June 11, 2017—Even 15 months out, the anticipation of hosting the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games is in the air at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
So as the spring season’s 4-star jumper show wrapped up at the facility before a packed house last night with the $216,000 Horseware Ireland Grand Prix, it seemed fitting that the class went to Eric Navet of France, who took double gold in the first WEG 27 years ago.
That was 1990 in Stockholm, when the concept of hosting world championships together in every FEI discipline was a fresh idea that some believed would only be a one-off. But as I was there to cover it, I can report it went beautifully in Sweden, and the WEG became a regular fixture on the calendar every four years, adding disciplines along the way.
“I did four in a row and then I got too old,” chuckled Eric, 57, who also earned individual silver in 2002 at the WEG in Jerez, Spain, among his six medals in the Games over the years.
“I was the WEG man, not so lucky in the Olympics,” he shrugged with a smile. But he triumphed in a big one in Stockholm, where horses in the top four included two legends, Milton, ridden by John Whitaker of Great Britain, and Gem Twist, the mount of the USA’s Greg Best.
Asked if he would consider trying to compete in the WEG that will be held at TIEC in September 2018, he replied, “It would be fun for me, but that’s not the plan.” Eric, who is based in California and trains Karl Cook, the son of Signe Ostby and Intuit founder Scott Cook, explained going for the French WEG team would involve leaving the West Coast and going to Europe to ride in Nations’ Cups, which he is not going to do.
Instead, he will be at TIEC in a different capacity, he said, “as a spectator.”
Tryon, he believes, “has everything that is required” for a successful WEG. While “there is still a lot to do” to be ready for the Games, he is looking forward to them.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Eric commented.
He demonstrated that he still has what it takes as an active athlete, going second in a four-horse jump-off with Catypso, Signe Ostby’s 10-year-old Hanoverian by Catoki.
The first to return from the original 31-horse field, culled over a course set by Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals designer Alan Wade, was Argentina’s Ignacio Maurin on Thriller P. But two fences down would put him out of contention for the $71,280 first prize, as Eric went next to focus on what he does so well with Catypso.
He has been riding Catypso since the bay gelding was a five-year-old, who was long on scope and short on technique. Without revealing any secrets about how he turned around the horse, also a winner in Kentucky this season, Eric just emphasized the need for patient training.
His technique yesterday involved a masterpiece of expert turns that gave him a time of 41.485 seconds in what would be the only fault-free round in the tiebreaker.
“I knew that the two girls behind me are both very, very fast riders, so I had to take maximum risks,” he explained.
But neither of them was lucky; Eric had put on the pressure.
ASPCA Maclay champion Hunter Holloway, at 19 the youngest rider in the class, had a rail in 42.797 seconds with VDL Bravo, while Kristen Vanderveen, a regular winner at Tryon, pulled a pole at the Rolex oxer and finished in 43.875 seconds with Bull Run’s Testify to wind up third. For full results, click here.
Kristen, who makes a habit of winning at Tryon and took the Leading Lady Rider award for the show, is understandably a fan of the new facility in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Find out what she had to say about Tryon and the WEG in this video clip.
The TIEC complex, with its neat brown buildings done in mountain rustic style, is a jaw-dropper when it first comes into view, 2/10ths of a mile off the highway. About an hour east of Asheville and little more than an hour west of Charlotte in a countryside thick with greenery and views, the facility is gearing up to present what could be the most successful WEG since Aachen in 2006.
The WEG concept has had its problems in some locations over the years, But like Stockholm, Aachen and Kentucky in 2010, TIEC have the advantage of being able to offer all the competitions without the need for transportation to other venues. Who will ever forget the traffic jams on the way to the eventing site at the Normandy, France WEG in 2014, when many people simply couldn’t get there in time to watch the cross-country?
A number of those who worked at this weekend’s 4-star show also will have jobs at the WEG. One is Eric Straus, best known as a steward extraordinaire, though he has many other talents. We talked in this video about what his role will be at the WEG.
TIEC resembles a little city, with real restaurants serving everything from sushi to Italian, and a wonderful bar and grill, Legends, that is a gathering place not only for riders, trainers, owners and others connected with the show, but also for residents of the area. Since the restaurants stay open in the evenings, people like to visit TIEC even when there isn’t a show. TIEC has become a part of the community, and the many jobs it provides offer welcome employment in a region where it hasn’t always been easy to come by.
Featured show jumping, whether it’s for minimum or maximum prize money, draws a capacity crowd, as it did last night adding color and enthusiasm to the scene. As the winner noted, it’s nice to have a cheering section.
“It is a great atmosphere and for us riders, it is very motivating. There is a big difference in competing with empty stands than when there is a crowd.”
TIEC is the creation of Mark Bellissimo, who is of the “if you build it, they will come” school of entrepreneurship. He’s literally a man who moves mountains. I visited the eventing cross-country course, an impressive work in progress being designed by Mark Phillips, and saw a mountain of dirt that will be moved so the area can be flattened and turned into fields.
Mark rescued the WEG concept, which was in real danger after financial problems caused the original 2018 host, Bromont in Quebec, to withdraw. The long-running Bromont saga with the unhappy ending led some to say the FEI should just go back to hosting individual world championships in each discipline, the way it was done before 1990.
It was costly if you wanted to see more than one discipline, which was what the WEG was all about, letting fans of equestrian sport go to one place to see the best in competitions outside of their own specialty. I remember in 1986, I went to Aachen for show jumping, Australia for eventing, Canada for dressage and Great Britain for four-in-hand driving. Too many plane flights. Stockholm was so much more convenient four years later, and TIEC will enhance that model.
Mark, whose properties include the Winter Equestrian Festival and Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Fla., where he also has other facilities, and the Colorado Horse Park, long dreamed of hosting a WEG. Tryon gave him the opportunity to do something that he thinks is important for the sport.
We talked about it while standing on TIEC’s carousel, a signature piece that has a twin in Wellington.
I really enjoyed my visit to Tryon, getting to see the amazing (it really is amazing!) place about which I’d heard so much. Eric Navet was right, there is a lot to do to get ready for WEG, but Mark has put together an impressive team to make his vision reality.
Tickets for WEG are slated to on sale about mid-July, so keep checking back at www.tryon2018.com.
In two weeks, I’ll be at the revived Mars Essex Horse Trials in Far Hills, N.J. Essex hasn’t been held since 1998, so it will be exciting to see it in a lovely new location. For information about Essex, go to www.essexhorsetrials.org. I’ll tell you all about it in a postcard I’m sending on the night of June 25.