Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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11 thoughts on “Welcome to the Press Tent

  1. Ah, how the rich amuse themselves. (I’d EAT the horse.)


    • Believe it or not, the vast majority of the riders who compete in eventing are anything but rich. If they are very, very lucky, they’ve managed to secure sponsors who are well-heeled, but most of them are seriously “horse-poor”. Needless to say, that goes double for the journalists covering what they do!


  2. I love the centaur at the porta potty 🙂


  3. Wow, this was very interesting. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing. ❤


  4. bellesouthblogs on said:

    This is very exciting and takes me back to my important-story-covering days! The closest thing I got to cover as a journalist was the Pea Ridge Mule Jump.

    Although I did have to cover the W*****t Shareholders Meeting for several years in a row and got to see Taylor Hicks LIVE (bleh), AND one time I had a temporary White House Press Pass when GWB visited to stump for the local GOP candidates. I got to see Air Force One fly in as Neil Diamond’s “America” played over the loudspeakers – SO POWERFUL. That night, I also met Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar and their not-quite-yet baseball team of children; and I rode on their bus. Oh, memories.


    • I had to Google the Pea Ridge Mule Jump immediately. Looks like a hoot. 😉

      I can’t say I’ve mingled with a lot of celebrities as a result of my career (see my previous post on briefly being the One Per Cent!). I guess the closest I’ve come is former royalty, in the form of Captain Mark Phillips, who was once married to Princess Anne. He’s been the coach of the American eventing team for a bunch of years now (I think he exits this year after the Olympics). And man, is he a tough interview. If he doesn’t duck you completely, he answers in monosyllables, all the while looking at you as if you are the most unforgiveable form of idiot.


  5. Some great photos and it seems like you enjoyed yourself. The press pass to avoid the gate fee is always a good thing. 🙂


  6. Allow me to lean forward in my rocking chair & recall the pre-laptop days when the Rolex tents had grass floors & the occasional electrical outlet. Now everything is so wired you can watch the entire event from the press tent. Some do.


  7. Pingback: Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem « Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

  8. Herewith a strange conversation between a Bree Madison and myself, on Facebook today (four years after this post originally appeared):

    “When I search Laine Ashker, the hatred on your blog is the second result. Is that really necessary? Do you really think a 24 year old with enough talent to get to Rolex willingly sacrificed a horse? I hope you take that page down. Laine is a great ambassador for OTTBs in this country and she suffered a loss.”

    My response:

    Hatred? I’m not sure what you were reading, Bree, but there’s no hatred for Laine Ashker, or any other eventer, anywhere on my blog or in any of my other writing. Laine’s accident with Frodo Baggins is mentioned, in one sentence on my blog, as an acknowledgement that tragedies like theirs happen in the sport of eventing, even while we continue to try to prevent them with advances in course design. It is a high risk sport, and anyone who participates in it, officiates, covers it in the media, or even just spectates, has a responsibility to acknowledge that. That’s not hatred; it’s reality, and I’m pretty sure even Laine would tell you that.

    Through years as a competitor and a journalist, I know many, if not most, of the upper level eventers in North America, and when any of them loses a horse I feel that tragedy in my gut almost as keenly as they do. Horses have died in front of me. Frodo was one of those. I was at that fence when it happened, and at the time we weren’t sure Laine was going to survive either – she had to be resuscitated because Frodo landed on her and collapsed her lungs, and she stopped breathing. She was flown out by air ambulance and no-one knew her status for hours. It was gut-wrenching, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘Oh, no, please not Lainey’, because she had lost another horse, Eight St. James Place, the year before at Jersey Fresh, and it just seemed like too much tragedy for one young rider to cope with.

    Clearly Lainey is as tough as they come, because she is still competing at the four-star level and just completed Rolex again last weekend with Anthony Patch. I admire her for that. And I’m delighted that there were no serious falls this year in Kentucky, and neither the ambulance nor the helicopter moved all day. Every journalist in the Rolex press room says a little prayer at the beginning of cross-country day for exactly that – I know, I’ve joined them for the past 20 years – and this year the wish came true, which is always a relief.

    So no, I am not going to pretend that there is no danger in eventing. I’m a competitor myself, though not at the upper levels anymore, and every time I leave the start box with one of my homebreds I know I am taking a risk over and above what I’d encounter in the dressage or the hunter ring. It puzzles me, though, that you interpret that as ‘hatred’. Many fellow journalists would call me one of eventing’s biggest supporters. There certainly have been blogs and articles that are critical of Laine – here’s one: http://www.behindthebitblog.com/2008/07/watching-train-wreck-read-before.html — and I have described her elsewhere as “driven” (perhaps to a fault, though that’s not for me to say), but there is nothing in the blog post you reference that expresses hatred for Laine or for the sport. So no, I will not be taking the post down. Please read it again, Bree, and read for comprehension this time. Thanks.


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