April 13, 2015--I'll concede my ignorance: Omaha never was on my list of must-see places. But my introduction to the Nebraska city last weekend blew me away, and now I'm a believer in what it has to offer.
Lots of eyebrows were raised and smart-aleck remarks uttered after word came that Omaha would be hosting the 2017 Longines FEI World CupTM Show Jumping and Reem Acra FEI World CupTM Dressage finals. Omaha certainly isn't on the radar of top U.S. show jumpers or dressage riders. And I'll bet many of the European stars had never even heard of Omaha.
Let's face it, Vegas is a hard act to follow. Yet I can promise you that Omaha isn't going to take a back seat to anyone when it comes to hosting the finals.
First of all, let's discuss the venue, the CenturyLink Center, an ideal spot for the dual finals. It is spacious, with more than 250,000 square feet of convention space. U.S. Dressage Steward General Elisabeth Williams, who calls it as she sees it, raved about the facility, which has hosted the U.S. Olympic swimming team trials twice already.
Among the virtues Elisabeth pointed out is the fact that there can be separate warm-up areas for dressage and show jumping, with plenty of room to spare for vendors and an interactive display of breeds. More than 1,400 kids came through to enjoy educational displays, which is important because part of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation's mission is to teach the public about horses.
Susan Runnels, executive director of the foundation, which puts on the show, said it is hoped that efforts by the International will broaden the base of English riding in the area and beyond through the Midwest.
Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of sport, was impressed by Omaha and its facility. He came, as I did, to see the International Omaha 2-star jumper show, which offered a glimpse of the potential for the Cup finals.
Watch this video to hear what Will had to say about the venue and the city.
A 4-star Hilton hotel with a good bar (key for post-competition appraisals) is across the street from the venue. If it's raining, you can walk over via a covered passage. The Hilton is far from the only hotel nearby. There are 2,700 rooms available within a mile of the Center.
Omaha has no professional ball teams. Instead, it has geared itself to other sports, including women's volleyball and the national collegiate baseball championships in a 25,000-seat stadium.The Cup definitely will fit into that template.
The city presents interesting restaurants in all price ranges, up to the 4-star level, with cuisine that can rival what you'll find in Vegas, or Manhattan. Okay, maybe not as many -- it's a smaller city -- but certainly enough to satisfy active appetites. Several people who should know told me that for the Cup, as with other sporting events here, restaurants and bars will stay open later than usual to accommodate showgoers.
The cute Old Market area of town offers many places to eat, along with a variety of shops you won't find elsewhere. A conscious effort has been made to get one-of-a-kind stores that aren't part of chains.
Activities abound for those who want to do something besides watching the show, and it's fun to take a walk around the city.
One of the most impressive things I glimpsed was a series of lifesize bronze sculptures, "Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness and Pioneer Courage." It depicts a wagon train crossing a dry creek, and includes 123 works of art dispersed over parts of six city blocks, with a buffalo and wild geese among other pieces.
There are several art museums, including one focusing on western heritage in a former train station that has been spiffed up; an excellent zoo (I visited and it was a treat), an aquarium and a botanical garden. There are parks everywhere, city bikes you can rent for a spin around town, and plans are in the works for all kinds of activities in conjunction with the Cup, from concerts to a street festival. If you miss the Las Vegas casinos, take a shuttle across the state line to visit one in Iowa, just a few minutes from CenturyLink.
Interestingly, the FEI awarded 2017 to Omaha without ever coming to the city. But it worked out; they struck gold.
The bid was the idea of Lisa Roskens, chairman of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation. After visiting Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center for one of the five finals it has hosted so far, she believed the CenturyLink Center could handle the task.
Watch this video to get her take on the city's newfound equestrian celebrity.
Lisa is a dynamo who runs Burlington Capital, one of the show's many sponsors. It seemed she was everywhere during the show, greeting friends and backers, handling the little emergencies that are part of any sporting venture, an energetic presence whose personal interest in horses has had exponential benefits.
Omaha is a city where private money has done a lot for the public good, and people have pitched in to make the International happen.
Jay Lerner, who is in real estate, is another one of those sponsors, and is looking forward to the Cup.
"It's unbelievable an event of that stature comes to our city, so we're excited about it. Omaha supports events such as this one," he commented.
Part of Omaha's charm is its nice people, and it's a selling point that has become a slogan for Nebraska. That sounds simplistic, but it's true. Lisa told me a four-way top can be a waiting game, because it's as if drivers say politely, 'You go.' 'No, you go first.' It can take a while for the "after you, Alphonse" act to come to a conclusion.
Jon Garner, the International's FEI liaison, recounted that some people in town for the show decided to take a walk around the city, but became tired and stopped at a hotel to rest. They asked the staffer on the desk to call them a cab so they could get back to the Hilton.
"Why do that?" the man said. "Our shuttle will take you."
"But we're not staying at your hotel," one of the visitors responded.
"That's fine, no problem," he replied, and they got a lift in the shuttle. People actually want to help you, and that makes for a very pleasant situation all around.
The International Omaha is a 2-star, compared with high-profile shows such as the recent GCT Miami Beach venture that are 5-stars.
The riders are mostly from Texas, Canada and the Midwest, relishing a chance to shine in a lovely venue before appreciative crowds. I had never heard people clap as the horses cleared each fence in their rounds, but they do it at the International. I asked Tony D'Ambrosio, the International's course designer (he's also designing the World CupTM courses in Vegas) about the phenomenon, and he told me he's seen it at state fairs, or when there are a lot of children present.
"They really like horses a lot in this city," said Tony. "I think that between the spectators from around the world and the spectators from this city, the place will be sold out for the World CupTM."
I'm not sure those watching the International would applaud any harder for McLain Ward or Kent Farrington than they do for the competitors who are not household equestrian names. They mingle with the riders, and the line for autographs at the end of the show snakes around the lobby of the venue.
I ran into high school senior Kristen Hall in the autograph line. Wearing a fancy, floor-length black gown, she attended her prom upstairs at CenturyLink, checked out to watch the jump-off and then stepped into the queue to get signatures on a T-shirt she was given for participating in local classes at the show. That's a true enthusiast.
The only disappointment of the weekend was the lack of dressage riders. This was the first year dressage was offered at the show, looking toward the Cup finals, and it drew less than a handful of riders, with only one coming through to the freestyle. More pressure, if necessary, will be applied next year to make a better showing.
The International is a premier showcase of the region where its competitors ride. Matt Cyphert, winner of Saturday night's featured $55,000 Burlington Capital Grand Prix, was genuinely excited after topping a four-horse jump-off on Lochinvar.
"I've come since the first year of this horse show, and they always get a fantastic crowd. The first year I came, I said I'd come every year after that. They just do a wonderful job. It honestly is my favorite show of the year," he said.
He wasn't surprised when Omaha won the bid for the Cup.
"Some people thought Omaha was off the beaten path, but because of what I saw from the people who ran this horse show, I didn't count them out. I was thrilled for them. They've earned it; they worked hard."
Matt noted he was pleased when he won a $40,000 class in Denver earlier this year, but the International was the biggest victory of the 45-year-old rider's career.
"This is my first FEI win and I'm beyond thrilled," said Matt, who comes from the Dallas area.
Asked what class he'd most like to win in the future, he said it would be the World Cup Finals.
"I'm not sure if that's something that's in that horse's ability, or maybe sometimes mine, but it would obviously be a dream," he commented.
The impression given by the riders, whether they win or lose, is that they enjoy being part of the show. That's something too often lost in the high-pressure world of big-time, big-money show jumping. I hope that attitude can translate to the World Cup two years from now.
Now it's time to turn our attention to this year's Cup. I'll start sending postcards beginning Tuesday with the horse inspection. Wednesday is the warm-up for both disciplines and the real action starts Thursday, with dressage in the afternoon and show jumping at night.