With $9 million in prize money, classes for everything from cross rail hunters to 1.6 meter jumpers and 12 weeks of competition in sunny (much of the time) Florida, the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington has all the earmarks of a dream destination for horse lovers.
But there are problems compounded by size and popularity at what is in effect the world’s largest and longest horse show, drawing exhibitors from 34 countries and having an economic impact of $200 million on the area. Complaints include concerns about dangerous schooling areas, footing issues, sub-par congested stabling and traffic on the grounds of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and adjoining roads.
To address the situation, Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, called what was in effect a town hall meeting, saying he wanted to hear the thoughts of the horse show community. And he got an earful, with hundreds attending the session last week at PBIEC.
One of the messages from there is news that big changes are afoot, which will mean the growth of the enterprise and hopefully, horse sports along with it.
Here’s the question Mark posed to the crowd, “How do we manage a successful product that has probably gotten to a point where we need to rethink it?”
Although he was aware of problems on the showgrounds, Mark said he hadn’t called a session like this previously because an obstructionist town council meant it was impossible for him to get anything done. The Jacobs family, which has opposed Mark on many fronts, backed candidates who got elected four years ago to form a council majority. Lawsuits have flown back and forth between the parties, with some legal issues and bitterness on both sides still unresolved.
Until a new council was seated, ESP decided not to undertake any initiatives, knowing they would be frustrated.
“In a world where we were constrained, our options were limited,” Mark explained.
He gave an example of having spent $9.25 million to build an FEI facility (where the international horses are kept on the showgrounds), only to find the town wouldn’t allow parking there.
“There were 15 things like that. Fundamental to that, we’ve probably got 50 things we’d like to do here, in a world where we couldn’t do one of them…it was a challenge,” he said.
However, in last month’s municipal election, two candidates won seats that changed the majority on the council, which Mark believes gives him the green light to make badly needed improvements.
At the same time, he is planning to close on the International Polo Club this month, which will give ESP and Wellington Equestrian Partners, which owns the properties, another venue in addition to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds and PBIEC, all within close proximity to each other. There plan is to distribute the load for the various disciplines across three venues to relieve congestion.
Meanwhile, another purchase just down the road, the Wanderers Club, with its golf course and other recreational and dining facilities, will offer a fourth, non-horse component that will add to the experience for those attending the shows, according to Mark. He envisions people riding or spectating in the morning, going to the Wanderers to play nine holes or tennis, and then heading back to the show in the afternoon for more classes.Railroad executive Hunter Harrison, a WEP partner who was going to leave the partnership, had a second thought after the acquisition of the IPC and talking to Mark, saying that “opened other opportunities.”The proprietor of Double H Farms (one of the owners of McLain Ward’s sensational ride, HH Azur, second in the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix yesterday) Hunter said he would work with Mark as a volunteer to add expertise.
As Hunter sees the WEP package, “This could be world class, second to no one, Spruce Meadows or Aachen or whatever if we want to pull together as a community and do it the right way. It’s there for the taking.”
Mark vowed, “You’re going to see the venues in this community rival the best in the world in three years.”
At the same time, Hunter finds it frustrating that, “wherever you go with show jumping, people don’t get along. There’s wars and fights.” When that happens, he pointed out, “I don’t know who wins there; the horse damn sure doesn’t.”
Hunter is, as he puts it himself, “a unique individual,” because the Jacobs are close friends, and he is also part of WEP. Double H was involved with the Jacobs’ February Wellington Masters jumper show down the road from PBIEC. Concern that one show would morph into more triggered a lawsuit from ESP, contending it is a breach of contract from the no-compete deal involving Stadium Jumping when ESP bought PBIEC.
In terms of the bad blood between the Jacobs and Mark, Hunter said, “we don’t discuss that.” When I asked, however, if he might broker a truce between the parties, he replied, “Would I like to see peace among everybody in Wellington? Absolutely, and if I could play that much of a part in pulling things together, yeah, but that’s not my role here.”
During the town hall, Hunter hinted at “a pretty exciting announcement for some additional prize money for show jumping, numbers you never heard before,” saying “the potential exists,” but wouldn’t give details.
Mark asked people to email him their concerns and suggestions at email@example.com, and promised to read every one he got. He hopes to have a plan devised for the properties by June, but in the meantime, ESP is ready to address a number of issues.
One was problems in the warm-up area of the International Arena, where a solution suggested was having a separate entrance and exit. Yesterday afternoon, a barrier was up along the entrance side, which would protect horses entering from someone swinging wide around a practice jump.
That certainly showed follow through, but as one groom pointed out to me, while it was a good idea, it wasn’t what horses were used to all circuit, so why do it on the last day of the jumper show? I watched for awhile as horses were led in, however, and didn’t see any getting upset.
Mark listed a number of items that will get action, including footing.
“It’s absolutely critical for us…to make sure we have the best footing in the world there. We’ve heard there are some concerns there, so we want to address them head-on,” said Mark.
They are going to replace all the footing in the International Arena, the focal point of the PBIEC grounds, and work on drainage issues there that may be complicating the situation. Every other ring is going to be evaluated to make sure they are draining properly and that any issues with them are handled.
“It’s our goal to have the safest facility and the best facility for horses,” Mark said, citing how well things have gone elsewhere (referring to his built-from-the-ground-up show facility in Tryon, N.C) in other places “when we’ve had cooperation from individuals that allow us to do things.”
In terms of traffic problems, there will be a new paved approach to the showgrounds on 40th Street, now a dirt track, that will offer access to the facility. ESP also will be putting money into a new turn lane on Pierson Road in front of PBIEC, where traffic backs up when a show is going on.
WEF is going to do at least one jumper show with a parallel track for both a 2-star and a 5-star as riders have requested.
More important, in terms of congestion and inadequate stabling, things will be moved around to “decompress and spread out the volume over a bigger space. We’ve got hundreds of acres but it’s been impossible for us to use them.”
Added Mark, “Our vision is that Wellington is the greatest place in the world to show. Our fundamental view now is we’ve got a pathway where we don’t have two hands tied behind our back and someone throwing a grenade at us every other step.”
People have forgotten what the showgrounds, and the shows, were like before WEP took over.
“At the last event prior to our ownership,” said Mark, “horses were falling in the ring. This facility at that time had $2 million in prize money, it had terrible rings, terrible footing.
“We made a fundamental decision to not only spend $25 million just to buy the dirt, but then to invest another $25 million to improve it. We made a decision as a long-term strategy to try to re-shape the sport. We have more international competitions than any place on the planet. We went from 19 FEI classes to 51,” while prize money for those classes went from $1.2 million to $5 million.
“ We now believe we can deliver and make the tweaks that make this a great experience for everyone. We’re opening that dialogue because we can execute on it.”