My first trip to the Kentucky Horse Park was in 2002, when I was in high school. It was one of the final years of the fabled long-format event – steeplechase fences and all.
Karen O’Connor was riding Upstage (one of her two rides that weekend), and one of the most clear memories I have of my first trip is of her launching over a steeplechase brush at full tilt gallop. I was standing as close as the rope would let me, so close I could practically feel the wind as she flew by.
Buck Davidson was competing alongside his father, Bruce Sr., that year. Somewhere, in a tattered and childish scrapbook, there is a yellowing photo of Buck in his signature red and yellow, on the striking grey Twist & Shout, waiting his turn for steeplechase.
Gina Miles rode her stunning liver chestnut, the future USEA Hall of Fame member, McKinlaigh, that year. She’d finish 11th, but more importantly she gave me (and probably countless other little girls) the eventing bug. Many, many years later, I had the privilege of interviewing Gina, and could hardly believe my luck that I was talking to the woman who literally made me an eventer.
That year, I left Kentucky and knew that I’d found my home.
I’ve returned to the Kentucky Horse Park 11 times since that year, and each year I can’t help but stop for moment and just take everything in as I walk through the gates. As I walked away from the jog strip after the first horse inspection on Wednesday, I filled my lungs with the spring air and felt hopeful.
Each year, dreams come to Kentucky to thrive and, in some cases, to die. But no matter what, the week starts with hope. Hope that the hard work and the blood, the sweat, the tears all come to fruition at the exact right moment. Hope that this will be the weekend you step up the plate and leave nothing on the table. With all of the commotion in the outside world, Kentucky is a haven, and within these fences it feels as if anything is possible.
Jokingly one day a few years ago, I told a friend that when I died I wanted to be cremated and my ashes spread in Kentucky Horse Park, across the cross country course. All joking aside, and as morbid and obscene as the thought seems, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be left.
After all, anything is possible here. Kentucky represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it represents the ultimate accomplishment. No matter what happened at the end of the weekend, you – the riders, the grooms, the owners, everyone in your village – made it here. That feeling that we all had on Wednesday – that feeling that the sky is the limit? It’s just what happens here at the Kentucky Horse Park in April.