As the Covid crisis continues, April’s 5-star Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event (LRK3DE), presented by Mars Equestrian, has put off ticket sales it planned for this month. Should the postponement go past mid-February, however, “it’s really going to stretch our comfort level,” Equestrian Events Inc. (EEI) executive director Lee Carter told HorseSport.com, noting, “the current increase in (virus) cases has slowed us down.”
The situation means the competition may face the necessity of being cancelled for the second year in a row, as a number of equestrian competitions elsewhere have been, with the possibility of endangering its future.
“The potential could be the end of the equestrian event and our organization,” Lee said, outlining the worst case scenario.
After last year’s 5-star cancellation as the pandemic continued ramping up, EEI was counting on being able to hold the American Eventing Championships (AECs) in August 2020 to help make up the shortfall. But in a close call, the U.S. Eventing Association cited safety concerns while deciding to cancel its premier event three weeks before it was scheduled to begin.
That presented more difficulties for EEI, which is now behind the financial eight-ball. When last year’s five-star was cancelled, ticket holders (many of whom reserved their places in the fall of 2019) rolled over $900,000 worth of tickets to this year, which allowed EEI to protect its reserve fund.
But a 2021 cancellation would mean fans and vendors will require a refund, which would leave EEI in “a pretty bad cash position,” even after receiving government payroll protection, an emergency disaster loan, and maxing out its line of credit.
“Could it mean the end of the three-day event? Yes, it could,” said Lee, “I believe there’s a pathway forward, but after the 2020 that we just had, I don’t guess I’ll never say never. It’s just a matter now of how do we navigate these waters if we don’t run in April?”
He continued, “We’re prepared, as soon as they begin to accept second applications for this new round of payroll protection, to submit again. The more of that we can secure, the more favorable it is for us to continue to exist as an organization.”
The Badminton Horse Trials, the British five-star scheduled for 10 days after Kentucky’s April 22-25 dates, will be staged with empty stands if necessary, but that option isn’t available for the U.S. event, which normally draws 80,000 visitors.
A decision on going ahead with LRK3DE, one of only seven five-stars in the world, has to be made sooner than some other competitions scheduled for the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington because “we’re so dependent on our spectators,” explained Lee, whose organization relies on ticket sales, vendor payments and sponsors to present the event. Also, he pointed out, “riders need to get started making plans,” as they work out their horses’ competition schedules, while international travel arrangements remain difficult and time-consuming.
Lee noted that even with Badminton committed to running, interest in Kentucky from overseas competitors is still high because cross-country course designer Derek DiGrazia is also laying out the route for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. In addition, riders must qualify to compete at those Games.
Under Kentucky’s “Healthy at Work” guidelines, venues and events can use up to 50 percent capacity for attendance, provided they can social distance and meet other requirements. The state will have to approve LRK3DE’s “carefully managed level of spectators” as will the U.S. Equestrian Federation, whose current rules do not permit fans to attend its competitions.
“The pathway is there; we just have to get the necessary approvals,” said Lee, noting EEI is working with USEF to have that happen.
“The Horse Park is truly on board and open for business,” he added.
Lee pointed out 50 percent capacity in the seats for dressage days would meet the regular attendance levels, while “cross-country, by its nature, is automatically socially distanced” and hot spots for fans on the course, such as the Head of the Lake complex, will be addressed. The stadium jumping on the final day, when the stands usually are packed, will mean it cannot run with its usual number of ticket holders. The hospitality spaces around the property, though, can easily operate at 50 percent, he commented.
LRK3DE, the show jumping grand prix that runs with it and the AECs bring in about $5.2 million in revenue in a normal year, with expenses running anywhere from $5.1 to $5.3 million, Lee said. The event also gives back to the community, having donated $725,000 to local charities since 2011. EEI has requested tax-deductible donations to help it keep going. Those giving at the $500 and above level, qualify for pre-sale for tickets before they are released to the general public this year.
EEI is counting on the AECs being held Aug. 31-Sept. 5. If there are still major problems by that time, he pointed out, “we all have bigger issues.”
“I think every equestrian event in 2020 that ran or was cancelled learned a lot. There were still so many unknowns in August of last year that created some uncertainties, but I think you’re going to begin to see events figure it out. I think maybe the initial scare has worn off and folks have learned how to live with Covid until we get the vaccine truly rolled out, but it’s important for everybody to kind of get back to some responsible sense of normal.”
For his part, Lee said, “We believe we can run responsibly. Good golly almighty, I’d love to see a horse gallop across the infield here.”
The importance of the event goes beyond equestrian interests.
“We know how deeply impacted the tourism industry is,” Lee said.
Lori Saunders, executive director of Georgetown/Scott County Tourism, noted LRK3DE is “the kickoff to our tourist season.” Should the event be cancelled, “it would be very hard on our community,” she said, pointing out that event-goers and participants stay in the hotels and patronize the shops and restaurants.
“Our businesses like to know where their income is going to come from, especially right now, and how they are going to cover their bills,” she pointed out.
“Looking forward to the Kentucky Three-Day this year has been a bright spot for them, knowing they will have that infusion of income that the Kentucky Three-Day brings to our community and surrounding areas.”