January 29, 2012 -- There's always something new at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center every time I make my first trip of the season to the home of the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival.
Those who haven't visited the showgrounds in five years are amazed. And those who have only been to smaller shows are awed. The arena is a proper little stadium, surrounded by restaurants and several types of seating, with the spacious, refurbished VIP area along one side.
But the man with the biggest stake in the property, Mark Bellissimo, isn't stopping there. His latest project is the Equestrian Village on the old Palm Beach Polo fields where Prince Charles once played. The centerpiece of the Village is a dressage center that will be ready for its first show next weekend, but there also are plans for a hotel and retail center.
The latter two are a hot topic in Wellington, with intense opposition from those who think the project will change their way of life by increasing traffic and crime, while lowering property values.
After today's grand prix, Mark held a meeting to answer questions from residents about the Village, which will be the subject of a town council meeting Tuesday.
He called the Village "the most important investment that WEP (showgrounds owners Wellington Equestrian Partners) will make in Wellington," categorizing it as an engine for economic growth and new jobs.
It's an old story; change is never easy and there are those who want things the way they are and always have been. So far, WEP has prevailed--don't forget the huge fight over the future of the PBIEC in 2006, and look who's running things now.
Mark insists that he wants the whole community to be a part of the equestrian scene and toward that end has envisioned a riding academy on the new grounds and is actively soliciting schools to come to the shows and see what horses are all about.
Last night, the main showgrounds were packed for the Nespresso Battle of the Sexes, a show jumping competition that pitted male riders against their female counterparts. Guess who won? The women, of course.
Today was much quieter; the big push is for the Saturday Night Lights evening competitions, rather than the Sunday afternoon grands prix that were a staple pre-Bellisimo.
This afternoon's $50,000 Horseware Product's Grand Prix was a 2-star, but it drew plenty of big names, although spectators were few and far between in the blue seats.
Olaf Petersen's first round course had 15 clear rounds out of 37 starters, but several well-known riders withdrew partway through after their horses were dropping rails. Surprisingly their ranks included Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and U.S.-based Irishman Kevin Babington.
The result of the jump-off was an eye-opener. Katie Dinan, only 18, won her first major grand prix, riding Nougat du Vallet.
"This is really my dream, is to be competitive in the big classes here and riding against people I so look up to," she said.
The teen was being coached from the sidelines by her trainer, McLain Ward, who had his well-wrapped left leg propped up on a chair as he watched the action and Katie walked the courses by herself.
McLain, you will remember, shattered his knee when his horse ran into a standard in the Saturday night grand prix two weeks ago. He told me he starts physical therapy this week and hopes to be walking in six weeks, rather than the eight the doctors predicted.
Katie has deferred her entrance into Harvard University until August to concentrate on riding.
"This is really my year to ride as much as I want. I definitely want to make the most of this year," said Katie, who plans to enter the Olympics trials in March, just for the experience.
Katie's 37.36-second clear round on her small French import beat Pan American Games individual gold medalist Christine McCrea, but she was up on Avenir rather than her Games mount, Romantovich Take One.
Christine says her new status means she feels pressure because everyone is looking at her, but she feels better after today, her first grand prix of the season.
Her time was 37.54, just a little faster than Lauren Hough on Blue Angel, clocked in 38.12 seconds. This was a nice comeback for Lauren, who had a horrendous accident with the mare in Stuttgart, Germany, during November. The horse got stuck on a wall and flipped over backward, landing on Lauren, who suffered a collapsed lung and the type of eye condition caused by an impact to the chest. Now she is living with an eye condition that only lets her focus well when she gets close to a fence.
"It's working out and I feel comfortable; it's sort of the new normal," said Lauren, who is hoping for improvement. Her left eye is expected to return to 100 percent; the other eye has permanent damage and it can't be determined yet how well it will recover.
"If this is as good as it gets," she said, "I feel like it's good enough."
That's all from here; soon I'll be heading back to the snow belt. I don't plan to return to the winter equestrian center of the universe until March, when I'll be sending postcards from the Olympic selection trials.