The year was 1985 and Oliver Kennedy was on his way to dinner with a friend when he drove by Howard Community College.
A light bulb went off.
Kennedy, a Columbia native and manager of equestrian show-jumping competitions around the country, had been talking with his boss about organizing a show in Howard County, but finding the right location was a bit of a challenge.
"When we passed by the college and I looked at the lawn, I said, 'This is the perfect place for a show,' " Kennedy said recently.
The school wasn't using the front lawn at the time, so officials approved the event as long as the show's organizers left the lawn in the same condition they found it. The organizers agreed, and the one-day Columbia Classic Grand Prix — later to be called the Howard Community College Grand Prix — was born.
About 4,000 people turned out for that first show. The Grand Prix celebrates its 25th anniversary this Saturday, Sept. 22, and the U.S. Equestrian Federation-sanctioned event is still going strong. The typical crowd has grown to more than 6,500, and the event is held on an actual horse farm, in Clarksville.
In addition, more entertainment and vendors have been added, and the money raised is used to provide scholarships for Howard Community College students.
"It's one of our signature events that reflects the western part of the county that's still horse farms and rolling hills," said Lori Paddy, a spokewoman for the county's tourism office. "We use Grand Prix photos in selling the county as a great place to live, and they get a lot of attention."
Such success was not expected by everyone. "When we first did it, I didn't think it would last 25 years," Kennedy said. "At the time, we didn't know what we had."
But riders like Olympic equestrian gold medalist Joe Fargis, who won the HCC Grand Prix twice, saw something special about it that first year.
"I thought it was very nice, with great ambience and a great crowd that created lots of excitement, so I'm not surprised it's still going," Fargis said from his home in Middleburg, Va. "It's evolved beautifully and gets better every year."
From its inception, the Grand Prix attracted top-notch riders, such as international equestrian champion Katie Monahan. The event also brought out lots of local residents, who spent the day relaxing and eating on the grass or in lawn chairs, watching riders go through their jumps.
"It was mainly a lot of horse people who brought their blankets, and coolers, tailgated and sat on the little hill around the ring to watch the show. But then it got so crowded on the hill with all types of people, that by the third year, we had to put bleachers in," Kennedy said.
Like going to Derby
Regina Ford remembers those early competitions fondly. She would attend the event with friends and remembers how they looked forward to dressing up for the occasion.
"It was like going to the Kentucky Derby," Ford said. "I have a big hat that I paid a fortune for 30 years ago, that has the feel of the Derby, and I wear it every year. It's black straw with a white band and I change the flowers on it and wear dressy outfits and heels with it."
Ford isn't alone with that ritual, although most of the dressed-up people are in the VIP areas and sponsor tents.
In the beginning, there was only one VIP tent where a few local business people and horse owners gathered for food, drinks and great views of the ring. But as sponsorship for the event grew from a handful of companies to 100 tables in the fifth year, the sponsorship tents expanded from a short row to an L-shaped formation with more than 130 tables.
According to Kennedy, after Howard Community College officials saw how successful the event was that first year, they approached his company about having the college run the event, with Kennedy's company still managing it. The deal was worked out and the college used the event, which initially raised funds to support the 1988 United States' Olympic equestrian team, to fund scholarships for Howard Community College students.
"We went from netting a few thousand dollars to highs of $210,000 in 2002," said HCC's Education Foundation Executive Director Melissa Mattey. "With the recession, we took a hit, and in 2009 only raised $70,000. Some of our sponsors dropped out, but they're starting to come back."
Over the past 25 years, nearly $3 million has been generated for the college's scholarship fund from Grand Prix proceeds, with more than 200 students receiving scholarships annually.
Those students are grateful for the help. Adam Leatherman, who graduated from the community college in May, said the Grand Prix scholarships helped cover some of his regular tuition and also allowed him to study abroad.
"I'm the oldest of three, and my sister was in college and my younger brother was about to go, so my parents needed the help," Leatherman said.
In 2010, the year after it moved from the college campus to the Marama horse farm in Clarksville, the event's name was changed to the Howard Community College Grand Prix. The move was prompted by the school's dramatic increase in enrollment, which forced it to build on the school's front lawn and left little room for the Grand Prix.
The horse farm's owners, Marilyn and George Doetsch, allowed the college to use the land for the event. It allowed for a larger ring and more space for the horses to warm up. It also gave organizers more space for vendors and entertainment, such as hay rides and side shows for those who are not major equestrian enthusiasts.
Still, the move cost the event its gem of a marketing location on the campus lawn, which initially caused Pat Kennedy, the Grand Prix's first chairman, to be concerned.
"I was very skeptical because although the farm is beautiful, you can't see it being set up like on the lawn, and I feared we'd get less participation," Kennedy said. "And if the participation fell off, I thought sponsors would drop out, but none of that happened."
Fargis, the Olympian, thinks the farm is an improvement.
"It's more rural, with room for the horses to work out and breathe and the course is better," Fargis said.
In the future, Grand Prix organizers are trying to find ways to increase attendance and revenue. In the past, they brought in celebrities such as Bo Derek and Jane Seymour to boost ticket sales. One plan they are contemplating is to make the Grand Prix a multi-day event.
"One day for the Grand Prix is perfect for us in terms of our crews, the riders coming in for one day, which they like getting in and out," Mattey said. "But since we have the tents up already, maybe we could do something like a polo match on a second day or another type of horse event."
Pat Kennedy is not sure if Marama's owners would welcome a multi-day event. He thinks the way to increase attendance is to publicize it more aggressively so it becomes better known.
As for this year, organizers and riders say good weather always helps attendance and they are not just hoping for a sunny day, but claiming it as well.
"I hope it goes well this year and continues for another 25 years," Fargis said. "I won't be there competing this time because I got my dates mixed up and will be in Kentucky, but for sure, I'll be back."