Steve Wilson spent his early life around horses â€“ a childhood surrounded by stallions, fillies and foals. A life of stables, saddles and stirrups. But he also remembers the accident he had as a teenager that limited his ability to interact with them as he so wished. A horse fell on Wilson smashing his hip, and an artificial one had to be fitted. Nearly four decades later though, Wilson found a new way to interact closely with the animals he loves so much – competitive combined driving. Even better, in re-discovering an old love, heâ€™s given a new fledgling passion to his grandson.
This fall, Wilson will get to savour watching his grandson, Avery Wilson, compete at the annual Hermitage Classic, staged at the historic Hermitage Farm in Goshen between Spetember 13-15. The Classic, a United States Equestrian Federation sanctioned event, centers around the sport of combined driving, or to leymen â€“ competitive horse-drawn carriage driving â€“ featuring standard and familiar phases such as dressage, but also less familiar disciplines such as obstacle courses and a cross country marathon. This year is the third annual staging of the event, since Wilson (who is owner of Louisvilleâ€™s 21c Museum Hotel along with wife Laura Lee Brown), bought Hermitage Farm in 2010. This year is also another chance for Wilson to watch his twelve year old grandson Avery compete in the event.
â€œAvery is a natural and better driver than I am,â€ explains Wilson. â€œIt was only four years ago we were at a farm in Georgia watching combined driving and I had no idea he was going to be a driver. I remember he started with a little pony that was extremely difficult to drive then the following year he moved onto another pony and now drives with a larger pony. Heâ€™s quickly gone to driving bigger and stronger animals.â€
As for Avery Wilson, he simply canâ€™t wait to compete again. The twelve year old who ordinarily would be facing fellow juniors will instead pit his skills against adults over the weekend. In Europe there is more competition in the sport, but in the United States there is a dearth of participants, meaning Wilson has only ever known the deep end in which he had been thrown in from the beginning.
Not that heâ€™d have it any other way.
â€œIâ€™ve always competed against adults,â€ he laughs. â€œSo itâ€™s not really daunting as Iâ€™m pretty much used to it.â€ And while soccer used to split his passions, heâ€™s now focused solely on racing the carriages as fast as he can.
â€œI prefer this to soccer because you get to do so much more,â€ says the younger Wilson who already competed in an event in Michigan and placed second out of a field of eight adults. â€œI still love speed in the event but I really enjoy doing turns because they take more skill.â€ This can only be good news for him, as an updated course at this yearâ€™s Classic will raise the skill levels required to compete. But while Avery may be eager to attack the new bridge and terrain installed at the 700-acre farm, his grandfather is a little more apprehensive.
â€œI worry about the hazards whereas Avery worries about the dressage. He attacks it like a motorbike rider. He can walk the course and learn the hazards, but he gets nervous about the technical aspects.â€ Either way though, the elder Wilson knows this has been the channel through which heâ€™s been able to resume an active and fruitful sporting life.
â€œI picked up the sport late in life,â€ concludes Wilson. â€œMost people I compete against have been doing it for 10 to 20 years whereas Iâ€™ve been only doing it for five. There are people of my age in the sport, but they have been living it a very long time. But I enjoy it so much.â€
â€œThis sport really took me by storm and gave me an outlet for being athletic and expressing the rush of competition. Itâ€™s a way for me to interact with horses again.â€
Aside from the splendiferous pageantry and fierce competition thatâ€™s synonymous with the Hermitage Classic, the underlying theme of the weekendâ€™s festivities will be Oldham Ahead â€“ the non-profit that Wilson founded with his wife, Laura Lee, 14 years ago as a way to promote and preserve open farmland and moving people away from simply talking about conservation and actually getting outside and enjoying it.
â€œAgriculture is the heritage of Kentucky,â€ explains Wilson. â€œSo the Hermitage Classic is a way to make that more real and tangible. Iâ€™m hopeful that itâ€™s an event that people love to come to each year and through that they grasp and embrace the need for preserving open spaces.â€
But Wilson also knows that at the Classic, it will be the horses themselves on that very same land he hopes to preserve thatâ€™ll be the star attraction.
â€œWith Churchill Downs right here in Louisville, most of the farms that are open to the public are in Lexington, which is an hour and a half away. People come to Louisville and go to the museum during the Derby, but in the off-season they have not had a way to become more familiar with the business and lifestyle of horses. Just like the Bourbon Trail, Hermitage Farm and the Classic allows people to see what makes Kentucky such a special place.â€
â€œItâ€™s critical that these open spaces are preserved,â€ concludes Wilson. â€œBecause they are the things that people love about Kentucky most and bring them here in the first place.â€
So while the attendees this September gently clasp champagne flutes and devour the equine extravaganza, Wilson will look on and see the rolling bluegrass before him, on which his grandson Avery is driving horses and hope that it stays like this for decades to come.