I'm thrilled to report that the World Equestrian Games were every bit the once-in-a-lifetime experience I hoped they would be. Thanks to my parents, Mary and Brian Kosmal, for treating me to the ultimate horse vacation as a 40th birthday present!
-The completely amazing seats we had for team show jumping on the first day of our visit. I had ordered these seats via AQHA's advance-ticketing and they were by far the best seats we had all week, right in the middle of the exhibitor section of the main stadium, surrounded by friendly and cheering team members from Australia and Sweden. We were across the aisle from the US team and recognized George Morris and Laura Kraut.
-The audience participation. The entire stands clucked when it looked like the rider on course might not make it. Every time a horse took a hair-raising long spot or had a spectacular knockdown, the crowd gasped in unison.
-An unlikely underdog team. We remarked that while it might be possible to buy the best show-jumpers in the world (e.g., Presley Boy, who reportedly sold for $5M), you still had to ride them, and the riders from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia proved very capable horsemen, showing skill and excellent judgment on course. They may not have won the team competition, but they made a very impressive showing.
-The universality of horse behavior. When the ribbons were awarded for the team show jumping, we were amused to note that several of the horses were hopping around in the lineup, and one was kicking at a loose leg strap on its cooler. At one point, it looked like a collision between two restless horses (both stallions) was imminent, but fortunately, the awards were over just in time. During the victory gallop, several of the horses didn't appreciate being held back so they didn't pass the first-place horse, and they threw in a few lively bucks. Even world-class show jumpers still act like horses!
-Western horsemen receiving well-deserved respect from mostly English-discipline audiences. I was pleased to see that the NRHA demo ring was smack in the middle of the traffic flow for the major show jumping and carriage driving venues. The clinicians were demonstrating on well broke reiners and giving kids test rides. All day long. No glitz, no logos, no training gimmicks, no one selling videos. Just cowboys in jeans, hats and boots demonstrating horsemanship and offering fellowship. No wonder the stands were full every time I passed.
-The astonishing variety of things to see. We spent nearly four days at WEG and felt like we barely did it justice. For example, we didn't get to the Horse Park's "Gift from the Desert" temporary exhibit on the Arabian horse, which we heard was a don't-miss. We wished we'd had tickets to see some of the carriage driving. And some of the eventing. Hopefully, the WEG will come back to the US before we're too old to go!
-Really friendly staff and volunteers. Everyone we met went out of their way to be helpful, from the parking attendants to the shuttle bus drivers to the folks checking bags and coats as we entered the WEG grounds. Warm smiles and hospitality were everywhere. Thank you, Kentucky!
-Impressive logistics. The WEG was a HUGE event. Not just in terms of sheer numbers of spectators and exhibitors, but also in terms of variety of disciplines represented. And WEG management delivered - events started on time, movement from one place to another was fairly smooth, and quality of experience was consistently high. I can only hope that the exhibitors were handled as well as the spectators.
-Crass commercialism and embarrassing amateurish displays were sidelined. I was thrilled to see that while the WEG offered a full schedule of clinicians hawking "training tools" and other horse-expo-type attractions, these activities were wisely and artfully confined to an area of the Horse Park separated from the main events. Unless you purposely sought them out, you'd miss them. Thank goodness.
-Surprisingly great service at ordinary restaurants. As it was fairly late each evening when we left the Horse Park, we patronized local upscale chain restaurants rather than taking any time to seek out local favorites. At each one, we received well above average food and service. From well-made cocktails at PF Chang's to super-attentive service at Outback, we felt welcome. Even during a quick lunch at the McDonald's closest to the Horse Park, we were surprised by the warm reception. Hospitality kudos, Lexington!!
-The WEG's official hotel reservation system. Anticipating zero availability, my mother went through the WEG's system to reserve our hotel rooms for the games when she bought our WEG tickets in the fall of 2009. Despite my mom having entered criteria that should never have produced this result, the WEG reservation system (which required payment in full for the entire stay, in advance) placed us at an airport Days Inn 70 miles from the Horse Park. After one night in this fleabag, my father (bless him!) called around and found us better accommodations for the remaining nights, within just a few miles of the Horse Park. And at normal market rates. Thankfully, it appears we escaped without any bedbug hitchhikers in our luggage.
-Amusement park food and parking pricing. Just add cartoon character parking lots signs and subtract tiny servings of Kentucky Derby pie in boxes, and we could have been at Six Flags. Not only were spectators prohibited from bringing in our their food and beverages, the WEG went so far as to search the bags and coats of every person entering the grounds. The three of us had a rather uninspired lunch of sandwiches, chips and drinks, and the total was nearly $50. Subway would have been better, not to mention less expensive. One afternoon, we visited the Veuve Clicquot booth for a glass of champagne, only to change our minds when we discovered that the price of a very modest glass was $19 (while an entire bottle can generally be purchased at Costco for around $30). Because there were no in-and-out privileges at the parking lot, we couldn't leave the grounds to eat and then come back without paying another $20. Charging a premium is one thing, ripping people off is another...
-Blase vendors. I knew the vendor booths were very, very expensive (reportedly $15K for a basic 10x10 booth), so I didn't blame the vendors for charging premium prices. When I walked through the vendor areas, I overheard some quiet conversations among vendors about sales being pitiful. As someone who occasionally has booths at trade shows, I sympathized. That is, until I encountered a rather disinterested attitude from several vendors. My mother and I were greeted warmly by the Persian rug vendor, the custom bootmakers from Ecuador and the Botswana horseback safari guide. But when I visited the CWD and Devocoux saddlery booths to check out the various models (and I'm a serious buyer), I was completely ignored, despite the paucity of other shoppers. In the Bit of Britain store, the Spanish leathergoods firm Lilo had a boutique. As the inadvertent owner of quite a collection of silk scarves that I have no idea how to wear, I was intrigued by the snaffle bit leather item that turned a scarf into a belt. But, when I went to purchase one, the fellow who was self-importantly telling another patron about how the WEG logo silk ties had been his idea and were a big seller (and I had the impression he was an owner of Lilo), could hardly be bothered to answer my simple question about whether the belt accessory could be purchased separately from the (cheap polyester) scarf. Had I not really, really wanted one of these items, I would have walked away. The Bit of Britain cashier who rang up my purchase was gracious and friendly. When I returned to the Lilo boutique to collect my belt accessory (which was in fact available separately, thank goodness, albeit at a pretty steep price), the fellow didn't miss a beat in his conversation, and I noticed that he wrapped my purchase in a white plastic grocery bag with a rose on it, the kind that NYC delis use, instead of the logo-imprinted handled shopping bag in which he wrapped another patron's purchase. Nice...