Britain’s Olympic Gold Medalist Nick Skelton Joins in Warning Against Attacks on Wellington Horse Show

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A joyous Nick Skelton providing one of the memorable unscripted "moments" at the 2012 Olympics in London when he jumped on to the medals podium before the jampacked home crowd at the Greenwich Park stadium. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Nick Skelton, Great Britain’s Olympic team gold medalist and one of the icons of jumping, on Friday joined American hunter, jumper and dressage riders in speaking out against attacks on equestrian events at Wellington, Florida, where he has been one of the most successful riders in recent years.

“I think people, especially those who are in the sport, want to be careful how much they try and stop the horse shows in Wellington,” he told dressage-news.com from the CSI5* Paris Masters. “Investment in recent years has made it a great facility, probably the best in the world.

“The horse show in Wellington has become an industry, big business. If the people who have invested so much decide to pull the plug, what is going to be left? An empty building site.”

The comments by Nick came after the Jacobs family which opposes equestrian events at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Stadium complex, filed a new lawsuit to prevent several 2013 Winter Equestrian Festival hunter and jumper competitions and wiping out the entire Global Dressage Festival.

The lawsuit targeting the state of the art dressage grounds and the grass derby field that has been used for jumper and hunter events since 2010 came with the filing in Circuit Court in Palm Beach of the new lawsuit by Charles and Kimberly Jacobs and their family’s Solar Sportsystems, Inc.

The lawsuit wants the entire complex torn down and asks the court to undo an agreement between the horse show organizers and the Village of Wellington allowing events to be held there from Nov. 1, 2012 to April 30, 2013.

The latest legal action and subsequent news reports have sparked a surge of anger on both sides of the Atlantic and created a sense of uncertainty among equestrians in all disciplines, charities, families and businesses in and around Wellington.

The dispute that centered on the dressage facility initially but has been expanded to include hunter and jumper competitions is seen by many as the greatest threat to the world’s largest and longest running horse show since the unsuccessful campaign in 2006 by Stadium Jumping, Inc. and the Jacobs family to move the Wellington show grounds.

Since the current ownership of the show grounds by Wellington Equestrian Partners and the organizing group, Equestrian Sport Productions, the Palm Beach center has been rebuilt, the winter circuit extended to 12 weeks from six weeks and attracts riders from more than 30 nations to the sub tropical locale. A global spotlight has also been turned on the show grounds as the growth of international competitors has brought with it media attention from around the world.

Laura Kraut in the German Masters at Stuttgart this November aboard Cedric on whom she won Olympic team gold for the United States in 2008. © 2012 Ken Braddic/dressage-news.com

Although some riders and owners were unwilling to speak out on the record for several months of the current dispute, the latest legal move has unleashed a torrent of criticism around the world, directed overwhelmingly against the Jacobs family and the majority of the Village of Wellington council that this year has pursued policies to cripple events at the Stadium complex.

Laura Kraut, a United States Olympic team gold medal winner in 2008 who is based in Europe in summer and Wellington in winter, said:

“Not only myself but many top international riders will be very disappointed to lose the classes on the grass field. We all felt that over the past couple of years those classes added so much to the circuit as well as provided a fresh new venue for our horses to jump on. I was lookng forward to more opportunities to be out there this year and I sincerely hope that things can be worked out.”

Michelle Gibson, 1996 Atlanta Olympic dressage team bronze medalist, said:

“I think it’s sad that someone wants to take away a world class facility that brings happiness to so many, not only dressage enthusiasts but hunter and jumper enthusiasts as well.

“This facility is top notch with the best stabling and footing for the horses available. It could also be a huge source of income to many of the local businesses in Wellington as well as the city itself.”

Heather Blitz, based in Wellington and who has competed extensively in Europe as well as the United States and was reserve with her home-bred Paragon for the U.S. dressage team at this year’s London Olympics, said that if the lawsuit is successful in closing the Stadium grounds:

“I would pack up and leave, basically.”

Catherine Haddad, who has moved to Florida for the winter circuit after 20 years competing and training in Europe, said she had been told by colleagues the dispute was a long standing personal feud between two horse people.

“Since tearing down such a beautiful and important competition site is both illogical and bad business, I suspect this explanation might be true and if it is, that makes me sad for this community,” she said. “I hope that these two parties can find an amiable solution for the greater good of our sport.

“It would be a shame to take two steps backward after one giant leap forward. Even though I was an ex-pat in Germany, I participated in a community that very much worked together to make the horse industry strong, competitive and durable in that nation. The same kind of cooperation in Wellington would behoove the whole industry.”

Heather Blitz and Paragon at the Olympic selection trials. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Louise Serio, one of America’s leading hunter trainers and riders who was among the creators of the World Championship Hunter Rider (WCHR) Hunter Classic Spectacular 15 years ago, said that if the lawsuit prevents use of the Stadium it will be “really disappointing.”

“It is such a lovely facility,” said Louise whose Derbydown is based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and in winter in Wellington.

“We were looking forward to getting down there and competing in new rings at the derby field. This is really disappointing.”

The Stadium is one of two complexes that make up the international equestrian center. The main show grounds host the Winter Equestrian Festival of hunter and jumper competitions with $6 million in prize money. The Stadium complex had scheduled a fourth winter of grass derby field events and a world class dressage facility was built that held its inaugural season last winter.

Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP), organizer of both WEF and GDF has scheduled events around the 2013 dressage circuit at the 63-acre (25.5 Ha) Stadium complex to include:

* A newly created hunter week on Mar. 6-10 in addition to the World Championship Hunter Rider Hunter Classic Spectacular that has been a major feature of WEF since 1997.

* The Hunter Derby as WEF’s finale event on Mar. 31, the last day of the 12-week circuit;

* Jumpers for the week of Feb. 20-24, jumper young horses Feb. 28-Mar. 2, and the $100,000 jumper CSI4* Mar. 24, and

* The second year of the innovative Spy Coast Farms’ Young Horse series for all disciplines Mar. 5.

The 2013 Adequan Global Dressage Festival includes a $125,000 CDI5*, two $50,000 World Cup events and the only non-championship dressage Nations Cup held outside Europe. The total prize money of $275,000 makes it the richest dressage circuit for a single dressage venue anywhere in the world, surpassed only by the total purse of €330,000 (US$414,400) offered for dressage at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany in 2012.

Also jeopardized if the lawsuit is successful is more than a year of efforts by the International Equestrian Federation and ESP to create a CDIO3* Nations Cup with a unique format for future dressage events at the Pan American Games, the world’s largest multisport event after the Olympic Games and held once every four years.

The event scheduled for April provides for teams throughout the Americas to include both small tour and big tour horses to maintain the Pan Ams as the Olympic qualifier for all of the Americas.

Earlier this year, opponents of the the dressage facility and a retail plaza and condominium hotel on the same site won election to take control of the Village of Wellington council that governs the community of 55,000 people. The new council revoked approvals for the dressage facility and the retail and hotel elements. ESP then withdrew plans for the hotel and retail plaza in an effort to save the Global Dressage Festival.

The Village of Wellington and ESP signed an agreement two months ago approving the 2012/2013 six-month equestrian circuit at the Stadium and agreed to negotiate future use of the facility, including a covered arena free of charge to non-profit and charity groups for a month each year and to enable year round horse shows, especially during hot and humid tropical summers.

The Palm Beach Riding Academy, an initiave by ESP to provide horses and training for residents who otherwise could not afford horse sports, has also been impacted, including being evicted from the permanent dressage stables this month in what the local government later admitted was a mistake caused by a “misunderstanding.”

The latest lawsuit was filed a week ago after the court had rejected similar efforts.

The new suit asks “the court to order the lands returned to their status prior to the commencement of the development activities.” The complete legal filing: Mtn for Leave to Amend Entire

The property had been the original home of the Palm Beach Polo Club. A succession of hurricanes seriously damaged permanent grand stands and the polo fields were no longer used for competition.

Mark Bellissimo, chief executive of Wellington Equestrian Partners that owns PBIEC and the organizing group, ESP, said he is confident the suit will fail as did two similar lawsuits.

“The lawsuit is, however, a dark cloud over our equestrian industry and was no doubt filed to create uncertainty. Simply stated it’s another attack by the Jacobs to prevent a successful, thriving equestrian industry that is attractive and available to all Wellington residents and visitors.”

The Equestrian Forum of Wellington, a group set up to provide a voice for equestrians, said: “It is the responsibility of the council to end this litigation positively and as quickly as possible in a manner that is best for the economic and fiscal welfare of the Village.  To do otherwise is malfeasance.

“The Equestrian Forum will be announcing a plan of action to try to reverse the dangerous course this council has set.”