Support What You Wish to Keep

Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class, winners of the 2019 Kentucky Three-Day Event. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Last week I read about question marks surrounding the 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and the realities of keeping that big boat afloat. Coincidentally, on the same day, I spent the afternoon listening to the Southern California equestrian community come together over a Zoom call in Del Mar, in an effort to save the Del Mar Horsepark from being shut down as millions of dollars are needed to deal with a regulatory environmental issue. I wanted to offer some thoughts to the eventing community about the importance of supporting what it wishes to keep. 

As an owner and breeder in the horse racing industry and the owner of the Ocala Jockey Club, we have found ourselves in the epicenter of some significant crises in the equine world over the last few years. Remember watching the video from the Lilac Fire at the San Luis Rey Downs facility in Southern California when fire raged and grooms opened stalls so that horses had a chance to survive? Three of our horses were in that group of horses released to run. Thankfully they survived, but it took us three days to find two of them while we wondered if they were one of the charred unidentifiable remains or if they were among the lucky ones rescued at one of the nearby facilities.

Remember the Mercer County, Kentucky, horse neglect case? One of the two horses in worst shape there, Z Camelot, was a horse we sold in utero when we sold his dam in foal. 

Remember the Santa Anita horse fatality crisis which almost brought the entire  racing industry to its knees? Battle of Midway, the Breeders’ Cup champion horse whose  breakdown at Santa Anita attracted the main negative spotlight, was a horse we bred, sold as a yearling and remained close to as he raced for his owners. 

Remember the event where three top eventing riders were cited for drug violations and suspended for a year, even though they were later cleared with medical exemptions? That was at our event at OJC. Remember the many 4* and 5* events that were cancelled due to Covid-19 last year? OJC was one of them. 

If you are in California, you may have heard about Del Mar Horsepark closing down. That’s where our daughter goes to show most often, as it’s only a few miles from where we live. It’s been a long couple of years even before 2020, and these are just just the tip of the iceberg we have had the joy to be part of.  

I have learned much from these crises, and from others that I watched but didn’t have anything to do with. I have sat through numerous regulatory meetings for the California Horse Racing Board, listening to animal rights activists vowing to shut racing down. I have met with leaders of  various racing industry groups. I watched a fledgling grassroots horse racing support group come to life to counter the 20,000 negative horse racing media pieces. 

I was interviewed by mainstream media like USA Today and ESPN about the Santa Anita crisis and learned how difficult it is to explain the realities of life with horses to journalists who know nothing about what goes in one side of a horse and comes out the other. In the questions of the reporters and the accusations by animal rights activists, I have learned that, while people in horse sports live in a bubble where horses are all they know and friends live in the same bubble, most of the world has no clue about this beautiful yet tough world. Who better to protect that life than those who benefit from it? 

I have also learned that participants in horse sports themselves know too little about the many moving parts and enormous financial and human resources needed to make horse events  happen, especially those serving the high performance end of the game that rely on fundraising to balance the books and volunteers to fill important roles with. 

The main thing I learned is that problems get solved when people come together to support solutions. When people are too busy, complain more than support, or simply look the other way when organizers need help, equestrian events and venues are too easily lost. Especially the family-run community-based events that don’t have the backing of wealthy benefactors who can support events for fun rather than to support their families. But the current challenges facing the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day event prove that no event, no matter how big or beloved or long-running, is immune from being vulnerable. 

As a country, we were all looking forward to putting 2020 behind us. So far, less than two weeks into it, we have faced an insurrection in the US Capitol and the Covid-19 crisis still looks to get worse before it hopefully gets better with vaccines down the road. But even though the first two weeks of 2021 already feel like a year since 2020 rolled by, maybe it’s still OK to talk about New Year’s resolutions. For the eventing community, I urge it to resolve to support the events and venues it wishes to keep competing at.  

As I listened to the Del Mar community this afternoon eagerly talk about how to come together to raise the $6-$8 million necessary to resolve environmental regulatory issues in order to stay open, it reminded me of the thousands of people in the Del Mar equestrian community who helped the equine and human victims of the Lilac Fire, the many in the racing industry who donated and helped with the Mercer County neglect case horses, or the people who showed up with pro-racing placards on the other side of the street from the animal rights activists calling  for an end to racing. It doesn’t take much for something of value to get lost, and it takes the passion, resources and time of many to keep it. I have been inspired by the resilience of our community, and there will be more needed as we work to rebuild. 

Whether it’s a five-star in need of donations or a local event organizer wondering how to keep going past the pandemic, know that you have the opportunity to play a role in whether cherished events and venues are there for you when you want to compete at them. Support with your talents, time, or treasure. If possible, support with all three. When you get to ride at your favorite event that is still there because you helped it out, you will be glad you did.  

Best of luck with all your goals in 2021.