Rolex History: How Bruce Davidson Invented America’s Four-Star Event

Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Photo by Lorraine Jackson

There is a life-size bronze statue of Bruce Davidson hailing a cab behind the grandstands of the Kentucky Horse Park’s main arena. It’s a statue most of us know well, and you probably assume it’s there just because Bruce was a legend for so long.

Maybe at some point you’ve heard him referred to as “Mr. Rolex” and assumed it’s because he won the Rolex trophy six times between 1978-1993, and under normal circumstances that would be reason enough. In fact, the statue, the title, and the legend exist because if not for Bruce Davidson, there would likely be no Rolex Kentucky at all.

Before there was a World Equestrian Games, a Kentucky Horse Park or an American four-star, there was an Eventing World Championships, which like WEG was held in alternating even years between the Olympic Games. Unlike WEG, however, your country could not bid to host the Eventing World Championships. If you fancied yourself good enough to host it, you had to have a rider good enough to win it.

The 1974 World Eventing Championships

In the 1970s, the rule was that the country of the winning rider would host the next Eventing World Championship. In 1970, Mary Gordon-Watson had thrown down a commanding performance that won Great Britain the right to host the 1974 Championship, and anyone who wanted to pry the hosting rights away would have to do it on the course at Big Bad Burghley.

The Americans sent a solid troupe to the ’74 event: Mike Plumb on Good Mixture, Denny Emerson on Victor Dakin, Don Sachey on Plain Sailing, and Bruce Davidson on Irish Cap, all under the watchful eye of coach Jack Le Goff. If there was a year to swoop in and stun the Europeans, this was it.

Bruce set the tone for the weekend out of the gate, scoring a 45 in dressage and putting him in second behind Russian star Vladimir Laniugin and leggy partner Tost. But the 17 miles of long format cross country at Burghley ensured that it would not be a dressage show. Not a single pair escaped the day without time penalties, and when the dust settled, Bruce managed to stay in second behind a new leader, Mark Phillips of Great Britain.

That lead, too, would be short lived, as Mark’s horse was spun at the following day’s vet check. This left Bruce Davidson in first and Mike Plumb in second; solid show jumping rounds would almost certainly ensure an American victory. Both Americans went clean and finished separated by less than one point, securing individual gold and silver, a team gold for the Americans, and the right to host the 1978 Eventing World Championships on home soil.

America’s First World Class Three Day Event

It would be another two years before the U.S. would select the Kentucky Horse Park for the World Championships and hold the first horse trials there, but the eventing community was able to put on a tremendous event in 1978. The Americans were determined to intimidate the visiting teams with the first U.S. championship course, and they did. At one point in the day, seven horses in a row were eliminated on course.

Those who finished day two would return for a dazzling stadium jumping event and also provide the reigning champion the opportunity to defend his title, which Bruce Davidson did on a final score of 93.20. (The Americans would not complete a team on day two, and thus were not in contention for a team medal.)

Despite the grueling conditions for the riders, the Kentucky Horse Park’s World Championships were an enormous success, riders from around the world were impressed by the organization and spectacle of the park, and more than 150,000 spectators walked the grounds during the event. A tradition had been established at the pinnacle level of the sport, and the Kentucky Horse Park went all in on supporting eventing at their facility.

Over the next several years, the park would host numerous Olympic and WEG Team selection trials, CICs and CCIs, and in 1998, it hosted the first four-star outside of Europe. The title sponsor Rolex came on board in 1981 and has remained a steadfast partner for the event while both the park and the eventing community continued to evolve to meet the needs of the sport.

While there are numerous individuals both legendary and behind the scenes that have made Rolex one of the most highly regarded events in the world for 30 years, it all began with an ambitious 25-year-old rider and a horse named Irish Cap at Burghley.

When Bruce Davidson defended that title at the Kentucky Horse Park four years later, he would make his victory gallop, dismount, remove his gold medal, and hang it around the neck of his two-year-old son, Buck, and walk out of the ring hand in hand to much applause.

As the venue, the sport, and the players continue to evolve, history suggests that there is synchronicity at play: Things are always changing, but the heart of the game stays the same.

Go Eventing.