Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

Competition For Resources Blamed For Great Meadow International’s 2024 Cancellation

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When eventing returned to Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia, in 2014 after a nine-year hiatus, what eventually became the Great Meadow International was intended to be a destination event—a showcase of the sport’s top riders and a launching pad for championship teams.

So when GMI organizers David O’Connor and Darrin Mollett announced Friday, Dec. 9, that the event will not happen next year, it was a shock for the many upper-level riders who considered it a staple of their competition calendar.

“I’m a little panicked, honestly,” said Lauren Nicholson, who is based in The Plains and is a frequent competitor at the event. “We’ve lost such fabulous grounds and venues the last few years. You know, it really hits your preparation hard.”

The organizers said they were unable to come to an agreement with the Great Meadow Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the 374-acre equestrian park, over maintenance of the cross-country footing in time to plan for next year’s event, which was to include a preliminary horse trial and CCI1*-S through CCI4*-S divisions.

“The last two years have been a struggle with the date in late August,” O’Connor and Mollett wrote in a statement posted on GMI’s social media. “Although we originally were able to control the footing on our tracks, recent events have made that impossible. Although we attempted to move our date, this date change was not granted for 2024. We have also attempted to work with the landowner on improvements to the facility to allow irrigation of the course, but those will also not be possible for 2024. In fairness to our competitors, our sponsors, our all-volunteer organizing committee, our dedicated volunteers, our local community, and all stake holders in this sport, we wanted to let you know as soon as we did that we will not run at Great Meadow in 2024.”

Great Meadow also hosts the Virginia Gold Cup and International Gold Cup steeplechase races, held in early May and late October, respectively. The grounds were originally purchased in 1982 by philanthropist Nick Arundel with the intention of preserving open space and providing a permanent home for the Virginia Gold Cup, which next year will celebrate its 40th running on the property. At the heart of the negotiations between the foundation and GMI organizers was the sharing of resources between these three major equestrian events.

“It was built as a racing [facility], and we can never not acknowledge that it was built for racing,” said O’Connor, adding that Arundel had also been a fan of eventing and wanted to expand the use of the facility.

The 2023 edition of GMI, held Aug. 24-27, had the misfortune of running during one of Virginia’s worst summer droughts in recent memory.

“In my 20 years in Virginia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drought that bad,” Nicholson said. “Our well on the mountain was 8 inches lower than the lowest point it had ever been.”

Great Meadow has an extensive irrigation system for the racecourse and a more targeted system for the section of the cross-country track that traverses the back part of the property, known as Fleming Farm. O’Connor described that targeted irrigation system as being like an industrial-sized soaker hose, which waters a smaller area and conserves water. He saw the system in use in Japan, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, and thought it would work well at Great Meadow. Several ponds on the property provide the water that is used for irrigation.

“Our ponds were severely low [because of the drought],” said Tess Newcome, who came aboard as the executive director of the Great Meadow Foundation earlier in the summer. “And when I say severely, they were well beyond half down. I mean it was extremely low, and it didn’t matter which pond you were looking at … To try to water efficiently honestly would not have been possible.”

Because officials from the foundation were worried about being able to irrigate the racecourse for the International Gold Cup in late October, they told O’Connor that the irrigation couldn’t be used during GMI.

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“They were panicked because [of the races], even though it was nine weeks later,” O’Connor said. “And I was like, ‘It’s gonna rain in the next nine weeks.’ And obviously it did. But they shut down [the irrigation] and saved it for the racing.

“You can understand it, but [I said] ‘We’re coming into the rainy season. That’s nine weeks away. It’s not like it’s two weeks away.’ But I couldn’t convince them,” O’Connor continued.

As a result, the footing on the event’s cross-country course was summer-hardened, and half of the 22 starters in the CCI4*-S withdrew before cross-country, although other divisions didn’t see as high a level of attrition.

Last summer’s drought meant the grounds were parched during the Great Meadow International, and 11 of 22 starters in the CCI4*-S elected to withdraw before cross-country. Erin Gilmore Photography Photo

Why Virginia In Late August?

How a four-star came to be held in hot, humid Virginia in late August is a tale that traces back to a preparatory event for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which was the precursor of GMI. Great Meadow added the Fleming Farm parcel earlier in 2014, nearly doubling the size of the property. O’Connor, then U.S. eventing chef d’equipe, brought in Mike Etherington-Smith to design what was then a three-star (now four-star) course to use as a preparatory run for the potential WEG team in late June. The facility then held a June preparatory event for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

“That [summer] timeframe was selected because of international team competition; most of the Games are in the late summer,” Mollett said. “So David’s view has always been that it’s hard for U.S. teams to get ready for [championships] because they always have to travel to Europe or wherever for a couple of weeks prior to the actual competition.”

It’s difficult for professionals to shut down their business for that long, and it’s stressful for horses to travel abroad, Mollett added. “So his whole goal was to make it better for U.S. riders, to have an event that they could go to in the summer as their lead-up to the games. The problem was always that there was never an event in the summer because of the hard footing. And Great Meadow has the beautiful racecourse that they can irrigate, so the idea was, well, we can have good footing at this event because of the irrigation.”

There had always been interest in holding a high-level event at Great Meadow, and the facility applied for the five-star that eventually was awarded to Fair Hill, Maryland, O’Connor said. So instead, Great Meadow began hosting an FEI Nations Cup, which was held in early July in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Great Meadow originally owned the license for the event, while O’Connor and Mollett ran the operations. “We ran that for a number of years, and then the foundation decided that it was really not financially worth it for them to be able to own the event. So Darrin and I took over,” O’Connor said.

At that point, the Richland Park Horse Trials (Michigan) had let go of its date in late August, so in 2019 GMI took the date and debuted in its current format and slot on the calendar.

A Rider-Favorite ‘Shindig’

Heather Gillette competed in the GMI CCI3*-S in 2021 and the CCI4*-S in 2022, then served as an official for the event in 2023. She said the event was a favorite among upper-level riders both because of the courses and the atmosphere.

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“[The event] is unbelievably well run, and the rings are good. They do everything on a top-flight basis,” she said. “It’s kind of a big-event feel, with the spectators and the sponsor tents and all that sort of stuff around the rings, and it’s a good place to go and get some exposure for your horses. And the courses, when they let them take care of them, were great; the course design is great. It was a perfect start to the fall season, and it’s very sad that it is not there [anymore].

“That’s why Red Hills used to be so popular—and now we’ve lost that too—is because there was atmosphere,” she continued. “Around the rings, you know, trying to get your horses used to all that nonsense that they find at some of the bigger events. And, I mean, it was a shindig, you know. Everybody took their dogs to the Mars agility tents and got their dog cookies and their leashes and all that other sort of stuff. It was a really fun mid-summer event. And now it is not. And I’m like, ‘OK, well, what’s my plan gonna be?’ So I have to go through and relook at the calendar.”

Nicholson echoed Gillette’s sentiments on the loss for upper-level riders.

“As a rider, I’m pretty devastated to lose this event,” she said. “A lot of riders are, because the event was born, or reborn, to accommodate trying to prepare for team championships and stuff. And you know, they did everything they could to accommodate what we needed in the lead-up, and move their dates to accommodate what would work best coming into championships and everything else. Unfortunately, somehow it just kind of got stuck on that August date, and they haven’t been allowed to move it, and obviously it’s like the toughest few weeks in Virginia, as far as weather goes.

The loss of the Great Meadow International will have significant impact on upper level riders’ preparation for the fall season, said Lauren Nicholson, pictured on Landmark’s Jungle Gold at the Maryland CCI3*-L in October 2023. Kimberly Loushin Photo

“It’s an amazing facility, and the ground and venue are so great to practice jumping around big tracks, and it’s such a great fitness test for the horses coming into the fall season,” Nicholson continued. “I think the thing that maybe [the foundation] didn’t realize is that even though the event of course doesn’t get the numbers that you get out at Great Meadow for the Fourth of July or for Gold Cup, it really is a local event, and it really is quite a passion for the community. The majority of the community are horse and eventing enthusiasts … The event is almost completely run by local volunteers, coming out and setting up and putting the flowers in, and it’s really a community project. So it’s really sad to not have that both from a community standpoint and from a competition standpoint.”

What’s Next For GMI

GMI had been granted a one-star for the first time for 2024, so they hold a license for one- through four-star CCI-S on that date, as well as a national preliminary division.

“There’s not a lot of events that really showcase the one- and the two-star,” Mollett said. “So the idea was to really start showcasing that because there’s more people that do it—more amateurs, kind of a broader community base. That’s kind of what we’re all about, the community.

“One thing would be to look for another venue. We have the date. We have the license, and it’s just a venue change. We could do that,” she continued. “So, there is a possibility that we can make something happen in 2024 in a different venue. We just have to kind of sit with it and see what we can do. What’s been nice is, since the cancellation announcement, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the community, from the riders, from the volunteers, from the sponsors—you know, people that really, really appreciated the event being here. It was a special event and a special place. You’d like to see it go on. But it’s just not going to work for 2024.”

Two other horse trials are held at Great Meadow—Middleburg in June, which is organized by the Middleburg Orange County Pony Club, and Old Tavern in September, which is also organized by Mollett and O’Connor. Those events are on the calendar for 2024. As for the future of upper-level competition, Newcome said the foundation wants it to continue at Great Meadow.

“Absolutely, 100%. So for us, it’s really about infrastructure, like getting the course and getting the land where it needs to be to be able to meet the needs of an upper-level event,” she said. “That’s where we want to get to, we do, and we want more than one! We would love to have more. So for us, it’s a long-term plan, a long-term vision. And sometimes in the intermediary, you can’t always go exactly where you want to be. It takes time. It takes money. Those are two things that we are fully aware of and why we are looking toward building fundraising and capital campaigning.

“Our board of directors and the staff at Great Meadow really acknowledge the concerns raised, and with the current limitations of time and money, we do understand why they wanted to cancel the GMI event for 2024,” Newcome continued. “But we do hope through fundraising and completion of long-term capital improvements that we will satisfy those owners and trainers and riders at the highest level to ultimately return eventing back to Great Meadow. We want this to be a premier place where people would want to come and have their event and be very happy with the status of the course.”

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