From the edge of extinction to an exciting evolution, the 135-year-old National Horse Show has survived major changes of venue, loss of title sponsors and uncertainty about its future.

Now it’s definitely on firmer footing. During its eighth edition at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, which wrapped up Nov. 4, the show demonstrated style and maturity, generating exhibitor enthusiasm in a way that harked back to the glory years in its original home, Madison Square Garden. Being in the Blue Grass isn’t the same as a venue in the heart of one of the world’s most exciting cities, but there are advantages to horse-friendly Lexington, Ky., instead of bustling Manhattan.

They include permanent stabling and warm-up facilities outdoors, room to hack and a huge arena with a perfect surface. While the Garden had incredible name recognition and cachet, it offered only cramped quarters for horses, a teeny-tiny warm-up area, chaos on the street for vans and sky-high prices for hotels. The show ain’t going back there anyway, so just fuggedaboutit, as they say in some parts of New York.

Memories of the old National are fading. Most of the kids who showed in the National’s featured ASPCA Maclay equitation championship this year weren’t even born when the National left the Garden for the last time in 2001, so things are not the same when the show was considered “the tail that wagged the dog” of the horse show year, as everyone tried to qualify for New York.

The National went on the road to Florida and Syracuse, N.Y., but its future was in doubt until it came to Kentucky. While the red carpet and famed sterling silver trophies came along to the Blue Grass state, tradition is far from its only drawing card. It hosts the $250,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Lexington qualifier, the richest Cup qualifier in North America.

That’s prestige, while at the other end of the scale, the National this year put on what amounted to a separate equitation show run over 3-foot and 3-3 fences for juniors and amateurs on the weekend before the major classes started.

It was just the kind of income-generating innovation the show needed. Those classes never could have been staged when it was at the Garden because of costs, space and scheduling conflicts involving the New York hockey and basketball teams also using that arena.

National Chairman Mason Phelps called the addition to the show “a gigantic home run,” with great numbers, including 100 participating in the Hamel Foundation 3-3 championship. All the classes were modeled after the Maclay, where the riders jumped, worked on the flat and a smaller number jumped again.

“They weren’t steamrolled by the big boys,” said Mason, noting this gave riders on the rise a chance to shine.

Show President Jennifer Burger cited the emotional response from adults who were so grateful for a chance to ride at a legendary show, even though they were older, juggling jobs and raising kids. “The riders were impressive and moving,” she commented.

“You need to think creatively to run a horse show as a business and have the ends meet, and at the same time, keep everyone happy and give them what they want; something to look forward to that’s a little special,” said Jennifer. The show long had a wealthy “angel” at the top of the administrative pyramid, but that doesn’t work in this era. Mason wanted the National to sustain itself without needing one entity to prop it up, and now it has a wide range of sponsors.

Filling the professional hunter divisions, once the National’s mainstay, is always difficult these days. “You could say it’s a dying breed,” Mason commented, but the National bolstered its numbers by offering a no-fee $50,000 hunter classic for the first time that drew champions and reserves for a happy total of 24 starters.

The show’s downside involves getting bodies in seats. Lexington, Ky., is a town where racing is king—and the show is always held on the same weekend as the Breeders’ Cup. This year, it was a real conflict because the Cup was staged just down the road at Churchill Downs in Louisville, drawing some potential spectators away from the Horse Park. In addition, the Lexington-based University of Kentucky had a game on the Friday of the show, so that siphoned off possible showgoers, who were glued to TVs if they couldn’t be at the Rupp Arena downtown.

The National came up with different strategies, including offering free tickets to those connected with various charities, with cash awards for the biggest turnout. That didn’t work as well as Barn Night did for the Saturday evening, when costumed kids added a coluorful backdrop and provided an audience adding atmosphere worthy of the big name competitors.

Grand prix show jumper Peter Lutz, who won the 1991 Maclay finals at the Garden, likes what organizers have done with the fixture.

“They’re making such an effort to make it a really important show and I’ll definitely keep coming. For myself, it’s a great way to finish off the year,” he said.

Comparing it to the Garden, he noted, “It’s a different kind of charisma, a different kind of energy, because we’re in Kentucky. When we come here, we’re in real horse country. So it does feel like it works.”
~ Nancy Jaffer