For 50 years, starting with the 1949 advent of the Badminton Three-Day Event in Gloucestershire, England, the U.S. eventing community was forced to look abroad to see the pinnacle of three-day
eventing. American riders aspiring to the highest levels of the sport had two choices: Raise the money to go to England, or don\’t compete at that level.
Everything changed in 1998, when the Rolex Kentucky organizing committee made the enormous gamble that our country could support a four-star CCI. It was a gigantic plunge into unknown waters, and nobody knew for sure whether we\’d all sink or swim. We are swimmingâ€”rather splendidly in fact\-o the point where the Kentucky Horse Park on the last weekend of April is the destination of choice for dozens of North American riders and thousands of North American eventing fans.
I recently had the chance to speak with two Rolex four-star veteran riders, two aspiring Rolex riders, the organizer of one of the advanced events leading to Rolex, and a coach of Rolex competitors. I asked each, “What does the Rolex four-star, its existence here in America, mean to you personally and to our sport?”
Caroline Dowd placed 10th in the first Rolex four-star in 1998 on her North Dakota-bred Thoroughbred mare, Lazy Dot. In 1999, the pair placed 24th at Badminton. She hopes to ride Raw Deal at Rolex this year.
“Rolex gave me the chance to ride at the four-star level without the expense of going to England,” she said. “It took me a whole year to fund-raise for Lazy Dot\’s \’99 trip to England, and I couldn\’t have justified the expense to my family and supporters if I hadn\’t previously run in a four-star. I\’d have felt guilty asking them.”
Caroline said that Rolex allows her to have the same shot at a four-star again this year with her new horse.
Bobby Costello has ridden Chevalier three times at the Rolex four-star and is entered again on both Chevalier and Dalliance. Bobby told me that “having an established four-star here lets the young, aspiring riders feel the magical atmosphere and witness the best riders in the world.”
He added, “From a rider\’s standpoint, I truly believe that competing at Kentucky is quickly becoming on a par with the experience of going to Badminton or Burghley [England]. I went to Burghley the last two years, and to me there\’s just as much atmosphere at Kentucky, as many distractions, even intimidation\’like riding in the same ring with William Fox-Pitt or Andrew Nicholson, as there is anywhere in the world.
“Let\’s face it, not everyone has the $20,000 to $25,000, it takes to go to England. As time goes on, people will take our four-star for granted, but those of us riding now realize how lucky we are to have Rolex.”
Jenny Glass completed her first advanced event, on her horse, Tommy\’s Pop Gun, at Southern Pines (N.C.) in March. She said she\’s “been going to watch Rolex since I was about 10 years old. I grew up in Louisville [Ky.] and went to the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I started competing \’Tommy\’ at novice seven years ago, after I graduated and moved to Texas.
“Rolex wears many hats in the sport of eventing. It\’s not only a showcase of our sport, but it\’s also a personal goal for me, hopefully by 2005. This would be the height of my partnership with Tommy.
“Another reason Rolex is so important is because it\’s attainable for people who don\’t have the money to fly horses overseas,” Jenny continued. “You can drive there! It will only take me 14 hours and $300 to get there from Grapevine, Texas. Before, I never thought I\’d have the chance to do a four-star because of the huge expense to fly to England.”
Kristin Schmolze said that her “personal goal has been to compete at Rolex as a young rider, so next year, 2004, will be my last chance for that. Last April, I rode in my first three-star at Foxhall [Ga.]. I hope to do Foxhall again this month and Fair Hill [Md.] in the fall. Then Rolex in 2004.
“Before, the goal was so far off because it was in England,” Kristin continued. “Now it gives so many more of our riders a chance to compete at that level. And it\’s great to think that we\’re right up there now with England. It\’s also great that if I have the chance to do my first four-star, it can be on home ground.”
Lefreda Williams, who organizes the Southern Pines Horse Trials, told me that “I\’ve been to Kentucky every year since 1978. I did my first three-day event there when they had preliminary. [She finished second there in 1985].
“The 1978 World Championships was the first international championships I\’d seen, and Kentucky, for me, has always been the cream of everything,” she added.
Lefreda continued, “Since I\’ve been an event organizer, since the \’70s, I\’ve always looked to Kentucky as the best-organized event I know, and I\’ve always tried to copy what they do. As the vice president of the Carolina Horse Park, I still look to the Kentucky Horse Park as the standard and try to make our horse park a little bit like that.
“I\’ve always wanted the Southern Pines event to feel like a three-day, and Rolex is the picture that I have in my mind\’s eye. Always, it has been Kentucky that is the biggest and best for me.”
Nanci Lindroth is an advanced rider, and she\’s coached such riders at Rolex as Joanne Gelarden and Dorothy Trapp. Nanci said that Rolex “gives everyone a reachable goal.
“One of the beauties of eventing is that anyone can compete and be competitive on a wide variety of horses, so people with little money don\’t necessarily have to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses. Having Rolex here means these same people can now go to a four-star. I have a student right now who\’s aiming for Kentucky this year. She hasn\’t yet been sponsored, but on her relatively low budget, she can do it.”
Nanci added, “Having the four-star means we can produce that level of rider without having to go to Europe, and it gives everyone something to aspire to. It\’s like the Olympicsâ€”you want to go ride at Rolex. It has an aura all its own. And for those who don\’t aspire to ride there, they aspire to go watch.”
Now, looking back from a perspective of 10 years or so, it seems apparent that we were needlessly worried that we might not be able to get a four-star to fly. But it wasn\’t obvious then that Rolex would become such a triumphant fixture.
I can\’t remember all of us who were involved in its early inception, but I do recall that some were of the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, while others argued that we\’d be lucky to get 20 entries.
It\’s also not apparent to me whether the tremendous growth at Rolex (74 entries as of early April) is a reflection of the growth of American eventing, or if it\’s partly the other way around. Whichever it is, the Rolex Kentucky CCI is clearly the most significant event in North America, and, as Bobby Costello suggests, it is increasingly important on the world eventing scene.