May 8, 2016--Raves, raves, raves! Everyone was saying good things about this weekend's ramped up International Omaha show, which was a test event for the 2017 World Cup™ finals at the state-of-the-art CenturyLink Center downtown.
The officials who will be part of next year's Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping and Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage finals were going through their paces, seeing what works and what needs to be changed for the city's debut on the global equestrian scene 10 months from now.
Those who hadn't been to the facility previously were both awe-struck and impressed. To hear the comments of Cesar Hirsch, who will be the chief show jumping steward (he's stewarding the Rio Olympics this summer), click on the right-pointing arrow.
Many of those who follow U.S. show jumping tend to focus on the West Coast or the East Coast. It's all about riders such as Richard Spooner and Rich Fellers; McLain Ward or Kent Farrington. They don't even realize there's a healthy circuit in the Midwest with a different cast of characters who have a following and are proud of their own achievements.
Among that group, you could just shorten the last name of Christian Heineking of Texas and simply call him The King. He's a star in these parts, winning last night's feature, the $130,000 Burlington Capital-Omaha Grand Prix on NKH Selena. He had not only the sole clear round in the eight-horse jump-off over Alan Wade's course, but also the fastest trip, finishing in 40.16 seconds.
It was the fourth time in five years that he won the class, and the crowd of 4,379 obviously knew him well. They return every year and are fans of the sport as much as the spectators at the Hampton Classic or Thermal, cheering enthusiastically when riders make it through a difficult line, rather than waiting to applaud at the end of a round.
Christoph Schroeder of Tennessee (like Heineking, a transplanted German), second with a knockdown on Catungee (42.04 seconds) and Brandie Holloway of Kansas, third with Lucky Strike (4/42.37) both talked about how they liked coming to Omaha (it's only a two- or three-hour drive for Brandie). They tend to frequent other shows in the region, going as far East as Kentucky and then maybe heading to Tryon, N.C.
But let's face it. The opportunities in the Midwest and environs aren't as sweeping as they are on the left and right coasts. So having the World Cup™ finals in Omaha will open many doors.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the World Cup™ is a one-off for Omaha. Mike West, CEO of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, and Lisa Roskens, its chairman, see the finals as the spark that will produce bigger and better things for the Midwest.
“We have two missions this year,” Mike said.
“One is to find a sustainable model, and the next one is to run a great World Cup. But going into 2018, we're trying to get halfway home this year and then add some more frosting on the cake so we can...quite honestly, fill a void in this part of the country, to have an event that really is focused on the fan.
“A lot of events here are about recruiting riders and selling stalls. The vendors are only there to serve the riders. We're trying to make this about the fan. We want to treat our riders great and make sure we attract them and we want to have great crowds. Part of what will attract the riders is if they're competing in front of 8,000 people. We have to treat the fans a certain way, or we're not going to have 8,000 people.”
Okay, Mike. So how's it going; was the test event a success in your view?
Hear what he had to say by clicking on the video below.
Lisa, who is also chairman and CEO of the Burlington Capital Group, is the one who came up with the idea of hosting the final in Omaha, after seeing how it was done in Las Vegas and figuring that CenturyLink would be a perfect venue. She has thrown herself into this project with boundless energy, while doing her job and being a wife and mother. Her vision continues to guide the project.
I caught up with her after she presented the blue ribbon and trophy to Christian (as best she could; Selena was rearing and kicking up her heels.)
To get Lisa's take on the test event, click on the video below.
I have known Anthony D'Ambrosio for more than four decades, so I understand that he's an expert on what he's talking about when it comes to the intricacies of presenting a competition. You probably think of him as a course designer, but he's also a technical delegate and in Omaha, he is the director of jumping.
CenturyLink is huge. There's an enormous ring, stands that can accommodate 15,000, and a spacious European-style warm-up area surrounded by vendor booths and dining. The stabling is comfortable and there is room to spare elsewhere in the building. It's also a plus that it's all under one roof.
I asked Anthony what the facility reminds him of elsewhere. He compared it to Capital Challenge and Harrisburg in terms of the size of the ring, and Lyon, France (home of the 2015 finals) or the Palexpo in Geneva, Switzerland, which has hosted the finals several times.
I was interested in his take on the test event. Click on the video below to hear what he had to say.
Dressage also was part of the scene this year in a big way for the first time. While the International's regulars were on hand for the show jumping, with 28 starters in the feature and 35 in Friday night's $40,000 Mutual of Omaha Bank speed class, won by Tracy Fenney on MTM Reve du Paradis, there were only nine dressage riders. Those who didn't take part missed a bet, because they missed a 4-star with a total of $30,000 in prize money for the Grand Prix and the Freestyle.
The idea was more to see how the venue worked for the discipline than to stage a highly competitive dressage show, but it still was a nice accomplishment for those who took part to ride in a facility that will host the finals.
Canada's Karen Pavicic won both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle on Don Daiquiri as she seeks one of just two berths that will be going to riders from her country for the Olympics. Watch part of her freestyle and listen to her comments by clicking on the video below.
For more on the dressage in Omaha, click on this link to read what I wrote for Dressage Today.
If you find this all very interesting, but think Omaha might not be your idea of travel destination excitement, think again. It's a relaxed town, which is nice, but it has a lot to offer, including a great zoo and aquarium; interesting museums, a botanical garden, lots of bike trails through many parks and terrific restaurants. The city will go all-out for the finals, so you should be making your plans for next year. The dates are March 29-April 2; put them on your calendar. You won't be sorry!
I've been making a little tour through the Olympic disciplines in my coverage the last few weeks, and I'm back to eventing next weekend. I'll be at the Jersey Fresh International, an Olympic selection trial. Look for my postcard next Sunday, and for photos at facebook.com/practicalhorseman Saturday and Sunday.