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Organisers aim to run Kentucky with restricted spectator numbers: ‘Behind closed doors is not an option’

The team at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event aims to run the event with a carefully managed number of spectators this year (22-25 April 2021).

“Once the decision was made to cancel last year, we started working out what 2021 looked like if we were able to move forward,” said Lee Carter, the executive director of Equestrian Events, Inc, which organises the US five-star event.

“Throughout last year, we were looking at lots of different scenarios, so at least we’d have ideas and options for when the go forward is given.”

Lee explained that in the USA, the response to the coronavirus pandemic varies by state, and that he is working with the Commonwealth of Kentucky and US Equestrian to see what is possible.

“At the moment US Equestrian has mandated there are no spectators across any equine sports, while the Commonwealth of Kentucky does permit 50% attendance at events or venues provided you can meet the requirements of social distancing and safety measures,” he said.

Lee explained that a 50% crowd would be around what the event would usually expect in the 7,500-seater stadium for dressage, while the nature of cross-country means social distancing is not a problem.

“Our track is four miles long, the venue is 1,200 acres – there’s plenty of space to spread out,” he said.

The organisers would need to reduce the number of spectators permitted in the stadium for showjumping, which is usually sold out, and they would look at creating additional areas around the venue where people could watch on screens.

“Spectators could then come in a responsible way and be distanced and be part of the atmosphere – we know the atmosphere is going to be diminished somewhat, but we don’t want to lose it entirely. It’s still important to provide an atmosphere for competitors, especially looking to Tokyo,” Lee told H&H.

“The virus is real – we don’t want to diminish it or its impact on individuals or families. In anything we do, we want to be responsible, to follow the guidelines set forward, but we do believe it can be done in a way that checks all those boxes. If someone has a health issue, we would encourage them to stay home; life matters more than coming to see this event.”

Lee said that running behind closed doors, like the British spring 2021 five-star at Badminton Horse Trials, is “regrettably for us not an option”.

“I’m cheering for Badminton, I think it’s tremendous for them to be able to have that as an option,” he said. “For us in the States, we’re classified as a non-profit. The resources we have available aren’t as great.

“When the 2020 event cancelled, we wanted to be good stewards and partners to those who supported us. We allowed everyone to either roll their money forward to 2021 or receive a full refund. If everyone had asked for a refund, we didn’t have the cash to meet all those requests. We had other plans to get to a point where we could refund everyone.

“Thankfully not everyone requested a refund, but if we made a decision not to run in 2021, out of respect for those who supported us, we’d go to them and say ‘we want to refund you’, but at that point our financial resources would not be enough to make all those refunds.”

Asked whether the event’s future could be at risk if it was cancelled again in 2021, Lee said: “It would be very difficult. I do think there are ways both our event and our organisation would and could survive. It wouldn’t be an absolute; if 2020 taught us anything it’s that everything could change in a heartbeat.

“Do I believe we would continue to exist and produce the event next year? Yes. Could all that get blown up or thrown away if there is some continuation of the pandemic? Absolutely. I do believe there’s a pathway for us to continue, but the reality is it becomes more than challenging.”

Lee said he revisits the situation for the 2021 event with US Equestrian weekly and he hopes to have some direction by 1 February.

“One of our biggest concerns is timing. At a certain point it becomes too late to make plans and move forward,” he said.

“We’re about 14 weeks out, which sounds a long time, but it’s really not. There are a lot of decisions and plans we’ve talked about internally – we know what we would do – but we’ve not yet either purchased what we need to purchase or signed contracts to put plans in place. We’re ready to do all that but the closer we get to the end of April, the harder that becomes. We run the risk of inventory not being available or the people we’re going to work with not being available.

“If we sign agreements now for products and services, we are increasing our liability if we’re not able to run. We also know that even if US Equestrian and the Commonwealth of Kentucky affirms our ability to move forward with spectators, there is some risk – if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that nothing is safe. Vaccination could not be as successful as everyone hopes, we could see another strain or spike that causes us to cancel later on.”

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Lee pointed to the recent announcement that the golf Masters will welcome limited spectators as a hopeful sign. The Masters runs in April in Georgia.

“Events like the Masters and us, which were some of the first major events to cancel, we’ve gone roughly a full year and spent the time figuring out what we can do responsibly,” he said. “We have to respect the virus and provide the correct pathway. We believe it can be done if everyone focuses in and does what they need to do.”

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