Lexington, KY - Simply put, it was a night to remember. After years of planning, the efforts of thousands and the hard work of the world's best equestrian athletes, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games officially got underway with a star-studded Opening Ceremonies that saw the equestrian world gather together accompanied by the pomp and circumstance of great music and elegant pageantry. The Games, which are comprised of eight international championships, take place from September 25 - October 10 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. In all, the two-and-a-half hour event featured some 1,500 people, 200 horses and 40 different acts.
The spectacle was a moving mix of icons from across the worlds of culture, sport and entertainment (both equine and popular). The evening began with a dramatic "horse ballet" consisting of 150 children trotting into the arena wearing bamboo horses followed by drummers, trumpeters and dancers. The oncoming sunset - purple and pink swirls on the arena's horizon - set a dramatic stage for an even more dramatic night of magic.
A Lakota drum beat segued into a "Prayer for all Nations" performed by a group of Native American Lakota Indians led by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred While Buffalo Calf Pipe. There was no mistaking the significance of the horse to Native American culture, or of the importance of the Native American to our country's history.
The celebration of the accomplishments made through the bond between horse and man was celebrated by Bluegrass band Cherryholmes. Its rendition of "Horse and Man" was fueled with blues and bass.
The role of the Cavalry in U.S. history was highlighted by their presentation of the U.S. flag by the Culver Academy's Black Horse Troop. Founded in 1897, the largest remaining unit in the country has escorted some of the world's grandest dignitaries from presidents to royalty. Their complex drill routines were followed by the raising of the flag and the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner" by the American Spiritual Ensemble and Dr. Everett McCorvey. The reverent moment was followed by a rousing version of "Stars and Stripes."
It was right back to Bluegrass with one of the most famous Kentucky-inspired songs - "Blue Moon of Kentucky" - kicking off a celebration of the gaited horse and its Kentucky heritage. Three high-action Saddlebreds - Heavenly Thunder, CHOur Charming Lady and New York Style - entered the arena for a "class" followed by a "judging" and awarding of ribbons. Four five-gaited stars - CHCallaway's Born to Win, CHSprinkles, CHAccording to Lynn and Bono - followed by racking into the arena for their own blue ribbons. Not to be outdone, three fine harness horses - CHCall Me Ringo (driven by "adopted" Kentuckian and actor William Shatner who received a thunderous welcome), CHLady Vol and Cherished King - trotted their four-wheeled buggies and drivers around the horseshoe path. Two Standardbred Roadsters - Rums Last Shot and All Glory - burst onto the scene to conclude the "horse show" to an energetic version of the fiddle-filled "Orange Blossom Special." It was truly a spectacular salute to the breed.
Another Kentucky tradition - Thoroughbred racing - was next in the spotlight with the musical salutes to Churchill Downs ("Call to Post") and Keeneland ("Boots and Saddles"). "You can't talk about Kentucky without mentioning the Thoroughbreds, as they race across the Bluegrass in pursuit of a dream," declared the announcer as starting gates were opened and the horses charged into a race around the arena, complete with a win, victory lap and champion photo by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron - winner of nine Breeder's Cup races and six U.S. Triple Crown races.
In perhaps one of the most anticipated moments of the show, Kentucky superstar singer Wynonna Judd took to the stage to sing the state's signature song - "My Old Kentucky Home" - as the Culver Color Guard raised the state flag.
The transition to the exciting Parade of Athletes was yet another jam session along with the Pony of the Americas Adult Corps and Celebration Crew. Highlights from the last Games held in 2006 in Aachen, Germany, followed. It was time for the 800 athletes from 58 countries to be personally welcomed to "the big show." Leading the U.S. contingent and carrying the U.S. flag were Tucker Johnson (driving) and Karen O'Connor (eventing). Athletes from each of the eight U.S. Teams took part in the ceremony and donned Western-themed outfits complete with cowboy hat. The teams entrance caused the crowd to leap to its feet and give them the welcome they so deserved.
A procession of Arabian horses was serenaded by the orchestra's performance of "Scheherazade," and lead among them was the stunning white stallion WN Knight Rider (winner of eight National Championships) and the breed's all-time most winning Park horse - the black stallion Aequus. Five additional Arabian champions joined the parade: The Big Oh (side saddle), Vallejo Moon Beam and Link to Fame (Western pleasure) and Kirby and Afire Burning Love (native costume).
The Friesians were represented by the Royal Friesians of The Netherlands, and the team's spectacular quadrille (a performance of square-shaped formations and figures) delighted the stadium. Their performance was moving and the crowd was more than grateful in its appreciation.
State and local dignitaries, including President of the International Equestrian Federation - HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan and Dubai - entered the venue in carriages, and they all made their way to the main stage as the Games fanfare played. It was then that one of the evening's big moments was about to be revealed.
Famous quotes and career highlights of the state's most celebrated athlete and world-renowned humanitarian - Muhammad Ali - were pictured on the Jumbotron as he was introduced. Making a lap around the grounds in a vintage convertible car, the standing crowd cheered on the legend shouting "Ali! Ali!" as he passed by them.
Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry and the Governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, both spoke to the importance of the Games and welcomed guests. It was then that HRH Princess Haya addressed the crowd.
"In Kentucky, we stand at the edge of what was once the Great Frontier separating the civilized East from the unknown West," she said. "The lucky ones came on horseback."
HRH Princess Haya continued, "If it were not for the horse, with its power and strength and its vital role in exploring and taming this continent, we would read a very different story of America today...the Commonwealth of Kentucky is an important part of that story. There are so few places that embrace the majesty of the horse. Nowhere else in the world can you find the unbridled spirit of Kentucky."
Since her childhood, HRH Princess Haya knew of Kentucky and its equine impact. "I knew Kentucky was a special place as a young girl. I thought of Kentucky as 'horse heaven.'"
It was then that she announced, "It is an honor and a great pleasure to declare the sixth Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010, open!"
Up next was a musical trip across the country. Broadway was celebrated with a performance of selections from "West Side Story" and equine entertainer Mario Contreras. New York's Metropolitan Opera took the spotlight with performances by famed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Fellow opera star Cynthia Lawrence joined in for a duet, and Lexington's own Greg Turay joined the two divas for a final number.
The entertainment turned Westward as the California Cowgirls, Riata Ranch Ropers and Vince Bruce thrilled the crowd with Western skills and energetic rope tricks. They were followed by Tommy Turvey and Dan James who joined in the fun. The Western showcase continued with Eitan Beth-Halachmy's "cowboy dressage" performance to the heartland sound of "Shenandoah." Finally, Sarah Lee Guthrie (granddaughter or Woody Guthrie and daughter of Arlo Guthrie) introduced Stacy Westfall who performed her inspirational freestyle reining talents to the song "In a Young Girl's Mind." The conclusion of the Western segment of the ceremonies was Guthrie's version of "This Land is Your Land," and she asked the audience to sing along while Westfall toured the arena encouraging everyone to join in and clap their hands.
The Southern tradition of spiritual songs followed with the American Spiritual Ensemble performing an a cappella medley of "Down to the River," "We Shall Walk in the Valley" and "True Religion." Then it was time to jazz it up with a trip to Bourbon Street with the group from Jazz at Lincoln Center that sang "When the Saints Come Marching In." With Mardi Gras in procession, Michelle McFarland's Carriage and Horse Parade strutted their stuff along with all the evening's performers.
The ceremonies final performance was by world famous tenor, Ronan Tynan, who is a former Para-Olympian. His moving version of "The Impossible Dream" was a show-stopper, especially during its reprise when the Haitian Children's Choir joined him.
As the crowds filed out of the stadium, cheers and compliments filled the night air. One thing is certain...the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games is off to one unforgettable and impressive start. And, the action has only just begun.
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Photo: Tucker Johnson and Karen O'Connor Leading the U.S. Team. Photo by Shannon Brinkman for USEF.