Sep 06, 2018

USEA Events A-Z: Kentucky Three-Day Event

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Michael Jung and Fischerrocana FST, three-time winners of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

The Kentucky Three-Day Event is held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky (Area VIII). On the last weekend in April each spring, the Kentucky Three-Day Event draws eventing’s top competitors from around the globe to compete at one of the six CCI4* events in the world and the only one held in North America. The Kentucky Three-Day Event also serves as the USEF CCI4* National Championship for United States riders.

In 1777, Governor of Virginia Patrick Henry gifted 9,000 acres of land in the state of Kentucky to his brother, Colonel William Christian. Christian and his family moved to Kentucky in 1785 and after his passing in 1786, Christian’s daughter, Elizabeth Dickerson, inherited 3,000 of those acres spanning Scott and Fayette Counties. Dickerson sold a large section of that land to her brother, Dr. Walter Warfield, who in turn sold it to his colleague, Dr. William Richardson, in 1826. Richardson became the first owner to raise Thoroughbreds on this portion of the land and the land has continued to support horses for nearly 200 years.

After many changes of ownership throughout the 1800s and 1900s and coupled with new developments by each of the farm’s owners, the farm was sold in 1972 by Mary Edwards to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Six years later in 1978 the Kentucky Horse Park opened to the public. That year, the Horse Park would host the World Three-Day Event Championships for its first appearance on American soil.

Bruce Davidson and Might Tango, individual gold medalists at the 1978 World Three-Day Event Championships. USEA Archive Photo.

Equestrian Events, Inc. (EEI) was formed in 1975, three years before the Kentucky Horse Park opened, to stage the World Championships at the Horse Park. In preparation for the event, they held the first ever horse trials at the Horse Park in the fall of 1976. The following year they hosted the National Pony Club Rally in August and staged the North American Junior Three-Day Event Championship in September. The World Three-Day Event Championships were held in September of 1978 and were an unprecedented success. 70,000 spectators turned up on cross-country day alone to take in the action, and 170,000 visited the Horse Park over the course of that first weekend. After the conclusion of the World Three-Day Event Championships and in recognition of their great success, the American Horse Show Association (now USEF) approached EEI about hosting the following year’s first major three-day event of the year, and the Kentucky Horse Trials was born.

Torrance Watkins and Lou Llewellyn at 1995 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA Archives Photo.

As the sport changed, the Kentucky Horse Trials changed with it. Rolex became the title sponsor of the event just three years after its birth in 1981. The following year in 1982, the Kentucky Horse Trials switched from a modified format event (no roads and tracks) to a full three-day event. In 1985, they also added an Intermediate level horse trials to their division offerings. In 1998, 20 years after the original World Championship event, the Kentucky Three-Day Event became the only CCI4* to be staged in the United States. Over the years, the Kentucky Three-Day Event has also served as a selection trial for other prestigious events, including the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games. In 2018, Land Rover took over as title sponsor of the event.

An event of this magnitude could not be undertaken without a talented and dedicated team behind it, and EEI’s director of Competitions Vanessa Coleman expressed her appreciation for the volunteers and members of the Kentucky Three-Day Event team that have been involved with the event since its inception. “Many, many of our volunteers and members of our Board have been around since that first event,” she said. “Their level of knowledge and dedication is unprecedented and our event was built on their dedication and hard work. It continues to grow because of them!”

Karen O'Connor and Biko at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 1998. USEA Archives Photo.

Coleman shared that Jane Atkinson, EEI’s Event Director and Executive Vice President from 1985 through 2010, was the tip of the spear that was responsible for elevating the status of the Kentucky Three-Day Event, both nationally and internationally. “[She], along with her band of die-hard volunteers and Board members, brought the Kentucky Three-Day Event up to the four-star level in terms of both competition as well as international visibility,” recalled Coleman.

Sheila Woerth, another longtime member of the Kentucky Three-Day Event team, has overseen the decoration of the cross-country course for 27 years. “[Decorating the courses is] a monumental task that involves coordinating the decorations with the course designer and builders and then leading a team of 112 volunteers, young and old, who in 2018 placed 863 flats of flowers, 140 8-inch pots of flowers, 50 6-inch pots of flowers, 165 hanging baskets, plus boxwoods, rose bushes, and evergreen trees on the cross-country and show jumping courses,” Coleman shared.

Kim Severson and Winsome Adante, the only other pair to win the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event three times. Photo.

One of the most memorable and recognizable things about the Kentucky Three-Day Event is the cross-country course – a track that spans over four miles of rolling bluegrass in the Kentucky countryside. Derek di Grazia designs the cross-country course each year, one that Coleman said has become known as a “challenging and exciting, yet safe course, with unparalleled footing and beautifully made jumps.” Mick Costello, course builder for the Kentucky Three-Day Event since 1999, is the creative force behind those stunning cross-country jumps that dot the fields at the Kentucky Horse Park each spring. “The stunning jumps that Mick builds for this event give the cross-country course of the Kentucky Three-Day Event a personality all its own – something fans look forward to discovering each year,” Coleman said. “And he does it all from his little workshop here on the Horse Park grounds!”

The Kentucky Three-Day Event is arguably one of the most highly-attended equestrian sporting events in the world each year, and the Kentucky Three-Day Event team is dedicated to making it an experience to remember for each visitor. They offer a wide variety of ticketing options to suit every spectator from the casual observer to the die-hard eventing fan. Cross-country tailgating at the Kentucky Three-Day Event is a bucket list experience for many eventers and several different tailgating options are available at different spots all over the course. For those interested in an immersive experience at the Horse Park, glamping packages are available for the weekend of the event.

Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class, winners of the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Lee Carter, Executive Director of EEI, shared that his favorite part of the event each year is watching the horses, riders, and fans return to the Horse Park to celebrate the sport we all love. “When the competitors start driving in you can feel the event grounds start to come alive. And then our fans – which are the most committed fans of any sport – take that energy to a whole new level as they start to flood in, must-do lists in hand, looking for their favorite vendors, signing up for course walks, meeting up with old friends, speaking quietly and sharing notes with new acquaintances at the jogs, and welcoming and cheering on each and every horse-and-rider pair from around the globe. Organizing this event is like organizing a family reunion or gigantic party – including a similar sense of sadness when it’s all over and everyone drives off!”

“If you are below the four-star level but that’s your goal, we can’t wait to see you compete here! This is your U.S. event, created to give you the opportunity to compete on an international playing field,” added Coleman. “Whatever level you are at, though, we want eventers to know we love this sport and are doing what we can to support and promote it through organizing the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event as well as other competitions.”

The USEA is profiling the history behind all USEA recognized events in the USEA Events A­-Z series.

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