The 2020 Ocala Jockey Club International 3-Day Event, which was set to run Nov. 12-15 at the Ocala Jockey Club farm in Reddick, Florida, has been canceled. The event was designated as the U.S. CCI4*-L National Championships. Additionally, due to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games, set to occur in the summer of 2021, the OJC event was to serve as an important Olympic qualifier. As a number of four- and five-star events have canceled across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, OJC recognized the importance of its event to Team USA and the USEF High Performance program and worked diligently to plan the event.
However, with less than four months remaining for the planning of the event, OJC’s COVID-19 concerns have become significant enough that the hard decision to cancel needed to be made. Ocala Jockey Club wishes to provide competitors sufficient notice in the hope that they will be able to re-route to other events for their qualification requirements.
The health of our competitors, spectators, officials, volunteers and everyone else involved in the Ocala Jockey Club Three-Day Event production is very important to us. We announced on May 24th that we felt confident in OJC’s ability to run the 2020 event and the accompanying CCI4*-L National Championships as scheduled. We have continued to feel confident in our ability to implement ample and strict social distancing, sanitization, mask and health screening protocols on site. It was clear in March that COVID-19 would not make it possible for OJC to conduct the 2020 event as the high-profile community and spectator-friendly event of the past four years that has created over $1 million of annual economic impact to the community. Still, OJC heard the desire of competitors and USEF to run the event as a spectator-free competition-only event.
“We have wished to serve our part in the economic recovery of the community and the competition needs of the eventing sport, however there has been increased concern on OJC’s part regarding the significant increase in community transmission of COVID-19, and a corresponding concern regarding current and continuing insufficient availability of local and national tools to combat such community transmission of this virus,” said Pavla Nygaard, president of the Ocala Jockey Club. “Hope is not a success strategy. We felt responsible to define a strategy that would provide the economic and community benefits to Marion County, the three-day eventing sport and the Thoroughbred Eventing Champion program we have been proud to advance at our event, but only if we could reliably minimize public health risks. While there are current and upcoming equestrian competitions on the calendar at this time, our responsibility is to study trends and project likely impacts on a competition four months in the future.
“I have read hundreds of articles and scientific studies about the virus’ behavior, transmission, prevention, available therapeutics, screening apps, wearable technology, mitigation effectiveness and otherwise,” continued Nygaard. “In addition to USEF and FEI guidelines, I have followed the design, effectiveness and limitations of protocols of major sports such as NFL, NBA, MLB and horse racing. I have spoken to organizers and competitors of other equestrian competitions regarding protocols, compliance and factors affecting decisions of when and how to run. OJC has worked on designing protocols including health and other feasibility metrics that would assist us with pre-event and onsite decisions and processes. While most four- and five-star eventing competitions around the world have cancelled months ago, until recently we have felt that our strategies were feasible to continue even in a very uncertain environment. However, with recent spikes in infections and changes in the demographics affected, available public health metrics no longer give us the same comfort that the strategies within our control would reliably overcome the elements outside of OJC’s control.” Some of OJC’s concerns include:
- While the end of May showed positive trends in declines of new cases, this trend has now reversed for much worse both nationally (almost 2 million increase in cases) and locally (almost a 12-fold increase in cases). Barring significant changes in mitigation strategies, this trend is expect to continue into fall and winter of 2020 and has prompted many cancellations of in-person college programs, professional sports and even the full remainder of the 2020 Broadway season. While hospitalizations and deaths were trending lower for some time even as cases increased, this trend is also beginning to reverse to concerning levels.
- The recent changes in the demographic affected by COVID-19 to affect younger adults, including increased hospitalizations, are more likely to impact our multi-day gathering of 700 or more competitors and related staff than we anticipated, even with mostly less risky outdoor activities and the already planned ban on attendance by anyone other than competitors and event staff.
- Unlike at the end of May when public compliance with public health directives was high, current personal and political divisions regarding basic infection mitigation strategies have been laid bare and are likely to affect our guests’ health and safety during travel or while in the community, aside from our onsite protocols. As the event is scheduled just eight days after the upcoming presidential election, which now experts believe could take a week to gather results for, we expect these politically driven divisions to continue to impact health risk mitigation outside of the event’s control.
- While major sports leagues and workplaces with significant financial and human resources have designed valuable protocols to mitigate against the effects of the virus, they have still experienced case positives and illness in otherwise healthy athletes.
- Testing strategies, among other valuable tools available to sports leagues to combat the pandemic, have proven a limitation for other organizations due to lack of availability of diagnostic tests, or key components such as reagents and swabs. Some tests are unreliable or results too late to be useful. There is significant variability of testing availability by state or country, becoming exceedingly challenging to employ as a reliable mitigation tool for the OJC 2020 event.
- Our competitors and officials typically arrive not just from Marion County or Florida, but from every corner of the United States as well as internationally from at least three continents. Therefore, some of the event’s key international delegates would be more vulnerable to travel health risks, travel restrictions or mandatory 14-day quarantines, such as those currently restricting travel for Canadians or Europeans needing to enter the US or return back home.
- Most competitors are in the less risky young, healthy and fit category. However, they are not an island and a sizeable share of officials, volunteers and OJC employees fall into higher risk categories for COVID-19 health complications. With high community transmission, even strict onsite protocols may not be sufficiently protective.
- While the scientific community continues to work tirelessly on vaccine candidates and therapeutic options to mitigate against COVID-19, it is now clear that even early vaccine candidates, with expected limited availability in October, would not be available in time to be useful to our stakeholders. While current treatments such as remdesivir and dexamethasone provide some relief to some of the hardest hit patients, there are no therapeutics available yet to rely on as a prevention or mitigation strategy.
- Our typical staff team is lean and mean, and there is little room to losing key members to illness, travel quarantine or exposure-related isolation. It would be necessary for us to establish a long list of Plan B options for all key personnel, necessitating increased funding. Similarly, there would be increased resources needed for increased sanitation protocols, masks and other PPE, pre-event and at-event testing and/or health screening, any needed contact tracing or isolation if indicated onsite, stabling configurations to allow social distancing, and protocol enforcement personnel.
- Unlike lower-level competitions which are structured to be compensated solely or mainly from competitor entry fees, FEI-level competitions are much heavier on event production expenses. Competitor entries cover a smaller share of the event budget. The OJC event, as other FEI level competitions, relies on non-competition income such as sponsorships, VIP hospitality, spectator and tailgating ticket sales, vendors, and advertising to offset event expenses. Due to social distancing requirements, these non-competition aspects are currently not allowed under USEF COVID-19 mitigation rules. Our conversations with select sponsors and other event organizers point to a clear need to understand supporters’ economic challenges to their support in these times. We understand that everyone has been affected differently in this pandemic, and feel it necessary for our supporters to be able to regroup their own lives and operations. However important this event may be, we feel that this is not the year to ask people for increased support.
The Ocala Jockey Club has heard from many participants over the years about the importance of this event. Jennie Jarnstrom, who has competed at OJC events, wrote to OJC in May: “Just can’t thank you enough for keeping the hope up and motivate us to work towards one of the greatest events in the country.”
It was for the benefit of tireless and committed competitors like Jennie that we continued to search for ways to produce a safe high-quality level even with restrictions on many activities. However, as more of us now know those who have been affected by severe illness or death due to COVID-19, the more important it is to recognize our responsibility to take care of each other, even if it means that it is wiser to cancel this event than to keep pressing on this year.
Updates and information about the 2021 Ocala Jockey Club International 3-Day Event will be available in due course at the event website. See you in November 2021!