Blazing A New Trail For Dressage In Omaha

A look at the 2017 Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final’s future in Nebraska.
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Nancy Jaffer
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A look at the 2017 Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final’s future in Nebraska.

Oma-who? Omaha-ha? Forget the snarky remarks when discussing the Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ finals to be held in Omaha, Nebraska, next year: It’s going to be great. Those passing judgment obviously have never been to Omaha (and some can’t even find it on a map.) But the CenturyLink Center, located on the east side of the city near the river walk, will be one of the great venues for the finals in a town with fantastic restaurants, great museums, a terrific zoo, an excellent botanical garden and, best of all, friendly people who do everything they can to make visitors’ experience a happy one. On top of that, the airport is just a few minutes away and the hotel has a walkway to the arena, so you don’t have to go outside if it’s raining. And for those who have their own reason for loving the previous finals in Las Vegas, Iowa’s casinos are just a short trip over the state line.

The fact that 2017 is otherwise an “off year” for championship-level open international competitions, with no Olympics or World Equestrian Games scheduled, should help attract a stellar roster of riders and horses from around the globe. Those in the know are excited about the dressage and the Longines FEI World Cup™ Show Jumping finals coming to a new and special city, particularly because each aspect of the equine accommodations are so good at CenturyLink.

“It’s a great facility for equestrian sports. We have everything under one roof,” said no less an authority than Germany’s Thomas Baur. CenturyLink is so large that the warm-up areas, stabling and competition arena are all within its walls along with vendor space and a variety of meeting rooms. There’s also plenty of parking. As the director of dressage at the 12-week Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida, Baur will be handling similar duties for the finals in Omaha as well as what amounts to a test event May 5–7. There will be prize money this time not only for the jumpers, but also $10,000 for the dressage Grand Prix and $20,000 for the freestyle at that show, with 10 international riders invited to compete.

CenturyLink is much bigger than the facilities for the 2015 finals in Las Vegas, where the cramped arena at the Thomas & Mack Center was one of the reasons Vegas did not get the nod to run the 2018 finals. Stabling and the warm-up were in separate tents there, which was problematic, as in the case of a fierce dust storm last year. Speaking with enthusiasm, Baur compared CenturyLink with the much-praised arena where the 2014 finals were held in Lyon, France. Baur also noted CenturyLink is “very convenient,” with many of those good restaurants within walking distance.

As for putting in perspective the skepticism of folks who dismiss the Midwest as “fly-over country,” and Europeans who have never heard of Omaha, remember that there was a time when many U.S. fans were clueless about Gothenburg, Sweden, and s’Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, both of which have hosted the finals repeatedly to great acclaim. Consider the Midwest to be practically virgin territory in terms of top-level dressage and conclude what having the finals there will do for the growth of the sport. As Baur observed, it’s important for the discipline to bring in new people. “I think it is only the start for Omaha to be on the equestrian map,” he said, noting the finals will be important in educating people about the discipline since previous shows put on by the Omaha Equestrian Foundation at CenturyLink basically were limited to show jumping. 

Staging the finals of dressage and jumping in Omaha was the idea of Lisa Roskens, chairman of the organizing committee. She is a pillar of the community as the chairman and CEO of the investment firm Burlington Capital Group. An avid show jumper, she also is enjoying learning more about dressage. Roskens sees the finals as having the potential to be a catalyst for the sport in the area. “We have a very strong grassroots base of horsemen, but because the big competitions are so far away, we tend to get stuck in a bit of a rut. It is difficult to imagine yourself doing something nobody around you does and you never get to see. By bringing the best in the world to town, we will shine a light on what is possible,” Roskens said.

“With educational programs and robust plans for life after 2017, we very much want to light a spark in people to do more and create opportunities for growth beyond just what we at the Omaha Equestrian Foundation can do. The Urban family at Quail Run [quailrunhorsecentre .com] is a good example.” Roskens explained that Jim and Patrice Urban and their sons have a hunter/jumper/dressage and Pony Club training operation in Omaha’s Elkhorn community. “They are building a beautiful facility that could host all types of quality competitions at a level higher than what we normally find in this part of the country. Every person who the World Cup Finals inspires to do a little something more is one more step toward a vibrant equestrian community here.”

Interestingly, the May competition will have a new dressage freestyle judging system that has been tested in Europe, but never in the Western Hemisphere. It will be used in a final for the first time in 2017, and debuts in the 2016–17 qualifying season. “It is a sophisticated judging system where riders have to bring in their floor plan and it will be converted into a computer program and the judges will judge according to the floor plan of the rider,” said Baur. Until now, the judges only found out the riders’ agenda for their freestyle as they watched. The computer program automatically adds on a degree of difficulty; that is no longer a subjective mark, Baur said. “I think it makes it much easier for judges to judge a freestyle and it is getting more objective.” Giving some leeway to the riders, the system allows a “joker line,” where the competitor can repeat something without saying beforehand what it is.

U.S. Developing Dressage Coach Debbie McDonald has gone to see the Omaha venue and called it “amazing.” As for the city, she mentioned, “There are a lot more attractions than people give it credit for.” She believes U.S. dressage as a whole can be a beneficiary. “Any time you take it across our large country and put it somewhere else, that’s another group of people we keep bringing into the sport,” she commented.

Steffen Peters, the 2009 World Cup champion, is very interested in the new location. “I heard lots of wonderful things about Omaha. I heard the facility is outstanding, and on top of that, I’m a great steak lover, so I look forward to going. I’d love to qualify. Any time we have the World Cup and attract top European horses, I know it’s going to have an impact and I know it’s going to be a great turnout.”

Interestingly, Nebraska did formerly host top-class dressage, when the Insilco Championships were held there decades ago in what was quite a different era for the discipline. “For us, it was a huge event and we all went,” recalled U.S. Dressage Chef d’equipe Robert Dover. In this era, he noted, “It remains to be seen how much of a draw anywhere in the world will be. This is uncharted territory. My hope is that it will be a great success and a venue that can be used again and again because you can’t have a better venue.” Asked what Europeans will think about going to Omaha, British rider/trainer Carl Hester—who was unsure of the city’s geographic location—responded, “Is it somewhere that is going to offer more than just a World Cup Final? Because I think that’s what makes people go. Vegas is Vegas. All these major cities where we hold World Cup finals have a lot of history of things to do. I don’t know what the heck I would do there. I wouldn’t know what was there.”

Informed about the restaurants, museums, zoo, etc., he offered, “Basically, they just need to have an amazing P.R. machine to get it all out there for it to be a success. I don’t see it as a problem, but I do wonder what other people would think, rather like myself and lots of other people who never heard of it.”

International judge Linda Zang, who is based on the East Coast, had shared some of Hester’s concerns. “I was a little worried about the fact that it was so far up in the northern Midwest. I was wondering what other things they have available to do for people who are flying in,” she said. “But the more I talk to people, I find out it’s quite a vibrant city with a lot to offer. If people in that area will come out [to see the show], it will certainly stimulate the whole opinion of dressage at the highest level.”

Anne Sushko, the regional director for Region 4 of the USDF was reassuring. “Fantastic volunteers will be there to help out, and the entire region is very excited and throwing their support behind it. I think we’ll see a full house there,” she commented. Added Sushko, “I think it will create a lot of excitement, just as it creates excitement in Wellington with the 3- and 5-star competition. We have not had the opportunity to have that in our region and I think the World Cup is going to increase awareness of it.”

Olympic medalist Lisa Wilcox is already excited about it. “I can’t imagine a nicer facility,” she said. “It’s very much comparable to what they have in Europe.” And she has another reason for wanting to compete there. “My family comes from Wilcox, Nebraska,” she revealed. “That’s our original ancestry, going back to the 1800s.” Guess who the locals will be cheering if Lisa takes part in the finals? 

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