The world may know Kentucky best for a certain horse race held the first Saturday in May, but a new equestrian event is making its mark on the Commonwealth, due in large part to a prominent entrepreneur most known for his work in the hospitality industry.
Steve Wilson, co-founder of 21c Museum Hotels, has introduced yet another treasure to the Bluegrass State with the Hermitage Classic, a three-day combined carriage competition held at Hermitage Farm, the historic 700-acre Thoroughbred breeding operation famous for more than 200 high stakes winners.
The classic – now in its second year – will take place Friday through Sunday, Sept. 21-23, in Goshen in Oldham County. What began in 2010 as a showcase before the World Equestrian Games, evolved into the one-day Hermitage Classic Horse Driving Trial in 2011. It is now a weekend-long contest with levels from Limit Preliminary to United States Equestrian Federation Advanced and includes an array of activities for the entire family to enjoy.
“Even though we are so famous for our Thoroughbreds and our racing, there was only one combined driving race in Kentucky, so I thought Hermitage would be the perfect place for the second,” said Wilson, who, along with wife Laura Lee Brown, bought Hermitage Farm from Carl Pollard in 2010.
As Oldham Ahead Board of Director members, Wilson and Brown purchased the land in hopes of preserving its tradition while creating more horse-related activities. This year’s Hermitage Classic will benefit Oldham Ahead, a not-for-profit community group whose mission is to enhance Oldham County’s natural and cultural resources while working to sustain its equine, agricultural and commercial base.
“Oldham Ahead was organized to help preserve and maintain the farmlands of Oldham County,” Wilson said. “A lot of development is spreading East out of Louisville because it is so beautiful, and there’s such interest. We want to make sure that there’s something there for people to go see. This farm is right on Highway 42, very visible and historic, so it, and other farms, we hope (will be around) for my grandchildren to come see and play, and watch races on.”
Aside from developing Hermitage Farm, Hermitage International Training Center and the classic, Wilson is an accomplished driver, himself, with an ultimate goal of making the U.S. Equestrian team. As a kid, Wilson showed ponies and even made the newspaper in the eighth grade when his horse, Hot Rod, bucked him off the saddle and broke his arm, prompting the ill-written publication headline: “Steve Wilson Broke His Arm While Trying to Mount His Hore (sic).”
Mortified by the missing “s” from the title, the young Wilson thought he could never again be seen in public, but eventually recovered from the embarrassment, while continuing to cultivate his love for horses. About three years ago, he took up carriage driving, which Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, helped bring to life and was a major force in the design of the competition rules. A pairs driver, Wilson appeared in last year’s classic and loves competing for both its therapeutic and thrilling effects.
“Part of it’s sort of like meditation. It demands my attention enough that I can’t worry,” he explained of the sport. “I can’t worry about my grandchildren, I can’t worry about the hotels, I’ve got to be focused. It’s a very therapeutic thing, and then there’s an adrenaline rush.”
In 2011, Wilson purchased two prized Hungarian Lipizzans, nicknamed Niki and Napli, which he found in Conty, France during the Pairs Driving Championship of that year. With two powerhouses heading his carriage, now all Wilson needed was the right driving instructor, Jose Hernandez of Georgetown, Ky., who moved to Goshen with his wife, Leslie, to work for Wilson on Hermitage Farm.
“We came in January of 2010,” said Leslie, an accomplished driver and trainer at Hermitage International Training Center. “(Steve’s) devoted a lot of effort and time into making (the classic) really safe for the horses there. … He has made everything so it’s just about as perfect as it can be in the situation for those competing and training. … He’s really welcoming to (his clients) and their animals to make sure they have a good experience. … We’re really happy to be able to help in developing this center.”
This year’s Hermitage Classic is expected to attract famed equine competitor Chester Weber, seven-time United States National Four-In-Hand Driving Champion, and Misdee Wrigley-Miller, who placed fifth in the USEF National Pair Championship at Live Oak. And, while there will be plenty of stunning horses and a challenging race course to witness, there’s much more involved with this weekend event. Attendees can also view adorable canines scampering toward the finish line in the Terrier and Dachshund Races hosted by the Bluegrass Working Terrier Association at noon on Saturday, Sept. 22. Entrees will compete in flat and hurdle racing with such divisions as “wee bits under 10 (inches),” “clueless novices” and “oddball breeds.”
The weekend is also about socializing with friends at the various classic events, among them the champagne brunch hosted by The Voice-Tribune, which is under the main tent during the Cones Competition and Awards ceremony, 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23.
The classic is certain to please the horse enthusiasts who attend, as well as those simply curious about the increasingly popular sport. The Kentucky Derby may still hold the reign as the state’s most recognized horse race, but with time, and the guidance of Wilson, the Hermitage Classic is set to claim its stake in the equestrian world.
“My goal is to have our course more beautiful than any other in America, and I think we’re pretty close to that,” Wilson said. “(Carriage driving is) a growing sport. I’d like to get more drivers interested, I’d like for the community to understand it better. When the World Games were held in Lexington, there were lots of people who loved watching this sport, and most of us hadn’t seen it before. Here we are in Kentucky with all these kinds of horses and all these different things that can be done with horses, so here’s another way you can enjoy horses.”
For more information on the Hermitage Classic and to purchase tickets, visit www.hermitageitc.com.
Schedule of Events
Friday, Sept. 21
8:30 a.m.: Gates open – free admission
9 a.m.: Dressage competition
4 p.m.: Guided spectator course walk for Saturday Marathon
7 p.m.: Original Makers Club Party
Saturday, Sept. 22
8 a.m.: Gates open – $5 general admission at the door (ages 12 and under free)
9 a.m.: Original Makers Club + Garden & Gun VIP Lounge opens
9 a.m.: Marathon competition
Noon: Terrier and Dachshund Race
Sunday, Sept. 23
9:30 a.m.: Gates open – $5 general admission at the door (ages 12 and under free)
10 a.m.: Cones competition
10:30 a.m.: Awards ceremony
11 a.m. The Voice-Tribune Brunch – cost is $45 and includes general admission