“Awesome,” “impressive” and “amazing” were the comments repeated over and over as visitors reacted to the dazzling new World Equestrian Center (WEC) in the midst of Ocala, Florida’s, horse country.
A jaw-dropping 140,000-square-foot Olympic-style stadium, one of 22 outdoor rings; four climate-controlled indoor arenas, four wonderful restaurants and top-notch footing everywhere a horse sets hoof delighted the thousands who came to the 378-acre complex during the 12-week Winter Spectacular show series that opened the facility. Equine comfort is paramount in six hundred 12 by 12 stalls and 1,500 that measure 12 by 14, complete with soft mats, fans and fronted by wire screens insuring ventilation. An attractive chapel, a soon-to-be-finished veterinary hospital, spotless permanent bathrooms (some with music piped in) and a full-service campground that offers a filling station and general store are among the features that intrigue both competitors and tourists.
Yes, tourists. The curious head for WEC even if they’ve never been near a horse, eager to take in an attraction that is unique for the quiet, semi-rural area, about a 20-minute drive from the square in the center of downtown Ocala. They come to browse the shops, dance on the plaza to lively music (I heard a darn good band playing ‘70s faves that got senior citizens up and moving) and of course eat the pizza at Viola & Dot’s or indulge in cotton candy at Tilly’s Lollipops, a high-end candy store.
They also come to watch the competitions.
While due to COVID, the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) has banned the public from shows it licenses, the Spectacular series that ends this weekend is recognized instead by the National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA), which has no such restrictions. So there has been good attendance at Saturday night grands prix, with most of those watching wearing masks.
Other horse shows, “are like going to a carnival,” observed horse show father Tim Benner of St. Augustine, Fla., citing mud, tents, portable toilets and small stalls elsewhere. “This is Disneyworld. They’ve thought of everything.”
Riders are loving the WEC experience.
“I am fortunate enough in my career that I have been to Spruce Meadows, Dublin, Aachen and Olympia,” commented veteran show jumper Candice King, “and I have to say it’s the best facility that I have been to. They have done everything that is the best for the horses that they can do. The footing, the jumps, the staff; it doesn’t matter whether it’s the head people or the people taking care of the grounds, everybody is here to help.”
And that includes Roby Roberts, who oversees his family’s operations, which also include a WEC on a smaller scale in Ohio. When Candice was feeding her horses after sunrise on the first week of the Spectacular, Roby patted her dog and introduced himself.
“He was just coming through the barns at 6:15 in the morning, making sure everything was okay. That’s impressive,” she pointed out.
While Roby is meticulous about the details, he emphasizes the importance of having a “laid-back” atmosphere as conducive to fun as it is to competition.
“We try to make it as much about where you have dinner as what ribbon you get,” said Roby. “Sometimes the whole experience is more than just the ribbon, we try to promote the experience. There’s only so many ribbons and there’s a lot of kids.”
As he discussed the philosophy behind WEC, Roby explained, “I think people get a different feeling here; it’s not even the showgrounds, it’s a feeling of `This is home.’” His wife, Jennifer, added, “It’s not what it looks like, it’s how it feels; comfortable and safe. That’s what we wanted.”
The kids are really into it.
“There’s a lot of fun, different things to do and a lot of fun treats and then you can ride your horse which is the best thing for us equestrians,” enthused 13-year-old Marissa Hauser of Palm Harbor, Fla.
Since WEC Ocala is the largest equestrian complex in the U.S., set on a property of more than 4,000 acres, golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation for those who aren’t in the saddle. WEC’s artful design, however, puts horse welfare first, with equine-friendly surfaces on paths that lead from the barns to the arenas. There are bridle trails around the property set against a picturesque backdrop of white-fenced turnout paddocks and live oaks hung with Spanish moss.
Located adjacent to the Roberts’ Golden Ocala golf club, WEC is “a lifestyle destination,” according to Jim Wolf, who handles sponsorship. He sees WEC as a chance “to introduce cross-over audiences from golf and other lifestyle sports to equestrian. That’s the big opportunity for the sport here.”
WEC is remarkable, and will get even more so with completion this month of a white-columned 5-star hotel that already is serving as a backdrop to the main stadium. It will host VIPs in the area above the arena, offer dinners for large groups and a place for intimate post-show gatherings in its pub.
The hotel is a component that speaks to the overall utility of the venue. WEC will be hosting everything from equestrian competition in a variety of breeds, to dog and car shows, Special Olympics, trade shows, conventions and a variety of non-equestrian sports.
“There are terrific opportunities that are year-round here,” Jim said. “We can take care of and host sponsors in the fabulous luxury hotel in a way you can’t at other horse shows. Their suite at the hotel will be looking out into the ring with all their branding. It just doesn’t get better than this for a sponsor.”
Or for the riders, who have been enjoying free stalls for their horses during the Spectacular as an introduction to the facility.
“It’s hard to go to another horse show after you come here,” said Georgia trainer Tom Foley, a native of Ireland. “It’s a fantastic place. It’s really well laid-out.”
Santiago Lambre, who is looking to represent Mexico in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, has horses at both the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Fla., and at WEC, where he won two grands prix. He spent 16 years in Europe, but said of WEC, “I think it is the best facility in the world."
“I came for one week and this is my sixth week here,” he mentioned, noting that while he has a house in Wellington, he is now thinking of moving to Ocala because of WEC.
Its winter shows run concurrently not only with WEF, but also with the HITS show less than 10 miles away. Some riders, like hunter ring star Amanda Steege, do shows at WEC, HITS and WEF, but restrictions imposed because of the EHV-1 virus that shut down shows in Europe means horses can’t shuttle between showgrounds in Florida. Amanda, who won the WCHR Hunter Spectacular in Wellington with Lafitte de Muze, said she thought going in the derbies at WEC were good preparation for WCHR week before restrictions were imposed.
“The thing I’m happiest about is how much the horses really love it here,” said Amanda, who has a home three miles away. “They’re very relaxed here, they’re very quiet here, they’re very happy here. That makes me happy to have this place in our backyard that we as people think is so fantastic, but to also feel like the horses are so comfortable here.”
Although part of the acreage beyond the equestrian center will be developed, the Roberts are keeping buffer zones between the show facility and future housing. It’s obvious residences will be in demand as more people discover the showgrounds.
Local Realtor Mauro Bravo, the son of Cuban immigrants, has found himself getting interested in horses because of the horse-oriented clients he is meeting and the advent of WEC, which he described as “world class.” Asked what he thought WEC would do for Ocala--once best known as a nursery for thoroughbred racehorses--he said, “If we weren’t already on the map, this is the thing to do it.”