The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky., Tom Eblen column: Planning WEG endurance course an endurance event in itself
May 30, 2009 (The Lexington Herald-Leader - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Jamie Link may be the chief executive officer of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but when it comes to riding horses, he's a novice.
So when he and other top Games officials recently saddled up to see part of the 100-mile endurance course being mapped out across farms surrounding the Kentucky Horse Park, Link was given a horse with two names.
One name was Rocket, which Link used frequently and emphatically as he maneuvered well alongside his more-experienced colleagues.
Others called his golden mount by a name indicating a more gentle nature, Buttercup.
This was a slow, four-mile ride over beautiful Mt. Brilliant Farm. But everyone was thinking about what it would be like for more than 80 competitors who will gallop over it in a day-long race against the clock on Sept. 26, 2010.
Endurance racing will be one of the most high-profile of the Games' eight disciplines, for a couple of reasons.
The race is scheduled for the second of the 16 days of competition and will be featured prominently, along with a recap of opening ceremonies, on NBC Sports' first hour-long telecast of the Games.
That show has the potential to be a spectacular video postcard for Central Kentucky's horse country -- not to mention the glamour of the Games.
But because the endurance race is so demanding, any televised deaths or serious injuries to horses have the potential to damage the reputation of equine sports in the eyes of a skeptical public.
The 100-mile course will consist of six loops of between 10 and 25 miles each, beginning and ending at the Horse Park's Forego polo field. The section of the course officials rode recently -- over hills, through valleys and across creeks -- is part of the most demanding loop.
"This is the tactical loop," said Emmett Ross, the endurance discipline manager for the Games who has been working for months to design the course. "This is going to take the pee and vinegar out of them." The safety of horses and riders is the major consideration in how the endurance course is designed, and how the race is managed, Ross said.
Safety has become a big issue since two horses died in the 2002 World Equestrian Games' endurance race in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and one died two days after falling ill during the 2006 Games' race in Aachen, Germany.
Horses will be checked by veterinarians at six stops during the 100-mile race, and any showing signs of dangerous stress won't be allowed to continue. Only 40 percent of the horses finished the race in Aachen, and Ross expects a similar percentage here.
The race also is taxing on riders, who could range in age from 14 to almost 70. Among the most serious competitors will be Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al Maktoum, the Dubai ruler and frequent Lexington visitor better known for his involvement in thoroughbred racing.
Games officials met for their ride near Man O' War's old barn on Mt. Brilliant. They wanted to see the route, evaluate the topography and check the ground's footing, which they said was excellent on that sunny morning despite recent rain.
Riding with Link were Games Chairman John Long, board members Alston Kerr and Becky Jordan, Horse Park President John Nicholson and staff member Todd Waronicki. I bounced around in the back of a pickup truck with two Games staffers. The group followed an all-terrain vehicle driven by Ross, who seems to have been preparing for this job his entire career.
As a rider, Ross won Federation Equestre Internationale endurance events in nine countries and was a gold medal team member in the first North American Championships. He has spent two decades as a trainer, organizer, manager and consultant for endurance events, including the 1984 and 1996 Olympics.
Aside from his knowledge of endurance riding, Ross seems to be an accomplished diplomat. He has reached agreement with 27 owners of more than 60 parcels of land on thoroughbred, standardbred, corn and tobacco farms.
During the actual race, only event staff members, about 300 volunteers and some media will be allowed on the course beyond the Horse Park; others must watch on big video screens at the park.
The course, which will be marked off with classic Kentucky tobacco sticks, will cross roads 14 times as it runs through such famous farms as Elmendorf, Dixiana, Walnut Hall and Castleton Lyons. With leaves in full fall color, the sun rising as the race begins and setting as it ends, it should make for a spectacular scene.
The course will get its first test this Oct. 14, when 75-mile and 100-mile Kentucky Cup races are held. Ross joked that the beauty of the course could be a handicap for competitors: "I think some of them may get to looking at the scenery and just stop." Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at email@example.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.
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