Advertising executive and horsewoman Courtney Lee is one of the few Louisvillians to have been involved with the 2010 ALLTECH World Equestrian Games almost from the day it was announced in 2006 that the games would be held in Kentucky.
Lee, 32, a senior account executive with Louisville-based Red7e advertising firm, has been part of the 10-person WEG marketing team since August 2006, which includes most of the preparation period leading up the games’ September 25 start.
She also is an “eventer,” competing with her horse Jamison in dressage, cross county and stadium jumping at events around the region.
The games run through October 10 at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
The World Equestrian Games, overseen by the Fédération Equestre Internationale, are held every four years, timed to fall between the summer Olympic games.
The 2010 Kentucky event is the first time the games have been held outside of Europe.
Insider Louisville: In the selection process, did the fact that you’ve ridden and competed since you were seven years old figure into this? You ride in these very same sorts of competitions — did that come up?
Courtney Lee: (Red7e executives) were pitching the games when I was talking to them about coming on board here. Red7e had told me this was one of the accounts they were going after. So yeah … a win, win!
Did you handle the domestic marketing, or domestic and international?
We handled both. Which was really interesting. Horse sport overseas in Europe, or overseas in general, is much more prominent than it is here in the states. Here, it’s considered a rich person’s sport, and something that’s not as interesting as football, sadly.
In Europe, it’s very common.
We had such a small budget that we had to find the countries that had the best games followings. People who’d come overseas to attend these games because following the games were important to them, then distilling that down to the horse riders in all these countries.
It’s not like the United States where there’s one magazine that reaches all 50 states and covers a discipline. There, it’s so fragmented.
So we did a lot of media buying overseas. We did a lot of TV advertising overseas leading up to this. That took the first part of our buy. We wanted to get the international following first because we knew it would be a little more difficult to get the locals on board, those who didn’t know much about horse sport.
We tried very hard locally, regionally and internationally to tell people, “Come visit us. Come see the horse capital of the world. It’s a destination!”
Tell me about the events.
There are eight disciplines that basically held their world championships in Lexington. For each of those disciplines, there’s a different audience. There’s some crossover, but for the most part, what you ride is what you want to see.
There’s reining, which is the Western form of dressage.
There’s dressage, which is considered ballet for horses.
You have eventing, which is the triathlon, the NASCAR …. just a crazy energy type of sport.
Driving in my opinion is very much like eventing except you have horses hooked up to driving gear, which makes it even harder.
Vaulting … these are gymnasts performing on horseback.
Endurance is just like marathon runners …. horses that go for miles and miles and miles.
I’ve been most impressed by the difficulty of the jumps in the cross county. They just seem so dangerous.
Actually, I would say this is the best run (Kentucky Horse Park) has had. (The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event) every year is a four-star event. So, it’s one of the most challenging cross-country courses in the world. Every Rolex, everybody holds their breath.
You have people who are running and jumping horses, so anything can happen. You have a course design that maybe has a fence that’s tricky, and a bunch of horses go down at it. Or you just a get a bad run where a horse and rider combo — one dies.
In April, they printed a photo of (British equestrian) Oliver Townend on the front of the Herald-Leader with his horse on top of him (after they fell over a jump.) He had one of those air vests that inflate, and it saved his life.
This year, we had a relatively – knock on wood, and pardon the pun — uneventful, great run. Everybody was okay. Nobody got seriously hurt. Challenging course, but good safe rides.
We couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Can you compare WEG-level competition and your amateur events?
As an amateur, each event probably costs me about $500. For me to compete at a horse trial.
(WEG) competitors pay five times that. To have that amount of money to compete at in this type of sport, you have to have sponsors. You have to have teams. You’ve got to have good horses. And those good horses are a lot more money than at the level I ride.
So, the quality of horse flesh. The quality of talent. The amount of money and support behind it is just vastly different. And with that, you see degree of difficulty change.
And what are we talking about investment-wise for these horses?
Well, you look at Courageous Comet, which is (top American equestrian) Becky Holder’s horse, and he’s an off-the-track thoroughbred. I think he even has ties to Three Chimneys Farm (in Lexington.)
Most of these horses that come off the racecourse for second careers aren’t purchased for big dollars. (Owners) just want them to have second careers so they don’t go to slaughter.
Even at the cross country level we saw last Saturday?
Even at the cross country level we saw on Saturday.
Now, some of these horses are bred for this. They’ve got great, great stallions, and they breed to fabulous mares for sport horses. You’re talking $20,000, $50,000 per horse and upward.
Someone told me the other day that Edward Gal on Morelands Totalis, the dressage freestyle gold medal winner last Friday night … that they offered him $16 million. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard he was offered $16 million for that horse, and I believe (Morelands Totalis) is a stallion (with breeding potential.)
What had to happen before Kentucky could get WEG?
Lexington was behind it. The state was behind it. The horse park was behind it. There were people with private money who were saying, “We’ll do what we need to do.” It was right after that is when they started making all the (improvements) to the horse park.
There had to be several things done before we could get it. They had build the indoor arena. They had to remodel the outdoor stadium.
The cool thing is, the horse park in Lexington has always been the place for horse shows. If you were in or around this area and you were an equestrian, you wanted to show at the horse park, long before the modifications were made.
Now, to be an equestrian and to go to the horse park is even that much better, and they have booked it solid. They have scored some big national competitions that had left Kentucky … on the U.S. level. On the national level, people are coming here to compete.
Disappointment would be that the local community – who are not equestrians – did not buy in more.
There was so much negativity that ran full course through the media about the most unimportant things.
I got very frustrated both as a horse person and as someone who’s an avid supporter of the games with all the nitpicking … among the people who should be huge supporters of what this is going to do for Lexington and for Kentucky for years.
It’s not just this one event. It’s the legacy of this event.
Trying to overcome the bashing on a daily business: “It’s too expensive. It’s going to clog traffic. There’s no place to park. Nobody cares about rich horse people.”
Look at Ryder Cup. I don’t play golf. But you’d better bet that I was pushing my clients out there and was trying to get hospitality and wanted to be part of it, because that truly was a great event.
My biggest problem was listening to all the negativity.
Where did that come from?
I think the press drove a lot of it. I think they were looking to blow holes in it from the get-go.
Because I don’t think horse sport is something that’s respected in this area like it is in Europe.
Newspapers write the first draft of history. What will be the final draft?
I think (it will be recorded as) a big success. There will be people who will say, “But we were supposed to have 600,000 people. But we we’re supposed to have 600,000 people. But we were supposed to have 600,000 people.”
I don’t think we’ll hit 600,000. I don’t think we would have had 600,000 even if the economy would have been good. That’s a really big number.
That projection is what the media latched on to.
But if you go back to the game’s foundation mission statement, the quality of competition is the best it’s ever been. From an equestrian side, it’s a home run.
How you look at it from a tourism perspective? I think it was a home run. We have heads in beds. People buying. That’s good.
If you want to look at it from a “Did we hit 600,000 people, and was there traffic a few nights that took two-and-a-half hours to get out of the horse park?” perspective, then fine, I’ll take it.
Your lasting memory?
We had to walk the cross country course six weeks ago. I get out there, and we’re with Janie Atkinson, the eventing manager. We’re standing (on the log jump). It was beautiful. The sun was starting to come up. Everyone was walking away. I watched the sun hit the trees and I thought, “This time next year, I won’t be standing on this park. I won’t have the freedom to run this park like I’ve been running this park for the past four years.”
And I started crying!