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.
- Hsbc Fei Classics™ 2012: Fox-pitt Clocks Another Kentucky Victory (equestriansportinglife.com)