Wellington, Fla., February 1, 2008 -- Although the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session at the South Grounds of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC) kept me pretty busy on my visit to Florida last week, I managed to find a few minutes to drop by the main part of the showgrounds for a look at all the work that has been done there.
I can sum it up this way--it's amazing! You'll have the details in a minute, but first I want to orient you so you'll know what I'm talking about. The PBIEC is composed of the former Littlewood facility and the old Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, where the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) has been held for years. Littlewood, now called the South Grounds, is adjacent to the main grounds. If you want to drive a car between the two, however, it takes perhaps 10 scenic minutes, going the long way past some beautiful farms and allowing for not always being able to get around the ubiquitous golf carts trundling their way along.
The South Grounds has bread-and-butter classes, low hunter, pleasure horse and the like, but the main events are reserved for what used to be the equestrian club. Oh, and I'll just mention that a factor in the future will be the old polo club field and grandstand, down the street and up another block or two from the main showgrounds.
But it's the main grounds I'm talking about now. Though it was always a pretty place, it needed some refurbishment. Anything that had been used as hard through the years would require work, but Stadium Jumping, which used to operate there, didn't own the property. That meant it didn't make sense for that group to do massive improvements.
But when Wellington Equestrian Partners, led by Mark Bellissimo, bought the property last year, it was a whole different ballgame. After Stadium Jumping ran its last horse show, the National, at the facility in December, the new owner started round-the-clock work (with only Christmas Day off) to refurbish the property.
At this point, you might be wondering why the average person should care about what happens at a showgrounds in Florida. The answer is that this is not just another showgrounds. It is aspiring to be the best facility of its kind in the U.S., and one of the best in the world. With the addition of top-class footing, especially on the grand prix field, and massive lights to illuminate the area, it is set to attract a greater number of spectators. That, in turn, brings in more sponsors and media attention, giving the sport a higher profile. A higher profile means more awareness of horse sports in general, leading to a broader participant base and greater clout legislatively on issues affecting everyone involved with horses.
The fact that so much money is being invested is also a good selling point for those interested in seeing improved facilities in their area of the country. It says, "Yes, there is interest in horse sports," which is fighting for its piece of the pie among the plethora of activities vying for everyone's attention these days.
At another level, the improvement in footing, and in traffic patterns that neatly separate people, horses and golf carts, makes things better for all participating down here.
Carol Hoffman, an extremely knowledgeable horsewoman who is a partner with Olympian Anne Kursinski in Market Street, told me she was thrilled with how things are going when I ran into her near the stables.
In my meet-and-greet around the facility, I ran into only one really negative person. Her complaint related to lines and other situations involving entries at the show office. A few people also mentioned to me their concern about an increase in some costs, something with which I could empathize on my little level when I spotted a place selling cheese sandwiches for $11!
In the bigger picture, certainly, there are still a lot of things to be worked out, but that's not surprising, given the fact that new management was only able to begin its efforts on the grounds in mid-December, while the WEF opened two weeks earlier than usual in January. And the amount of money being spent to improve things is mind-boggling.
When I saw Louis Jacobs, a horse show father and an amateur rider who placed fourth in yesterday's grand prix, I flagged him down for some comments. Louis and his father, Jerry Jacobs, were big players in Stadium Jumping and the year-long rancor pitting that organization against Wellington Equestrian Partners, and vice versa. Lots of lawsuits; you remember. Stadium Jumping was going to build its own showgrounds in Wellington at one point, but it dropped that plan after an agreement finally was reached with the partners.
So Louis was a good one to talk to for perspective, and he was complimentary about the changes.
He added he's very excited about the prospect of the old polo stadium becoming a high-performance corridor. That could ease things on the showgrounds, which he noted are "still quite crowded and a little strung out, where you have Littlewood at one end and the other showgrounds at the other. I think it's tough on everybody; tough on the trainers, tough on the grooms who have kids riding in various places. That was why I was always advocating a new showgrounds, so we could begin from scratch have things set up to accommodate 2,000, 3,000 or 3,500 horses."
He added, however, "In the end, this is a compromise. I don't think any of us are going to think it's perfect, but I think it's certainly an improvement over what it was last year, and the promise for the future is really great."
Helping Mark realize that goal is his right-hand man, Michael Stone, an Irish citizen who is the former secretary-general of the FEI (international equestrian federation.)
I was impressed by what I saw--including the plantings and flowers everywhere, addition of a nice pocket park where people can take a break and (thankfully!) the replacement of port-a-johns with mobile bathrooms that offer flush toilets and sinks.
The new owners are not afraid to try things, either, like an evening match race or a derby (there's a bank in the international ring, and they're going to build a natural jump, too.) That helps create variety, which in turn sparks interest.
Yes, there are still wrinkles to iron out, but the PBIEC is a wonderful addition to our sport, and I am expecting it to go on to greater heights as the season moves on. I'll be back with you from Wellington in two weeks, so look for my next postcard.