January 20, 2017 — When the two finalists for the new U.S. autumn 4-star three-day event were announced by the U.S. Equestrian Federation this week, one that might have seemed an obvious choice from the original field of five candidates was missing.
The Tryon (N.C.) International Equestrian Center was not mentioned with the Fair Hill, Maryland, and Great Meadow, Virginia, sites to be in contention for hosting the country’s second 4-star in the autumn of 2019.
While Fair Hill has been staging an autumn international 2- and 3-star CCI for 30 years, and Great Meadow last year ran the first eventing Nations’ Cup in this country, in 20 months, TIEC is set to put on the biggest FEI (international equestrian federation) competition, the World Equestrian Games.
TIEC has had a fast rise to prominence. It also is the site of the 2016 and 2017 American Eventing Championships (on a different course than will be used for the WEG). In early April, it will be holding The Fork’s international event, a 1-, 2- and 3-star CIC and horse trials. That fixture moved from another North Carolina location and often is used as a prep for the Rolex Kentucky 4-star at the end of April.
After getting the news that his facility didn’t make the cut, Tryon Equestrian Partners’ Managing Partner Mark Bellisimo felt “disappointment and surprise,” perturbed more at how the selection was handled than the results. He was dismayed that news Tryon was not a finalist came via a form letter.
Any of the venues under consideration “would be fine” for the 4-star, he said, emphasizing “I’m not questioning who got in.”
His problem was with the way the whole thing was handled.
“I think both of those (Fair Hill and Great Meadow) are great candidates. My criticism is of the process and lack of transparency. If it’s diversity, fantastic. If it’s geography, fantastic. Lay it all out there. Allow people to understand it so they feel good about this process.
“It takes the wind out of our sails,” he said, noting he hasn’t encountered “the level of communication that I would expect.”
USEF CEO Bill Moroney observed, “It’s totally natural for organizers who apply for things to be disappointed and upset when they don’t get them.”
“Everything followed a very thorough process,” which included a site visit, he said.
He noted the USEF’s major event strategy calls for putting out a bid process, having different committees and task forces weigh in before bringing it to the International Disciplines Council and then to a closed session of the board of directors for final approval.
Funding was no problem for Tryon, which has a vast stable of sponsors.
“Our bid was for a minimum of $500,000 in prize money,” Mark said. That would have been a world record for the sport.
“I’m hoping the other bidders had that, not to say it’s all about money,” Mark commented, while noting such a purse would create interest in the sport among sponsors and spectators, benefitting the riders at the same time.
Since no details on how the decision was made were revealed, he didn’t know what the other candidates were offering.
“Our fundamental goal is to grow equestrian sport,” said Mark, who also is the managing partner at Wellington, Fla.’s Winter Equestrian Festival and Adequan Global Dressage Festival.
“We think this sport needs a presentation that allows it to attract more owners, attract more spectators and attract high-level energy for the riders through increased competition prize money.”
The prize money is “a game changer” said eventer Doug Payne, who is excited to be going to the Welllington Eventing Showcase at WEF next month, when $100,000 will be offered—the second-biggest eventing prize money in the country.
“I was a bit surprised Tryon wasn’t even on the short list,” he said.
A North Carolinian who is a veteran of Rolex Kentucky and also competes in show jumping at TIEC, he commented, “It has by far the best organizing committee out there. They know how to run a top-class competition.”
Mark would have liked the decision to be delayed until Tryon could present the Fork April 5-9 and demonstrate it could run a 3-star, since the AECs are at a lower level.
“What’s the rush in trying to get a short list from five to two, without an opportunity for a couple of the venues to show what they can do,” he asked.
The decision came at a good time for one of the finalists, though, since the Maryland legislature goes out of session April 10, and Fair Hill is looking for funds from the state, along with private and corporate money, to underwrite an $8 million project as it moves from its usual location to a racecourse area across the road and will make improvements there.
“Being selected to host the 4-star would be a game changer for the Maryland horse industry,” said Maryland Horse Industry Board Chair Jim Steele.
“Each year during the month surrounding the 4-star, Maryland would be the center of the horse universe and attract equine enthusiasts from all over.”
Trish Gilbert, Fair Hill International’s co-president, said the infield of the racetrack will be developed, where the main arenas will be located, and the cross-country course will go into the Sawmill Field now used for horse trials. New stables also are planned and the racetrack will be irrigated.
“There’s all kinds of wonderful stuff happening. It’s very exciting,” she said of Fair Hill being chosen as a finalist.
And the process continues, as Trish noted, “Now our work really begins to try to come up with all the answers the USEF wants.”
The 3-star will continue, she said, noting that with “the new challenges of qualifications for the WEG and the Olympic Games (both of which have 3-star cross-country courses) the 3-star is going to be pretty important” and will run at the same time as the 4-star.
At Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., “the actual facility is pretty complete,” said Rob Banner, president of the Great Meadow Foundation, noting the venue that also hosts steeplechasing recently added an all-weather ring and warm-up arena.
He cited the direction of David O’Connor, the U.S. eventing technical advisor, in making Great Meadow work. David and Olympic cross-country course designer Michael Etherington-Smith “have a prospective course that utilizes the primary property, then goes through a newly acquired tract through the arena bridging the two.
Another asset for Great Meadow will be a new quarantine facility at Dulles Airport, Rob pointed out.
Asked whether the fact that Tryon is hosting several eventing competitions figured into the decision not to put that facility onto the short list, Bill said although he couldn’t say for certain, “My personal opinion is that was a consideration in the process.
“I imagine in eventing they like some diversity in the venues which are used to host major events. Otherwise, you just end up going to the same venue all the time,” said Bill, former president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.
“That doesn’t really keep the flavor of the sport. It’s logical the variance of the venues is an important part to the training and competing of horses and the preparation of them. If all you’ve done is compete at relatively the same venues in your home country time after time, the horse doesn’t really get enough experience in concentrating at new places,” he continued.
“I don’t know how much that would have counted in the overall, for what they presented to the board they did a very thorough job of considering the venues and how it fits into the eventing calendar.”
Mark Phillips, the former U.S. eventing coach and developer of the cross-country facilities that will be used for the WEG at Tryon, commented, “I understand the USEF doesn’t want to have all its eventing eggs in one basket and wants a historical element and geographical spread of its constituents.”
At the same time, he noted, “Post-WEG, Tryon has in place more infrastructure than any other 4-star site in the world. By infrastructure, I mean not just stables and stadiums, but also fiber optics and buried power cables, etc.,” he continued.
“Why would you dismiss a site that already has everything in place on the hope that another green field site is going to be able to prove they can deliver a better quality event? Why wouldn’t you have kept that door open until such time as you made that analysis with the other venues?”
The 4-star venue, which will require approval by the FEI, is expected to be determined mid-year by the USEF board.