January 12, 2011 -- The National Horse Show is planning a move this fall, ending a collaboration with the Syracuse, N.Y., Invitational Sporthorse Tournament--which announced today its 2011 edition has been cancelled as a result. National officials have been in talks with the Kentucky Horse Park about relocating the National Horse Show there. Explaining what is behind the shift, the National Horse Show's president, Mason Phelps, said, "We have had a lot of support and indication from professionals, particularly in the hunter and equitation business, that encouraged us to look for a new home."
However, it's obvious that having the National run at another location on the same early November dates as the eight-year-old Syracuse show would dilute the exhibitor and sponsorship pool.
"With what the NHS is now doing to put us back in the economically unsustainable split situation in the absence of an overall sponsor, we would have to dumb down our standards beyond what is acceptable to even try to run a show in 2011. That is simply not on the cards," said a statement from the Syracuse show's organizing committee
The Syracuse announcement jumped the gun on the 128-year-old National's plans, which have yet to be made public. But it seems to be headed for the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
"We would be very excited and delighted to have the National Horse Show come to the Kentucky Horse Park," said the facility's executive director, John Nicholson.
"We've had some discussions with some representatives of the National Horse Show for many years about that possibility. I think having it in Kentucky would serve to restore the grand elegance of the show," he continued. He noted with this morning's unexpected announcement from Syracuse, "This all happened rather quickly" and he needs to sit down with the National people again. The National and the Horse Park do not have a contract yet.
Pending more discussion, there is no firm program at this point as to how things would be presented in the Alltech Arena. That new facility was the home of reining and vaulting during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last fall.
What would happen to the jumpers is a question mark. Syracuse had a World Cup qualifier, but the National can't get one at this point and it's possible the first show may focus on juniors and amateurs. Eventually, though, it could include saddlebreds, which were a part of the National for years in Madison Square Garden. Kentucky is a hotbed of saddlebreds.
Although the Virginia Horse Park had also expressed interest in hosting the National, "Our first choice and the choice of the board is probably Kentucky," said Mason. He said the board was unanimous (with one absence) in making the move.
While Syracuse has always hosted top jumper competition featuring international stars (it even received the North American Riders Group award as the best U.S. show of 2010), the hunter people weren't very interested in it.
"We offered a great package this year (2010) to the hunters; they didn't come," said Leo Conroy, the National's manager.
"The customers didn't support it; they don't like the location, quite frankly." Not only is it difficult to show horses there, he contended, noting that is the case with many facilities that are not purpose-built for horses, but the upstate city itself wasn't a draw.
"The town is not sexy, for lack of a better word. There just wasn't enough bang for their buck, you'd have to say."
Susie Schoellkopf, who trained the last National Horse Show hunter classic winner at Madison Square Garden, was among those who felt Syracuse fell short in the hunter department. She thought it just wasn't possible to comfortably host a one-ring show that had everything from children's jumpers to international jumpers and junior hunters.
"It's too hard to fit all that into a five-day show and make it a quality situation," she commented, adding "to me, the Syracuse Invitational did nothing to make the hunters feel welcome. They made us all feel like second-class citizens, the jumpers were the most important and we weren't even a part of it. The numbers didn't prove that the hunters wanted to be there," she said.
Susie maintained a National in Kentucky would be a "huge" show, adding another plus for many people is that it is less time-consuming to go from Washington (the show before the National) to Lexington to Florida or home than it was to go from Syracuse.
Since it left its traditional home at Madison Square Garden after the 2001 show, the National has been involved with four different locations. In 2002, the ASPCA Maclay finals, its jewel, was held at the Washington International Horse Show. It also ran against Syracuse for several years when it was held on a New York City pier, and was staged at the old Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club in Wellington, Fla., as well. The Maclay was never held in Florida, though, and ran at Syracuse beginning in 2006. Starting in 2008, the two shows were run jointly at the Oncenter. Syracuse basically broke even in 2008 and hit that goal last year, but had a bad year in 2009 with the problematic economy weighing in.
Although the shows had an agreement to continue the joint operation through this year, the National decided it was time to go.
"We didn't think that doing it again would have a different outcome," commented Leo, who said no answer was forthcoming from Syracuse when its officials were asked whether the show would run in 2011, and the National didn't want to be caught short if it weren't held.
The Syracuse statement contended the National's decision to void the agreement, "was entirely inconsistent with our discussions and deal." Referring to philanthropist and noted sponsor Jane Clark, the statement went on to say, "The chairman of the board of the NHS, a woman who has supported the equestrian sports in the U.S. probably as much or more than any other individual in the country, refused to be part of what the NHS proposed to do and resigned, as she told us, on principle."
Jane is disappointed that the partnership between the shows has been severed. She believes "to lose something like that, it's a very big blow to our sport, and something our sport can't afford to have happen too often. I think this was a decision that was made precipitously and not made with enough attention to the overall good of the sport."
Mason said it has not been decided who will fill the chairman's post.
John Madden, chairman of the Syracuse organizing committee and the originator of the show, noted that he had looked at every model for continuing the show without the National and running across from it, but couldn't find one with all the equitation trainers heading South for the Maclay.
"It's very sad, but a few people, specifically hunter people, that didn't like the show supported the National Horse Show and made it so they've ruined it for all the international jumpers and all the amateur jumpers," said John.
"It's a shame that now that we've got the formula, they're jumping ship."
John said he didn't have the time or the energy to deal with suing the National, adding he might have felt differently if they had a longer agreement.
The show got many kudos for everything from its footing to its entertainment value, but John said, "What we did in these years was nothing compared to what we could do," citing the great management team that ran the show.
Asked if he would consider organizing a show elsewhere, John said it might be a possibility someday, but emphasized that he and his wife Beezie, the Olympic show jumping medalist, are "very committed to our area. There are people that beat it up, saying, `we didn't like Syracuse' or this and that about Syracuse. But for a small community, and not a particularly affluent community, I was really proud of the way that community rallied around the show. I don't think the location was a mistake."
Those who appreciated the show will miss it.
NARG President Chris Kappler said "Syracuse was a great show. It had a really special feel."
Citing John's efforts, he said, "I feel like he put the Maclay back on the map. The Maclay lost a home, it was losing its meaning. And the kids on their final round were able to show in front of a crowd. There was a really special feeling to the Maclay again."
"Syracuse did a mega job with that horse show. Syracuse put on a supreme effort," said trainer Missy Clark, whose students have many Maclay wins to her credit.
"For me personally, it felt the closest of anything to the Garden since the Garden. It saddens me that it's coming to a close. Too bad there wasn't a way to figure out how to have both of them."