Let’s face it: Currently, you have to be independently wealthy, have a strong owner or be extremely productive in horse acquisition and sales as a trainer to survive in the top level of the sport. Sports such as tennis, golf, bowling and car racing went through transitions from hobbies to professions. (Europe is far ahead of us on this issue.) Most often that transition comes as a result of executing five steps; structuring the event to ensure a high level of spectator interest, aggressive promotion of the sport to the community, increased media coverage, developing strong sponsorship relationships, and finally developing a financial model so that the athletes and the organizers can both make money.
The critical economic driver for the success of the “top” sport is sponsorship. Without a strong sponsorship model there’s no meaningful top sport in this country, and there’s no financial model for the riders. There needs to be more productive collaboration between the top riders and organizers in an effort to create “personalities” in the sport and a more engaging and marketable product that attracts media interest and corresponding sponsorship. We’re investing in this future, but it’s a long, slow process.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Making the equestrian center and its activities relevant to the community.
Over the next few years we’re going to be opening up the facility to the community. First, we have to get people to know about the facility by providing high quality, low cost entertainment that inspires them to come learn about equestrian sport. I would estimate that less than 30 percent of non-equestrians know where the facility is and less than 10 percent have ever been there.
Second, we have to create an access point or vehicle that allows families in the community to experience the majesty of the sport through free lessons, camps, accessible riding programs and a scholarship program for children—that vehicle is the Palm Beach Riding Academy, and it will soon be moved to the old polo stadium at the corner of South Shore and Pierson.
Third, we need to create a low-cost interscholastic public school riding program that starts in elementary school and ends up in high school and allows the participants to become positioned to access the tens of millions of dollars of collegiate scholarships.
Once people become insiders to the sport and not observers to a “distant world,” they will become interested, engaged and fellow enthusiasts. I’m excited because my wife and daughter, Nicole, who is a high school senior, and I are going to work together to develop the strategy and get it implemented. I think this is attainable within the next three to five years.
What’s it like at the Bellissimo house? Do you have any non-equine pets?
We have five dogs. A Great Pyrenees named Daisy and four Shih Tzus: Cassie, Lexie, Bentley and Coco.
What are three items that can always be found in your fridge?
Chobani Greek yogurt, Jell-o chocolate pudding and sparkling water.
What’s your favorite home-cooked meal?
Nearly every month, Katherine does a great turkey dinner—from scratch. Like a holiday meal, but not just for the holidays.
One of your most anticipated projects is the new dressage facility and Global Dressage Festival. How did this project come about?
Shortly after purchasing the old polo stadium property in 2007, Michael Stone and I thought that it would be a great home for dressage. We then got preoccupied in renovating the core show grounds and decided to put it in hold.
In January 2011, [six-time Olympian] Robert Dover, frustrated by the lack of a world-class dressage product in Wellington, approached us to see if we could work collaboratively on a product for dressage. We met, identified the old polo stadium as the right venue and put together a plan.
I think within three years it will be the premiere dressage destination in the world.
Tell me about the equestrian village/dressage project. What can people expect?
By 2007, the old polo stadium property, which was once Wellington’s signature equestrian property within Palm Beach Polo, had been subdivided and was held by four different owners. Some local developers had plans to build a strip mall and a senior care facility on the South Shore side of this famous property. It would have been a shame. My wife and I always thought it was a special property.
In many ways the two premiere venues, PBIEC and the International Polo Club, are at a disadvantage in that they are tucked away from major roads and not widely known by the local residents. Each year, I’m approached by someone who says, “I’ve been here for 20 years and never knew this existed.”
This property, given its special location, should become the gateway to Wellington’s equestrian world, and the hotel/resort facility should be a defining element—a great architectural feature (the hotel) that is tastefully done and accessible and prominent, where all residents of the community feel welcome and can be introduced to and celebrate the equestrian lifestyle and the sport it supports.
The WEP Partnership purchased the four properties in late 2007 with the hope of one day returning it to the status of Wellington’s signature equestrian property. That time is now.
What do you hope to be WEP’s legacy?
The FTI Consulting Great Charity Challenge. My daughter, Paige, is a co-founder with me.