Hermitage Farm: A Classic in the Making

Contributing Writer

Hermitage Farm has long been a familiar name to those who follow thoroughbred racing, but the historic property is quickly becoming known as far more than simply a breeding ground for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

On September 12-14, the Oldham County farm will host its fifth annual Hermitage Classic Combined Driving Event, a competitive horse-drawn carriage competition that tests animals’ skills agility, speed, endurance and precision in a series of events that are both beautiful and exhilarating for audiences. This year’s event carries more prestige than ever after two recent announcements from the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) and the United Stated Equestrian Federation (USEF).

The weekend will also signify the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the stunningly redesigned Bittner’s Showhouse, which has already hosted a string of private events, including one ethereal wedding featured on the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. Buzz has already begun surrounding next year’s Hermitage Grand Gala, a Derby Eve party sure to be one of the premiere bashes of the season.

“The name Hermitage means something to a lot of people,” said Ashleigh Stephan, the director of marketing and special events at the farm. “People are familiar with the name of the farm because it’s been around for years, but they are only now starting to realize that we’ve revamped ourselves.”

With that revamping comes new features for its upcoming flagship event and a resonating old Kentucky home atmosphere that, even when it isn’t hosting Derby-bound celebrities, will give visitors a feeling of Derby months after the Run for the Roses has concluded.

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Combined driving events like the Hermitage Classic are relatively new to the United States. The formal rules only date back to Prince Philip in the 1970s, though if you consider the shared heritage of horse activities like carriage pleasure driving, there is a long history and tradition going back much further into Europe.

You don’t have to understand all of the rules and nuances of a combined driving competition to enjoy an event like the Hermitage Classic, but it does help. Here’s the abridged version: combined driving competitions breaks down into three phases. Each requires a different set of physical and mental skills for the horses and ponies competing, though all require a high level of training and a strong bond between man and animal(s).

The first phrase is dressage. Often compared to ballet, horses are judged in the dressage portion of the competition based on their precision and form while doing a set of predetermined movements and gaits. At the Hermitage Classic, this portion kicks off the three-day event on the morning of Friday the 12th.

On Saturday, the second leg will be held: the cross-country marathon, where horses are judged on speed, agility and bravery through or around physical obstacles like puddles, trees and steep hills along a 10- to 22-kilometer course.

The final component, to be held Sunday morning, is the obstacle cones. Here, speed, obedience and accuracy are tested as horses and carriages maneuver around a series of cones in a timed test. (Autocross car competitions, popular among some gearheads, are a natural derivative of this.)

Once all three stages are complete, the judges will tally up points and announce the winners in each class. Class is determined by the size and number of the four-legged competitors (i.e., singles, pairs or foursome; pony or horse).

If all that is still too much to remember, Hermitage Classic plans to have informational boards setup on site to explain the sport and its rules.

“We are setup to draw in people who want to learn more about the sport while they’re enjoying a nice day in the country,” says Leslie Cashion, who heads up the driving division at Hermitage Farm. “Educating the crowd is important.”

This year, attendees can watch from a new pedestrian observation deck, which will provide them with a bird’s-eye view of all the hoofed action.

“One of the cool things about the sport, I think, is seeing how the horses and drivers use themselves differently during each portion,” says Cashion. “Really good drivers are good at all things. Some drivers are specialized—they do okay in dressage, then great on marathon, then only decent in cones. More and more, though, you need to be good at everything to do well.”

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As in previous years, the Hermitage Classic will see competitors from all across the United States and Canada. One major change, however, is that this year, the fifth, marks the first time the event is sanctioned by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI).

According to Cashion, the sanction is invaluable for an up-and-coming competition such as Hermitage Classic, which is still working on building its entry numbers. The FEI hosts the World Equestrian Games, which Kentuckians may remember was last held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in 2010. It was the first time in the competition’s two-decade history that it had ever been held outside of Europe. The 2014 World Equestrian Games are currently underway in Normandy, France, and run until Sept. 7. Lexington was a finalist for the 2018 games but lost out to Bromont and Montreal, Canada.

“They’re the top level of the sport,”  Cashion said of FEI. “Their sanction means we are good enough to be considered international quality. We’re not just some little event in Kentucky.”

The FEI boost may give people added incentive to make a trek to Goshen, Kentucky to compete or watch. Also helping is the fact that the Classic will include its first advanced-level competition. Steve Wilson, who owns Hermitage Farms along with his wife Laura Lee Brown, will be among the advanced-level competitors. Another competitor will be fellow Hermitage-trained driver Max Montoya.

Also boosting Hermitage Classic’s presence in the sporting world is news that the United States Equestrian Foundation has selected it as the site for the 2015 National Driving Championship for Singles. Winning the bid elevates  Hermitage into a premiere event for any single driver with their eyes on being a national champion.

Cashion credits the tremendous growth Hermitage Classic has seen in its five years to the vision and dedication of Wilson: “He doesn’t do anything partway. He’s done a really good job of making sure we are keeping this a good sport and developing the classic into a world-class event.”

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Even those who simply can’t get into the pomp of dressage or the frenetic nature of the marathon and cone competitions should still be able to enjoy the picturesque 700-acre Hermitage Farm property, which can easily transport a mind to a bygone era. The nearly two-century-old property is a longtime staple of the equine industry, having served as the home for more than 200 high-stakes race winners, including 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star.

The Main House, which underwent a major redesign by Bittners Design Firm before last year’s Hermitage Classic, grounds the expansive property. Since opening for private rentals last summer, the renovated home has housed dozens of private events, including corporate meetings and weddings.

The first wedding at the renovated property gained national attention when it was featured on the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings, bolstered by the presence of one famous bridesmaid: unofficial Louisville royalty and “Hunger Games” superstar Jennifer Lawrence, whose brother Blaine was the lucky groom.

“As soon as that happened, we were instantly projected into wedding fever,” Stephan said of Hermitage Farm. “We have hosted many weddings. We don’t want to be a wedding factory, but we are a popular place.”

She adds: “People are drawn here. Hermitage is the quintessential Kentucky backdrop. It’s historic, with rolling hills and pastureland—a true Kentucky horse farm with thoroughbreds running off in the distance. Not a whole lot of places offer that anymore.”

This also makes it an ideal location to host a major Kentucky Derby celebration. Wilson and Brown, who among other things are the founders of the wildly successful 21c Museum Hotels, have announced they are teaming up with Bridgeman Foods president Junior Bridgeman for a Derby Eve party. Planning for the Hermitage Grand Gala, the tickets for which will range from $500 to $1,500, will benefit the West End School. A press release has already promised that some of the 1,500 guests will be the “top names in entertainment, sports, politics and business.”

Stephan said planning for that event will pick up once the Hermitage Classic passes. She views it as the perfect addition to the continuously growing roster of events happening at Hermitage Farm and a boon for Oldham County.

With the Grand Gala, just as with the Hermitage Classic and any other special event held at the farm, there will always be one underlying goal. Stephan sums that up: “We want to make it better than anybody could imagine.”