Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Big Changes Await Winter Circuit Competitors

Major improvements this year at several venues will be beneficial for exhibitors and their horses.

Even before the final riders collected their ribbons at the end of the last winter show circuit, Horse Shows In the Sun management began collecting feedback from exhibitors and developing ambitious plans to improve the shows for 2008.


Major improvements this year at several venues will be beneficial for exhibitors and their horses.

Even before the final riders collected their ribbons at the end of the last winter show circuit, Horse Shows In the Sun management began collecting feedback from exhibitors and developing ambitious plans to improve the shows for 2008.

With three show circuits running simultaneously all winter in Thermal, Calif., Tucson, Ariz., and Ocala, Fla., there were plenty of ideas for improvement, especially at HITS Desert Horse Park, which hosted the inaugural Thermal circuit in 2007.

“You get a feeling during the horse show of what you think needs to be changed and things you want to bring to it the next year from exhibitor feedback, staff feedback and plain old observation and common sense,” said Thermal office manager Donna Vale. “We’re very passionate about HITS and very passionate about our sites. No one wants to be more spectacular than we do.”

One request topped everyone’s list: improve the footing. HITS President Tom Struzzieri obliged, recruiting Bart Poels, footing specialist for the 2008 Olympic Games, to oversee the footing at the HITS competitions. After months of preparation, a Dec. 13 pre-season test ride by grand prix show jumpers Will Simpson, Mandy Porter and Joie Gatlin—in front of representatives of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the West Coast Active Riders Committee and HITS management—confirmed that the footing in the Thermal grand prix ring was, indeed, ready for the circuit.

“After extensive testing, the footing at Thermal looks like it’s going to be great,” said Bernie Traurig, liaison to the WCAR, after the test event. “Riders and management both agree that with some tweaking, by adding fibers between now and the start of the circuit, the footing will get even better.”

New footing covers the grand prix ring, grand prix warm-up area, covered ring and all four jumper rings in California.

Grand prix riders in Ocala will enjoy the new EquiBase™ arena footing system purchased from Wolfgang Bacher and Joy Koch of EquiBase Arena Systems International, who were also involved in the preparations for the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong. The EquiBase mats are made from 100 percent recycled PVC and will sit underneath the base layer of the ring. The combination of the mats along with the new footing will be the same system being used in the upcoming Olympics.

HITS Of Tomorrow

Dozens of other major improvements span the Thermal show grounds, including a new 130′ x 340′ covered ring, an additional schooling ring, newly paved roads and parking lots throughout the park, and new lighting in the grand prix ring as well as the main hunter ring. Down in the stabling area, the paddocks have been refurbished, the wash racks rebuilt and the sprinkler system upgraded.

Ocala exhibitors will see dramatic changes in the track infield, where most of the show’s action happens. New fencing and landscaping dress up the rings, new pathways meander through the busy space, and more shaded areas accommodate spectators and horses waiting to jog. Additionally, two jumper rings have been enlarged.

Although most of the changes enacted by HITS management improve the show experience for exhibitors and their horses, spectators and sponsors haven’t been forgotten. Thermal spectators may now watch the action at all 13 rings from new tent seating, and the VIP area received a facelift as well, with a new sound system and a gourmet menu prepared by accomplished chef and TV personality Ric Orlando.

In Ocala, grand prix fans will have a climate-controlled VIP building with popular local restaurants taking turns catering Sunday luncheons.

Other changes improve HITS rings, including new jumps obtained through international course designer Olaf Petersen and full-time jump decorators at Ocala and Thermal.

This year, HITS personnel also asked its exhibitors for input on fresh faces they’d like to see sitting in the judge’s box through East Coast and West Coast Hunter Judges Advisory Committees.

“Before, I was the one who hired the judges off the list we’ve compiled on our own,” said Kristin Vale, office manager at HITS Ocala. “We know who we think does a good job, but we’re not showing in front of them. We wanted to know what our exhibitors thought.”


The initiative helped HITS management identify about a dozen or so new judges to add to their hiring pool, and this season’s lineup reflects some of these changes.

The Ocala Winter Circuit will return to HITS Post Time Farm on Jan. 23 for two weeks of unrecognized shows followed by five weeks of AA-rated competition beginning Feb. 12.

Classes To Watch This Winter

If you can’t travel to the winter circuits this winter, be sure to check the Chronicle for results and analysis of the biggest classes of the season.

•    Hong Kong hopefuls and their fans will flock to Wellington, Fla., for the USEF Show Jumping Selection Trials for the 2008 Olympics. The five classes that comprise the trials are: the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round VI (Feb. 28), the $100,000 ZADA Enterprises LLC Grand Prix CSI-W (March 2), the $20,000 Olympic Applicant Class (March 5), the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round VII (March 6) and the $150,000 CN U.S. Open CSIO (March 9).

•    The USHJA High Performance Hunter Derby Series gets rolling this winter with four competitions. Top hunter riders compete over natural obstacles for $10,000 at HITS Thermal (Feb. 10 and March 16), HITS Ocala (March 16) and the Gulf Coast Winter Series (March 7).

•    Six FEI World Cup Show Jumping qualifiers take place as riders vie to represent the United States at the finals in Gothenburg, Sweden April 24-27. There are four qualifiers in Thermal (Feb. 1, Feb. 8, Feb. 22 and March 7) and two in Wellington (March 2 and March 16).

•    The grand finale grand prix on the HITS Ocala circuit is the $100,000 Deluca Toyota Tundra Grand Prix (March 16), while across the country on the same day at HITS Thermal riders will jump for double the money in the $200,000 Invitational Grand Prix of the Desert.

•    WEF-based junior and amateur riders now have the Zimmerman Challenge Series on April 6, which includes five $50,000 classics for junior/amateur-owner jumpers, children’s/adult jumpers, junior/amateur-owner hunters, children’s/adult hunters and ponies.

•    The only CSIO in the United States takes place on March 7 during the $75,000 FEI Nations Cup in Wellington. The best European riders will stay stateside another week for the $50,000 CN Challenge “Americas vs. Europe” (March 15), which pits the top 10 riders from North and South America against top European riders in a two-round competition at the CN Winter Equestrian Festival.

Thermal hosts a USEF AA-rated premiere week Jan. 9-13, and continues on Jan. 22 with seven weeks of competition, with an off week after three weeks. And though the competitions offer two additional weeks of showing this year, the stabling fees have not increased.

HITS will also offer six weeks of competition in Arizona at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson starting Feb. 6. Because HITS leases the property from the county, HITS personnel can’t enact major structural changes, but some new jumps and decorations will dress up the rings. The show has developed a loyal and growing following, cultivated by exhibitors drawn to the relaxed atmosphere and the prospect of guaranteed permanent stalls.

This year Massachusetts-based professional Joe Dotoli stepped up to manage the Arizona horse shows, which hosts five rings of competition and a $25,000 grand prix each week.

Preparing For A New Era

Longtime Winter Equestrian Festival circuit exhibitors in Wellington, Fla., may not immediately recognize the show grounds when they return to town.

The CN Winter Equestrian Festival returns to newly minted Palm Beach International Equestrian Center this  year with plenty of changes in store. The expanded show grounds now comprise 140 acres and include the South Grounds—formerly Littlewood—and the Stadium—the original Palm Beach Polo grounds. While the Stadium will undergo a complete overhaul in time for the 2009 show season, the South Grounds have been fully integrated into the facility.

The new owner, Wellington Equestrian Partners, put together Equestrian Sport Productions to manage the circuit. As ESP created a practical plan to revamp the show grounds, they developed a list of upgrades for the 2008 season.


Last year grand prix riders faced a nightmare when the pristine grass grand prix field disintegrated mid-season, so it came as no surprise when improving the footing topped the agenda for the year.

“[Founding WEP Partner] Mark Bellissimo took the view that nothing is going to be right with this show until we get the footing right,” said Ken Braddick, ESP director of communications. “Until we get the footing as good as possible, nothing else mattered.”

So ESP tracked down Poels and charged him with creating a grand prix ring worthy of the best horses in the world.

When the National Horse Show ended Dec. 9, Poels set to work on the International Arena almost as soon as the last horse stepped out of the ring. Crews dug up the grass to fill in 4,500 tons of crushed rock base, the first step in rebuilding the ring from the bottom up. Poels stayed in Wellington for three months to mix the all-weather footing and oversee construction.

But the International Arena underwent other improvements as well. New permanent stadium lighting, specially designed for high-performance show jumping, replaces the inferior portable lights from past years, and a 9′ x 12′ full video Jumbotron and 2,500 flip-up seats have been installed to accommodate spectators.

Though overhauling the International Arena represented the single biggest project in the ESP’s master plan, dozens of other initiatives have transformed the look of the show grounds. They added landscaping across the facility, and ESP installed new footing in the three additional show rings. Two schooling rings have been expanded and three new training rings built.

ESP also addressed the traffic jams that plagued the show in years past by moving fence lines, creating protected pedestrian walkways across the facility and revamping golf cart access and parking throughout the grounds. They also laid down low-dust material on bridle paths and golf cart paths.

Mobile bathroom units with hand washing and diaper-changing facilities have replaced all the Port-A-Potties. The show will offer valet parking for the first time, and the Sunday grand prix events will begin an hour earlier in order to give polo fans the opportunity to get to the nearby International Polo Club in time for the 3 p.m. match. And, in keeping with current technology, the entire show grounds now have wireless capability.

WEF management also increased the prize money offered to $5 million—and plenty of high-stakes classes will draw top riders from around the world (see sidebar). WEF kicks off 12 weeks of competition in Wellington on Jan. 16.

Getting It Right In Gulfport

Further west in Gulfport Miss., the Gulf Coast Winter Series returns full-force to the Harrison County Equestrian Center.

This year the Gulf Coast circuit kicks off with an A-rated show the weekend of Feb. 9-10 dedicated exclusively to junior and amateur competitors, followed by five full weeks of AA-rated competition that run Feb. 13-March 16. In addition to upping the prize money in the junior and amateur divisions, the Classic Company has added a second $25,000 grand prix during week 5, while keeping a $25,000 grand prix each of the first four weeks.

The park hosts myriad events throughout the rest of the year, ranging from civil war re-enactments to culinary demonstrations to rock concerts. But even the non-equestrian staff at the facility take enormous pride in the immaculate grass grand prix field and fiercely guard the turf, shooing off rock stars, Frisbee enthusiasts and wayward golfers.

Because the Classic Company leases the 65-acre facility from Harrison County, upgrades to the infrastructure require lots of extra legwork.

While major projects like the construction of a 5,000-person indoor stadium with an extra 500 permanent stalls are still a few years off, smaller projects like paving the roads in the tent area and installing drainage systems to keep the stabling areas high and dry were no problem to complete.

“If we have an improvement in mind we either pay for it ourselves and donate it to the county or go through the political process within the county to get the funding and get it done,” explained Janet McCarroll, show coordinator. “It’s a big county, and the supervisor has to think of the county as a whole, so we can’t tackle every project. But the folks in the county government are great—they love the event and recognize that it brings in tourists during a lull. It’s a great partnership.”

Mollie Bailey




Follow us on


Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse