Being this is my fourth year attending the only CCI 4* event in North America, I have to say, each year produces its own special moments leaving you excited and anxious for the next year.
The Rolex Kentucky 3-day Event (aka "Rolex") is a world unto its own. From the First Inspection on Wednesday to the awards ceremony and chaotic, (occasionally dangerous) victory gallop Sunday afternoon, you step out of your reality, and enter a new world.
From the outside looking in, this "new world" seems geared towards horse-crazy eventers cheering on their favorite horse and rider combo, and maybe dreaming of competing on the holy grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) in a 4* of their own one day.
Not so. Ok, well, partially true but horse enthusiast or not, Rolex provides an unforgettable weekend for those who are more than likely tagging along with their horse-crazy friend/wife/child. With over 175 vendors and sponsors filling up the Trade Fair and Sponsor Village, you can find everything from a bourbon-tasting hour to a pair of traditional Dubarry's that you'll undoubtedly need for XC day.
Speaking of XC day, did you know that famous riders like Buck Davidson Jr., Hawley Bennett-Awad and Phillip Dutton all lead course walks for spectators the Friday before?! Although these riders require a little bit of crazy to do what they do, they are very down to earth and accessible to the public – you can ask them almost anything!
For the second year, I had the privilege to participate in the exclusive (by invite only) Rolex Ride The Course. Just like wine, it was better this year than last. Our fantastic course guides were Jim Wolff (USEF), Sinead Halpin (USA) and Gina Miles (USA) along with a fellow Californian the Derek di Grazia, official XC Course Designer
This year was just downright fun; start to finish. Riding around with other great media colleagues (editors of Sidelines magazine and Practical Horseman to name a few) and being able to basically be on a trail ride (in lush bluegrass, of course) with international/Olympic riders is indescribable. Riding next to Sinead, I asked her a question that I've wondered for years. "What do you think about when you're galloping up to these huge jumps? Ones that don't move – that you could get really hurt by or even die? Do you even sleep the night before?" (Yep, I asked it).
"Tylenol PM," Sinead laughed, "No, but really, I typically walk the course four to five times. Formulate plans A, B, C, D – if this goes wrong, then I do this. Honestly, the first time I walk the course, it's in awe of the jumps, the size, the length of the course. The second and third time I typically walk with David (her coach David O'Connor) or another rider. Then the last time is by myself. No distractions. I go over 'the plan.' Then, come XC day, I don't think a lot about the course, just my plan. If I don't have my plan in place by then, it's too late."
Selena and Cowboy.
As I have to remind myself to breathe at each of the jumps we stop at, she laughs, and tells me, "The last 30 seconds in the start box are hell!" – I can't even imagine.
Throughout the rest of our ride, it was interesting to hear the shared admiration and what a badge of honor it is to compete at Rolex. "The great thing about the park (KHP) is that you have a nice long, quiet walk back to the barns and up to the ring – and as you approach the stadium, you have these electric and exciting moments! It's such a great place," Sinead told me.
Sunday afternoon is exactly that – electric!
I wanted to clone myself a few times because of all the activities at Rolex. XC day is also the one-day that I wish I could be in five places (OK, more) at once. Being a photographer on assignment requires me to shoot certain riders at certain jumps, which occasionally limits what I get to see. As a spectator, you can move about freely around the course (minus the roped off areas) and there are crossing guards for everyone's safety. It's such a unique atmosphere being with 20,000-plus people cheering, tailgating and enjoying the
If you get up on the hill to the west you look out and can see a large part of the XC course and the movement of spectators around the jumbotrons. Everyone is rushing to see their favorite rider at the Head of the Lake or the Coffin. When you hear the whistles of the jump stewards (announcing the arrival of a horse and rider) everyone freezes. The galloping pair come from off in the distance and begin to answer the question (XC fence/combo) that Derek has posed for them.
For a moment, everyone stops breathing – it's as if time officially stops and the only thing moving is the horse and rider.
"Yeah!!! Go Mary King!!" crowds cheer loudly and proudly when their rider goes through clear. It's unbelievable the reaction of the crowds throughout the event. In the midst of strangers you feel as if you're with family. Chatting with people about the weather, the horse and rider's go last year, all the scary memories of the past. In this new world, there are no boundaries to friendship… We're all in it together.
Sunday is magical – electric! Taped by NBC to be televised the following hour, the crowds are given a pep talk of when to clap and when to cheer with everything they've got.
No matter the showjumping/overall results, once the horse's feet hit the ground after the final jump, everyone goes wild! Whether it's completing your first 4* or conquering the rigorous Rolex Kentucky 3-Day, every rider leaves with enthusiastic applause and cheers from the
It's hard to fit four days into 1000 words or less. My recommendation: Go! See for yourself and experience all that is the Rolex 3-Day.
Driving onto the grounds of the KHP takes my breath away every year. No matter how much I prepare and anticipate the coming event, it always blows me away. Every year I fly home with a "Rolex hangover" (not due to the bourbon) -full of incredible memories, life-changing experiences.
It's hard to explain. It's like wine. Get's
better with time and you have to experience it
Huge thanks to Rolex for inviting me to participate in the Rolex Ride The Course.
Author Selena Frederick is a professional photographer who owns Cheval Photos.