Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival Expects Record 6,000 Horses Competing for Record Prize Money

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Palm Beach International Equestrian Center main show grounds. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 8–A record of at least 6,000 jumper and hunter horses are projected to compete at the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival for prize money of almost $7 million over 12 weeks beginning Wednesday at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.

In its 34th year, WEF claims the record for the largest and longest running horse show in the world that attracts competitors from more than 30 countries.

The companion Global Dressage Festival that includes five CDIs as well as four national competitions extends to mid-April.

Between WEF and GDF an unprecedented lineup of Nations Cups is scheduled–one for jumpers, one for dressage and three for age groups 12 to 14 years, under 18 and up to 21 years for which one sponsor is flying in as many as 64 horses from South America.

Mark Bellissimo, chief executive of Equestrian Sport Productions that organizes the events at the equestrian center owned by a group of investors that he heads, described as “lunacy” actions by the local government council to block expansion of the horse shows that are the prime economic engine of growth in the community.

Almost $30 million has been invested in rebuilding and upgrading the WEF show grounds in the past six years and almost $10 million in creating the Global Dressage Festival grounds during a period of economic problems that is paying off with sold-out VIP club seating of more than 1,000 members, box seats and vendor spaces as well as newly constructed entertainment pavilions.

“We expect this to be a breakout year,” he said, “the tail end of heavy investment in whch we will be operating the facility to its maximum.” Property adjoining the show grounds was bought for $9 million to use for new FEI stabling and other land was purchased to provide additional on-site temporary stabling.

The reinvigorated WEF has attracted more owners and competitors building permanent barns and homes in Wellington. An unofficial survey found 47 new mullitmillion dollar projects under construction that, he said, makes it a “boom town.”

Nick Skelton, a member of Great Britain’s Olympic gold medal teams in London last summer and who has been one of the most successful riders at WEF in recent years, credited the show with contributing to his success in London.

The “fantastic shows” at a “great acility” was, he said, “invaluable experience” leading to the Olympics.

“There are a lot more foreign riders here and they all think the same thing–the weather is good and horses do better with sunshine.”

Dennis Shaugnessy, CEO of the New York Stock Exchange-listed FTI Consulting, said the impact of the show internationally was “unbelievable.”

The presence of so many CEOs, fund managera, investment bankers and other professionals was probably rare in the whole country to get them into one spot at the same time.

In the near future, he said, he could see WEF hosting a “Davos West,” along the lines of the Swiss annual conference each January of global financiers and business leaders. The difference would be, he said, is that WEF typically has warm weather and high performance equestrian sports as entertainment.

The reason property taxes are not higher in Welington, Dennis said, is because of taxes paid by big farms.

“They are also the ones that have minimal use of social services. What a great community to have all this money coming in from high property values so that the hard working middle class people enjoy a great community with relatively reasonable tax structure.”

Laura Kraut, a team gold medalist for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics on Cedric the gray horse on which she continues to have success on both sides of the Atlantic, has been competing at WEF every year except the inaugural event.

“It has just gotten better ad better,” she said, “I’m hearing fewer negative comments from people–that group is dwindling.

“This is a great business opportunity for all of us in this sport. Hopefully, it will help us catch up with the rest of the world.”