Finally. I have arrived at my destination. Last night as I slept, visions of palm trees and snuggly warm sunshine danced in my brain, enticing me to the Floridian delights (is there such a thing?) of the weekend to come. After a hectic taxi ride through rush hour traffic (with me, chronically paranoid of a missed flight, nervously chomping my nails to the quick), after gulping down a quick breakfast of hashbrowns and too many cups of coffee at the airport restaurant (because, really, aren’t hashbrowns just an excuse to eat french fries in the morning?), after several claustrophobic hours on two planes (the aisle seat, no less…with unfriendly bottoms waddling past me, inches from my face), after treading the 18 miles across the Atlanta airport (I reached for the handrail once, but then realized how many boogery children’s hands and flu-ridden passengers had grasped it before me), and waiting… waiting…waiting. Finally… I’ve arrived in Tallahassee for the first Gold Cup event of the year. Let’s explore some of the possibilities of the long weekend stretched out before us….
I must confess. I’m a Red Hills Virgin. And this place is… incredible. It’s like a mini-Rolex (or, dare I say, nearly as prestigious? Blasphemy, you say!) As a travel-weary first-timer, I was pleasantly surprised to find signs out on the main road for the event, and I didn’t even have to look at my eight maps (which had slid under the seats, flown out the window, etc.) – these Wondrous Signs took you straight to the park. Literally, bright green BIG signs (like for street names) said, "Horse Trials, this way" and a big, fat arrow. LOVE it, because I’m the type of person who gets lost going to my own mailbox, and any event staff that goes out of their way to make it easy on spectators, vendors, sponsors, officials, and most importantly the competitors with their big trailers gets an A-plus in my book.
So, I’d already fallen in love with the place, sight unseen. I finally pull into the main entrance (Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park…it’s a mouthful, so let’s call it The Park, instead) and wiggle my way down the gravel path to the festivities below (once again, my route was festooned with a bevy of directional signs). Tall, seemingly ancient oak trees, draped with flittery Spanish moss (which I find incredibly romantic, lazy, and sad all rolled into one exquisite little plant) led me down to the parking area and the vendor tents. More on this tomorrow – I have yet to adequately explore the vendor & sponsor tents, but so far I’ve drooled over some nifty tack shops, clothes stores, jewelers, crafts, boutiques, and all sorts of neat stuff. And the food vendors look exceptional… I’ll get some more in-depth taste tests on that later, but I swear I saw "alligator" listed as an option at one eatery. Hmmm… I hear it tastes like chicken, but sort of chewy. I have to admit, my eyes were PEELED on the swamps and canals as our plane touched down in Florida (after a horrendously teeth-chipping landing, I might add) hoping that I might see some gigantic 20-foot gator sunning himself on the runway. But, alas, it was not to be.
The grounds were in the state of "organized chaos" as is the case at most big events, but the organizers & volunteers seemed to be incredibly cheerful, have everything under control and well-attended, and although they probably felt quite frazzled with the approaching event, they all looked and acted fabulous. I heard that nearly 400 people volunteer at this event, and I met quite a lot of them already. The USEA’s 50th Anniversary (in 2009) will be "The Year of the Volunteer," because truly this sport would not be where it is today without their help. Kudos to all the volunteers out there for giving back to the sport – I hope they realize how important their good deed is and are thanked by many, many of the competitors who come this weekend.
Speaking of volunteers, I met fellow Blogger Bronwyn Gold (who wrote the Caroline Lendl interview and the piece on her rescued Thoroughbred gelding) and her parents who were helping out in the stabling area. Bronwyn and her family have been coming to Red Hills for years and gave me the low-down on the facility, where to hike out to cross-country, short-cuts, etc. Bronwyn plans to get some good interviews with some riders this weekend – so hopefully we’ll be posting some of her stuff in the next few days as well.
Tonight was the first of the weekend’s many parties and if the rest live up to this one…then I’ll be very impressed. Especially by the food. They had Bonefish Grille & Barefoot Winery sponsor this one and wow, was it a doozy. The second you stepped into the tent, you were greeted by the "welcoming staff" and you were literally bombarded by the waiters to stuff yourself with delightfully spicy shrimp, caesar salad, mahi mahi, and all sorts of deliciousness. For someone who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, the menu was like the nectar of the gods. So far the food has been THE best event food yet. Maybe I won’t try that "gator burger" after all. Oh, and they had a live band, too!
So far today was fairly uneventful – tomorrow is dressage (4 rings running at once! Eek! I’ll be bolting back and forth between all of them, camera & program in tow) and then on Saturday everyone will run cross-country. It’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be able to squeeze everyone in, it looks as if the last rider is slated to run at 6 pm… that’s pushing it, especially if there’s any holds on course. However, the organizers have been running this event smoothly for a LONG time, so I have no doubt that they’ve thought everything through. Sunday will be show jumping for everyone, obviously. I scoped out the course and it’s gorgeous…the footing looks absolutely wonderful (spring comes early in Florida, the light emerald sheen of new grass across the landscape is breathtaking) even though they look slightly naked with their poles! :)
Tomorrow will be a long day… dressage kicks off at 8:15 and will run until approximately 4:48. The neat thing about the dressage rings is that (from what I’ve seen so far), you can pretty much see just about all of them from one spot. For the most part. And because of the flat landscape, it makes for a very spectator-friendly event. I haven’t yet ventured out onto the cross-country course (although I hear it’s spectacular), I’m hoping that will be just as open and accessible as the dressage rings.
Seems like everyone trickled in this week from all over the country, so there were plenty of competitors hacking their horses around the grounds, practicing some dressage movements, and getting flighty partners used to the bubbly atmosphere. So far, I’ve seen Boyd Martin, Tara Ziegler, Buck Davidson, Lesley Grant-Law, Clark Montgomery, and many, many big names here. To check out the complete line-up, see the order of go. I’ll be posting a personal Blog (hopefully) each night, and definitely the "official write-up" on the USEA website as well. I’ll also be taking a TON of pictures of everyone, too, so hopefully you’ll have lots of stuff to check out in the evenings. Also – everyone cross your fingers that the weather stays 78 degrees and sunny… not just for the sake of the riders & event staff…but for my pasty winter skin. :)
It’s off to bed – early start tomorrow!