Besides the competition itself, there is an endless list of things to do and see while in Lexington for Rolex Kentucky. I’ve been fortunate to cover the event as a member of the media for four years, but I have never before been as a spectator. This year, I’m getting the chance to watch the event without a blue photographer’s pinny, and for the first time will get to go and do stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, being media is an incredible way to experience Rolex, but between dashing back and forth from the competition ring to the media center, there is not much time leftover to participate in everything else the event has to offer. Considering my naiveté for all the best spectator activities, I asked around for advice on how to get the most out of attending Rolex. From the folks who have been there and done that, here are the top things you must do at Rolex.
1. Rent a headset for dressage and show jumping
This, I have actually done before, but only once. I was left lamenting the many dressage tests I’d seen without Sally O’Connor’s education and wit echoing in my ear. At the advice of another photographer friend, I rented a headset for the second day of dressage in 2014, and it absolutely changed the way I viewed each movement. Dressage suddenly became a kaleidoscope of colors instead of plain drying paint. Get yours at the headset rental booth next to the event box office inside the Rolex Stadium.
2. Catch a glimpse behind the scenes
Every minute of schooling has been carefully calculated during the weeks and months leading up to the big event. And while you may be content to see the officially judged moments that matter in the competition ring, you may also find entertainment value in watching a few jump schools and dressage warm-ups. These are the final preparations that riders, coaches and grooms take advantage of to ensure the horse is as prepared as possible for the upcoming performance.
3. Walk the course as many times as possible with as many people as possible
There are a ton of opportunities to tour the course with a variety of top level riders, coaches and designers. By going on multiple course walks, you’ll get the opportunity to not only meet some of the biggest names in eventing and basically enjoy a free clinic in the process, you’ll hear from those riders who are competing as well as those who are not. Depending on their competitive status, they may have a different perspective to share. One walk you definitely don’t want to miss is with Jim Wofford. Keep an ear out for the announcer’s instructions, but this walk is traditionally held after the final dressage ride on Friday.
4. Walk by the international barn
You will not be allowed into the barns (there are gates and guards to check for armbands), but the international competitors are lodged in a separate barn from those who reside stateside. It’s peaceful and quiet, and often times you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the world’s top event horses casually grazing loose in the patch of grass located in front of the barn.
5. Explore the Kentucky Horse Park
There is so much history at the Kentucky Horse Park, you could fill an entire afternoon touring the International Museum of the Horse and visiting statues of prominent horses in history that are constructed at the park. In fact, Lexington itself is full of historic farms, and many of them offer guided tours to the public (Guided Kentucky Horse Tours). Can’t get enough of the Thoroughbred? The annual Thoroughbreds for All event, sponsored by New Vocations and the Retired Racehorse Project, is open to the public on Friday night.
6. Watch the demonstrations
Every year as I sprint from the media center to the Rolex Stadium, I am slowed by the adorable ponies and their kids yahoo-ing across the Walnut Ring during the Prince Phillip Cup Games. Every day from Thursday through Saturday there are demonstrations and exhibitions featuring unique breeds and equestrian disciplines. See which of them strike your fancy on this schedule. Rolex Rookie Elisa Wallace and her mustangs are scheduled to appear at 2 p.m. on Thursday and 11:30 a.m. on Friday.
7. Plan cross country day carefully
Don’t get stuck at one jump and miss the rest of the course. By all means, make your way to the Head of the Lake first thing and watch several rides there. The bleachers will fill up quickly, and it becomes difficult for squatty bodies like me to scope out a spot behind the ropes where you can actually see. But you can’t see anything else from the Head of the Lake, so get a move on after a while.
It’s awesome to get up close to the jumps, but you can see quite a lot from a distance if you position yourself in the middle of the three distinct “sections” of the course. There is usually a jumbotron in the infield where you can see other parts of the course while watching competitors tackle several major complexes from one spot. And if you plan your tour of the course well, you can make time to hang out at the start/finish, where the emotions run high and the energy is palpable. And don’t forget to stop by EN’s Insanity in the Middle Tailgate Presented by World Equestrian Brands at tailgate spots B90 and B91!
8. Hunt down bargain bins and get free stuff
What’s better than free stuff? I’m told that the trade fair vendors run out of samples early, so head to the shops ASAP (which reminds me, bring a backpack or tote to carry all your new toys and rain gear. Never leave behind your rain gear). While you’re meandering through the trade fair, put that tax return to good use! Hunt down the “bargain bins,” where you can get all manner of tack and equipment at severely discounted prices.
9. Eat and drink
When I travel, I like to scope out the local eats. Jalapenos is considered a tradition amongst many Rolex-goers. Cheapside, The Village Idiot and Tally-Ho have also been recommended. I always liked McCarthy’s Irish Bar, and I’m determined to finally get a tour of the Alltech Brewery. At the Horse Park, you MUST track down the candied almonds; they are heavenly. Also the kettle corn, Greek gyro and jerk chicken. And something called a mint julep cigar that can be found by the margarita vendor.
What’s your Rolex must-do, EN? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to check out EN’s Ultimate Guide to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event!