October 21, 2010 -- HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri's flirtation with record prize money has now become a long-term relationship. In the wake of offering the first $1 million show jumping grand prix last month, Tom announced that he not only will stage it again in 2011, but as a companion piece, he is offering a $500,000 hunter classic.
Tom is getting known for the grand gesture; that's five times the purse of any other hunter competition.
Talking about the strategy behind the $1 million grand prix, which was sponsored by Pfizer, Tom said he viewed it as a "frequent flier class to get people to commit to be my customer more times during the year in order to qualify."
Riders had to compete in a minimum of eight qualifiers at any of the five HITS showgrounds from coast to coast in order for their points to count.
Despite the fact that the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games show jumping team trials diverted some riders during much of this year, Tom reported, "It was a success for us...With WEG behind us, it will be a little easier" for the 2011 finals.
Then he turned his attention to the hunters, focusing on what big money could do for them--and his shows.
"Keeping in that same line, we thought we'd try to make an impact with the hunter class." He started with a $100,000 hunter derby finals, announced earlier this fall, and then had a re-think.
"The mistake I'm making," he thought, "is following in the footsteps of the USHJA (U.S. Hunter Jumper Association) in this derby thing." That derby has its own finals in August.
As Tom mulled his options, he realized, "I don't want to do a derby; the whole derby thing is against where I think we should be going with hunters. The derby is pretty specialized and favors the professionals and a certain type of horse, a unique horse.
"I wanted to get away from that. To preclude some of my customers from showing in a class is not in my best business interests or in the sport's best interests."
So he scrapped the derby and came up with the new class.
"We're going to call it a hunter prix," he said, though he may fine tune the name, along with some other details of the class.
Unlike a derby, "there will be no bonus points, no points for jumping bigger jumps. Jumps will be 3-feet, 3-inches, which is what we did for our (2010) classes we called derbies, but it will be much more of a traditional hunter classic."
People won't benefit by taking a jumper into the class, because the height isn't daunting and "the jumps won't be a spooky variety that you need a terribly brave horse to jump around."
Tom continued, "We think it will cross over to a bigger part of the market than a derby class. Obviously, professionals will be able to show in it and have a big edge; they ride significantly better than anybody else and have pretty good horses to ride. It also will cross over to juniors and amateurs" as well as those who normally ride well in the children's and adult hunters.
In order to have points qualify for the finals, riders must show five times in the class during the season. At the moment, 75 will make the cut for the first round, though Tom is considering whether that is too many. It's likely there will be two rounds Sept. 10, 2011, with 25 coming forward for the finals the following day before the $1 million grand prix.
He wants the top 25 to come back even, with blank slates. That makes it easier for people to follow.
"We're trying to get an audience. It makes for a more exciting Sunday," he explained, adding there also will be a concert at the end of the competition, as there was this year, featuring John Fogerty. He has yet to sign a band.
Having the finalists start with no faults helps even the playing field, as does the concept that each rider can only compete on one horse.
"At that height, if you have a lovely horse who can find 15 jumps, you can be competitive," said Tom, explaining why a professional might not win.
The jumps will be "reminiscent of those you might find out in the field or on old outside courses, such as an old- fashioned snake fence or a coop, but geared more conservatively than the derbies."
News about the class was quite a bombshell. Leaders of the hunter industry are still digesting it, and trying to figure out where it fits. They have been pushing to do more for hunters who jump higher, and this takes a different route than the derbies which one professional described as "the top of the hunter world."
"It's really hard to have an educated opinion when there aren't a lot of details there citing qualifying," said USHJA President Bill Moroney.
"I think it presents an interesting concept," he added.
"The equestrian community is going to have to determine if it is good for the sport or the direction they want the sport to go. Time will tell."
Many of the working hunters jump better over bigger jumps, as one professional rider pointed out, though some may still go all right when the jumps are lower. The real problem, as this person sees it, is "watering down" an initiative to "try to inspire people to jump higher, but why would you ever do that when you can have a $500,000 class for 3-3?"
The diminishment of the professional divisions and dominance of the divisions that offer lower fence heights has been a continuing concern of the USHJA.
Susie Schoellkopf, chairman of the USHJA's Open Hunter Task Force, noted that "the hunter committee has really wanted more money in the hunters, and $500,000 is obviously a lot of money to jump for."
However, she wishes Tom could go with the derby concept for this purse.
"What a great thing (it would be) to have a $500,000 derby class," she said, but added, "He seems to not like the derbies."
Susie noted that her concerns include only being able to jump one horse in the finals, a problem for professionals who ride for several owners. She also added it's hard for people from the Midwest and California to just bring one horse.
Tom feels that "one of the biggest problems with the hunters" (and cautioned, "I'm not the most popular person,") "is that we've got a small group of people that are dictating how it goes. It's unpopular if you're judging or involved in the hunters for the expected horses not to win. If you're not in what I call 'the club,' involved in selecting the judges and being involved in all those different things, you stand very little chance of being competitive, which is what I think has hurt the hunters the most.
"A class like this, shining a spotlight on the hunters and making it a little more of a level playing field across the board, will help grow this part of the business. That's just my thinking; I could be wrong, but that's how I feel."
I asked Bill Moroney to respond to that.
"The judging system he's referring to is something people have complained about a lot, but I think we're seeing a lot less of that, the clubby atmosphere of judges who are, for whatever reason pinning whatever horses, perceived to be doing favors for other people. I think we're weeding that out,' Bill commented.
He explained, "We're trying to get more people into the judging pool, so managers have more of a selection of judges and you don't see the same judges week after week. I think it's helping.
"It's also opening up the door for professionals to have avenues to get their cards and become part of the judging pool, so there's more variation to pick from," he said, enumerating the new fast track and mentors programs.
"I think part of the result of it will be to alleviate that."
Tom believes the advent of the $500,000 class to juxtapose with the $1 million grand prix is "going to help attract a bigger audience for both classes. It was a good step last year and we got there a little bit but we're far from being where we want to be with making that a real, real event."