provides a national and international platform for them to promote their name and products. And their involvement helped lift the entire sport of three-day eventing on a worldwide level.”

Setting The Stage

Back in 1979, the USET Board of Directors charged then-treasurer Tone with determining the best way to obtain corporate funding to keep the non-profit up and running. After determining that he couldn’t get a corporate sponsor to support the group outright, he began hunting for a company eager to partner for USET-sponsored events the following year.

“Rolex was the third sponsor I talked to,” recalled Tone. “They were looking for a stand-alone event they could have a long-term relationship with, and an event that would give then a strong platform nationally and internationally. I immediately thought of Lexington, where we’d hosted the World Championships in 1978, and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for them.”

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So in 1980 Rolex USA signed a three-year contract with the USET and Equestrian Events Inc., agreeing to
present the Rolex Kentucky Inter-national Horse Trials beginning in 1981.

The name morphed during the 27-year history of the partnership, eventually settling on the less cumbersome Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, but to the average horseman, it’s just Rolex.

“There may be other sporting events known to the world simply by their title sponsor, but I can’t think of one,” said Equestrian Events Inc. Executive Vice President Jane Atkinson. “I don’t think any sponsor could ask for any better recognition through sponsorship.”

That name association certainly didn’t happen by accident. According to Tone, one of the caveats to the initial agreement stipulated that their name would, in time, become synonymous with the event, capitalizing on their title sponsorship.

Kentucky, Then The World

While Rolex had dabbled in sponsoring equestrian competitions since 1957, presenting Kentucky marked the company’s first major investment in horse sports. Rolex USA’s parent company Rolex Geneva gave the go-ahead to the initial arrangement and upon seeing the incredible success of the event, expanded equestrian sponsorship across the board.

In 1999, Rolex signed on to help underwrite the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials CCI**** (England) and the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** (England) a year later.

And in 2001 they put forth an unprecedented challenge to top eventers, creating the Rolex Grand Slam. This year they upped the ante, offering $350,000 to any rider who can win Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley consecutively.

Today, Rolex is an official partner of the Fédération Equestre Internationale and presents international dressage, polo and show jumping events worldwide, including the Rolex/FEI Show Jumping World Cup (Sweden), CHIO Aachen (Germany), the Copa de Oro Ellerstina (Argentina) and the Spruce Meadows Masters (Canada). They will also continue their sponsorship of the World Equestrian Games in 2010, to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“By sponsoring the Kentucky Three-Day Event, Rolex had a big hand in developing the Kentucky Horse Park as an international venue,” explained Jim Wolf, Director of Executive Sport Programs of the U.S. Equestrian Federation. “And through their involvement they’ve helped to bring the World Equestrian Games to Kentucky.”

Finding A Star

Associating its name with athletic achievement and excellence is nothing new for the Rolex company. In a marketing move that became a legend, Rolex co-founder Hans Wilsdorf recruited 23-year-old Mercedes Gleitze to wear the newly patented Rolex Oyster—the world’s first waterproof watch—when she swam the English channel on a chilly October day in 1927. Rolex then promoted her amazing achievement on the front page of the London Daily Mail.

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Those who win the CCI**** events at Rolex Kentucky, the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton (England) or the Land Rover Motors Burghley (England), the pinnacle achievements in the sport, take home that same Oyster model, a steel and gold timepiece engraved to commemorate the achievement.

In outfitting Gleitze, Rolex initiated their tradition of sponsoring outstanding individuals in sports, arts and exploration. The company’s current equestrian “testimonees” include eventers Pippa Funnell and Zara Phillips, show jumpers Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Rodrigo Pessoa and dressage rider Nadine Capellman. They join top innovators from across athletics, the arts and exploration, including opera tenor Plácido Domingo, cellist Yo Yo Ma, test pilot Chuck Yeager, tennis star Roger Federer and golfer Jack Nicklaus.

 Jack Kelly, CEO of the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, said because of their knowledge of horse sports the officials at Rolex are straightforward to work with.

“They understand the sport and know what the possibilities are, and they’re realistic about what can be done without jeopardizing the integrity of the competition,” Kelly noted.

True Partners

Rolex reps don’t just hover in the sponsor tent until the awards ceremony, then race back to their headquarters in New York City after the victory gallop. From the beginning, those at Rolex took a hands-on approach alongside EEI to build the event.

“We don’t just turn it off after April,” said Bennett. “We have a debriefing after the event to discuss how everything went, and the rest of the year we’re actively promoting the event and participating with EEI to make it better and better, all the way down to the tiny details, whether it’s designing a different ticket stub or improving the parking situation.”

During the event technicians keep the clocks running, and Rolex sends a fleet of staff to make the signage and jumps look just right and to help everything run smoothly.

“They’ve helped develop an event not just through the money but also through their counsel,” explained Wolf. “Rolex has been instrumental in marketing and positioning the event. On top of that, when you have a strong sponsor like Rolex standing behind you, the cache of the name helps to draw other sponsors. Without a doubt, eventing in the United States wouldn’t be where it is today without Rolex.”

“They even planned and funded the first television coverage of the event, which cost them almost as much as the whole sponsorship,” added Tone. “It was a big investment to help popularize the sport. They really put their money where their mouth is.” 

Mollie Bailey

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