As many sports enthusiasts in the US know, this country's athletes receive little government funding toward the costs of training and competing. Parents of up-and-coming performers have been known to take second mortgages on their homes in order to pay for Junior's training, and communities hold fund-raising events to help support their local stars.
That tried-and-true high-dollar fund-raiser, the benefit dinner, is a perennial favorite of those in equestrian sport. It's trotted out (if you'll pardon the expression) reliably in advance of every major international championships to which the US plans to send teams.
Today, elite equestrian fund-raising falls largely to the United States Equestrian Team Foundation, the development arm of the United States Equestrian Federation. Headquartered at the venerable Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, NJ, the USET Foundation is still thought of by those of a certain age as simply the USET, the formerly stand-alone organization that fielded and funded (and to a certain extent trained) equestrian teams for international competition. Now it's a branch of the USEF, and its role is primarily to tap the wellspring of enthusiasts' pocketbooks.
The efforts have already begun to raise funds earmarked for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY. Making the most of the season of giving, the USET Foundation held a Holiday Fundraiser December 11-12 in Wellington, FL. Presented by Succeed and by Wellington Classic Dressage, the event featured a dinner, equestrian performances, and a live auction of such big-ticket items as a custom-made saddle and a week of dressage training in Germany. In keeping with the WEG's eight disciplines, the equine entertainment included reining, driving, dressage, vaulting, and jumping, all of which are part of WEG competition.
The next big USET Foundation gala, the Road to Kentucky benefit dinner, will be held February 5 at the International Polo Club in Wellington, FL. The affair will include a cocktail reception, dinner, live jazz, and a live auction.
Admission to these fund-raisers is, naturally, on the steep side. An "entry level" single ticket to the Road to Kentucky dinner will set you back $350, and tables for ten are going for up to $15,000. Then you'll need to open your wallet wide once again if you want to be the winning
bidder on the auction items; no "steal this on eBay" fare here. One lucky
bidder will receive a custom portrait of a favorite horse or dog by a
well-known animal artist. Another will win a custom bronze sculpture of
his or her horse or pony. Also on the block will be a Western-riding
vacation getaway and (no surprise here) one-week VIP packages of
Lexington hotel accommodations plus WEG eventing, jumping, or dressage
tickets. But horse-sport supporters consider the expenses donations to a worthy cause, and they enjoy some nice perks and goodies in return.
In 2000, I was offered a gratis ticket to the USET Foundation's pre-Sydney Olympics fund-raising dinner. Although I was suffering from a bad head cold, I jumped at the chance, for two main reasons. First, I figured it might well be my only chance to see how the other half lives. Second, and more important, the honorary chairpersons were Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Springsteen (whose daughter, Jessica, is now a well-known hunter/jumper rider). I'm a big fan and a New Jersey native to boot, so I put on my best cocktail dress, stuffed my ancient BRUCE New Jersey license-plate bumper sticker and a Sharpie pen in my evening bag, and headed for the Promised Land.
Prowling the silent-auction tables at the north-Jersey gala site before the VIPs' arrival, I grew faint with a combination of excitement and sinus congestion at the sight of two items: tickets and backstage passes to the Boss's upcoming show at Madison Square Garden, and a guitar autographed by Bruce and the members of his E Street Band. No way did I have the means to bid on these gems. Perhaps, I hoped, some equestrian enthusiast and devout rock-and-roll hater would bid on the items merely to show support for the USET Foundation, then look for someone to give them to.
Alas, I was not to be the lucky recipient of someone's largesse (but I still have the snapshots of the guitar). My disappointment was complete when the Boss was a no-show at the gala. The evening was salvaged, however, when I had the opportunity to meet the man whom I regard as our sport's greatest living legend, William Steinkraus, who is as fine a gentleman as he is a rider. I was so star-struck that I forgot to put that Sharpie pen to good use and get Mr. Steinkraus's autograph.
If you have an extra few hundred or thousand dollars lying around and you'd like to benefit a good cause, visit www.uset.org for information about the Road to Kentucky dinner. If someone offers you a free ticket, go! You never know whom you'll meet.