A celebration of horses that you can’t help but find thrilling

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By Steve Doyle

For many years, in many places and for many reasons, I have stood in front of my television screen on Derby Day and unabashedly shed a tear when My Old Kentucky Home was sung.

Like most of my generation, I learned the words – the original ones, I might add – in grade school and have burned them into those vocal tracks of my soul, to be plucked and tweaked on an occasional basis in an emotional serenade of my essence.

But I was not prepared for a moment such as this.

I stood at my seat at the Kentucky Horse Park on Saturday night as Wynonna Judd was introduced to sing Stephen Foster’s wonderful old elegy, tears starting to streak my cheeks before the first chord was struck, and even now typing these words, I feel the chill of one of those moments that sweeps our chemistry past our reason and sends our emotions over a waterfall.

This was the opening ceremonies of the World Equestrian Games, and seldom have I been more proud to be a Kentuckian.

The world – 58 countries of it, at least – is in our state to celebrate one of the things we do best, breed, train and present horses that are superior in their beauty, athleticism and the imagination of their human partners.

And whether you give a whit about such things, you should stand up with goose-pimply pride and prance in the high-stepping mode of our best-coached Saddlebreds to celebrate a moment of great honor for our state, something you would a national basketball championship. OK, almost.

Judd’s performance came with some of your neighbors and acquaintances on hand.

Even as we stood and heard her, a beautiful stripe of orange on the western horizon casting its final spotlight on a chamber-of-commerce day, Mary Gaylord McClean of Simpsonville sat horseback in the arena, as did many of her fellow competitors in the gaited world of Saddlebreds, the trotting of Standardbreds and the dashing of Thoroughbreds.

Famed jockey Chris McCarron, bugled into the arena by the men who do that at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, sat atop a Thoroughbred. Actor William Shatner, who has horses boarded in Shelby and a farm in Woodford, drove a roaster.

The history of horses in Kentucky was being celebrated for thousands to see, and Judd’s powerful voice chilled a crowd that stood perfectly still as it waited to hear, giving a reverence to what was more a cathedral than a stadium.

The show went on for three and a half hours after that – John Calipari and Muhammad Ali arrived in vintage automobiles, Walnut Way Farm’s Marilyn McFarlane delivered the governor in a manner fit for a, well, queen, more incredible musical notes were hit, the competitors paraded and overwhelmingly talented horses and riders showed what could be done that many you wouldn’t have conceived – but there was no moment like The Song.

It was the prelude and the benediction.

If you live in Kentucky, particularly our part of the state, religious references are an absolute. These are competitions held in worship, conducted in ritual and pronounced prayerfully.

And perhaps prayers were what many of you not affiliated with the horse industry were believing to be the only salvation for these Games.

They have gone on for decades in Europe, and this first and much-anticipated staging in the United States was embraced by a relatively small city (Lexington) in a state that is among those most strapped for cash. We needed success, not just a nice attaboy for our effort.

I don’t know how these Games will fare when the spreadsheets are tabulated in the end, but I can tell you that Day One had to be a startling success for all involved.

Thousands landed at the Kentucky Horse Park, and if you wandered the events, exhibits and ceremonies, you heard over your shoulder many varieties of dialects that didn’t include the flat “a’s” and “i’s” of our home folks.

I’ve been to two Olympics, three Super Bowls and many other famous and fabled sports events, and I’ve not seen any that were more of a success for what they should be or were trying to be than a first impression of these Games presented.

In fact, the only bad impressions would be the lack of seats for dining and the incredibly blind and ill-conceived manner in which parking lots were emptied, so bad that it took me back to the old days at Henry County High School when 5,000 basketball fans had to be funneled out two lanes.

But in the grand scene of an international sporting event, that has the everlasting quality  of a piece of runaway tissue in the wind.

And it won’t keep me from attending the Games again. I spent about 14 hours at the horse park on Saturday and didn’t see nearly half of everything there was to see, and that was on a day of limited competition.

And I’ll be going back again and again these next two weeks.

Wynonna Judd may not be singing The Song, but I’ll bet I feel that chill again.