After the battle for the Wellington show grounds concluded, it’s full speed ahead to improve U.S. equestrian sports.
Mark Bellissimo’s dream of a new and spectacular showgrounds in Wellington, Fla., is dovetailing with his new and spectacular vision for the sport as well.
This month, the old Palm Beach Equestrian Polo Club grounds take on a fresh identity as part of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, which also includes the Littlewood show grounds that adjoin it and the old Palm Beach Polo stadium a few blocks away. The facility is the springboard for a host of changes that are boldly recreating the Winter Equestrian Festival into something intended to be more far-reaching than just a show series.
“We’re going to build a phenomenal venture here. [But] in order to build the sport and take it to the next level, you have to make it spectator-friendly. You need to configure the event so it’s much more of an entertainment event,” said Bellissimo, the managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners.
“Once you build a spectator base, you can build a sponsor base. The ultimate vision of the sport has to be that high- performance riders make great money at the top and it trickles down; that the top 10 in the United States don’t have to have a trust fund or rich friends to do that.”
But, he added, “It’s a lot of work to get there, and it’s not going to happen overnight. We want to build durability into this model and build it in such a way that it’s respectful to the constituency it serves.”
At the end of an acrimonious year in Wellington, Bellissimo’s organization engineered the compilation of the PBIEC as it took control from WEF’s founder, Stadium Jumping Inc., and its chairman, Gene Mische.
During the time that WEP battled with Stadium Jumping amid a tangle of lawsuits, there were those on the sidelines who figured that the newcomer eventually would go away and tradition would prevail, as it so often does in the horse world.
But they didn’t know the depth of WEP’s commitment.
“There was no scenario where we were going to give up,” said Bellissimo, who cited the support of his original partners, Dennis Dammerman and Roger Smith, in surviving the conflict.
WEP’s purchase of the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club from Glen Straub set the stage for an agreement involving more high-powered partners. That agreement led to reconciling with the community and Stadium Jumping’s major players, including Jerry Jacobs and his son, Louis.
Bringing in Craig Lindner, who is well known in the horse show world, and other area landowners, was a key to success.
“We had a blend of old families. Craig, from my perspective, was great. He was calm, soothing, very smart and understood the strategy,” said Bellissimo.
The suits were dropped, the partners got Stadium Jumping’s dates in Wellington, and a new era began.
A Grand Vision
Bellissimo hired former Fédération Equestre Internationale Secretary-General Michael Stone and British horse show impresario Simon Brooks-Ward as high-powered consultants, serving notice that big changes were on the horizon.
“There has to be a strategy for the sport. That’s what our team is assembling, a strategy to make the sport much more high profile and much more interesting,” said Bellissimo.
“It’s going to take a number of initiatives to pull that off; it’s time and money. I’m really struck by the riders’ enthusiasm for trying to propel the sport. As far as we’re concerned, the sport is in a rut. U.S. riders are not faring as well on the top international circuit,” he said, citing the fact that too few Americans are on the list of the top 30 international riders.
“We don’t have the answers, but we have some ideas that rely on input of riders and people in the sport,” he said.
“We’re going to start building characters and identities for riders,” explained Bellissimo, noting his group is buying 14’9″ x 12′ ID boards, that can flash photos of the riders, list their records, and present a short video about them as they canter into the ring for their rounds.
“We’re interested in creating the highest level of energy in the sport at the grand prix level, so people can pursue a career in show jumping,” he noted.
The first order of business, however, involved improvements to the Club show grounds. A survey of 560 people determined that improved footing was the No. 1 change to be made followed by addressing the bathroom situation.
Hours after the National Horse Show ended on Dec. 9, bulldozers removed the grass in the International Arena and prepared it for all-weather footing designed to hold up through the WEF and beyond. Also being built into the arena, which is bordered by grass, are several derby features, including a grob and two banks.
Work also began on many other projects to improve traffic patterns, expand parking, eliminate dust, improve footing and install upscale mobile bathrooms (see article “Big Changes Await Winter Circuit Competitors,” p. 8).
“People are going to come here on Jan. 16 [the start of the WEF circuit] and say, ‘Wow,’ ” Bellissimo predicted.
Hope For The Best
While Mische also was interested in upgrades, he “was in a situation where there were capital issues and a whole host of issues that made it untenable,” said Bellissimo.
The biggest roadblock was the fact that Stadium Jumping didn’t own the show grounds, which it had leased for decades. Meanwhile, the old polo stadium down the road had been allowed to deteriorate badly and was covered with graffiti. When work on it is finished, it will seat about 2,700, with boxes on the top level. Fountains and elevated platforms will form a bowl around a grass field. Plans call for the parade of WEF champions to be held there April 6, along with a variety of special equestrian events at a later date.
Although Bellissimo originally believed it could be the base for dressage competitions, so that sport wouldn’t have to exist on “scraps” of space in the hunter/jumper areas of the main show grounds, this year dressage will be at Littlewood, now called the South Grounds.
Dressage riders are pleased with the idea of being stabled near their rings, instead of having to take long hikes to get to the arena.
The international side of show jumping will have a different look this year. While some competitors will be coming from Europe for the Nations Cup in March, it was decided that the Global Champions Tour would not be part of the WEF in 2008. Bellissimo and Stone figured it would have cost $1.6 million to bring over the number of horses and riders required under the tour’s new arrangement with the FEI.
Bellissimo said with no sponsor dedicated to that competition, and few U.S. riders in the line-up, it wouldn’t work. So he asked for a pass from tour founder Jan Tops for this year at least.
Stone noted that part of the international equation is being “equitable with the U.S. riders.” In the past, they complained that the Europeans got free entries and stabling, while they did not. Bellissimo is mulling over giving everyone involved in international competition some sort of stipend, though the details have yet to be worked out.
While it’s generally considered that WEP won the show grounds battle, Bellissimo doesn’t look at it that way.
“We don’t want people to think there’s a winner or a loser; my view is that we all won,” said. “We all made concessions to try to make it work. This was a well-thought-out settlement. I think it works in the best interests of the sport because it brings a whole host of new energy.”
Ultimately, of course, it will be up to the exhibitors, trainers, owners and spectators to determine how well the new show grounds work. There likely will be glitches, as there are with any new venture, such as initial problems formulating the WEF prizelist.
“We have to be cautiously optimistic,” said show jumper McLain Ward. “It’s new, it’s unproven. We’re all a little bit afraid of change. Anyone who says they’re not a little nervous about change is lying, but we have to hope for the best and try to work with them to go in the right direction. Let’s give it a chance and see.”