Face of USA Dressage Changed by Florida’s Global Festival Entering 5th Year–Part 1 of 2

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Packed spectator stands during Friday night Freestyle competition at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Packed spectator stands during Friday night Freestyle competition at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Dec. 26, 2015–Heading into the Olympic year, the changed face of United States dressage will be highlighted when the Adequan Global Dressage celebrates five years of competitions that have moved the sport to heights not previously seen in the Americas and luring a growing number of Europeans to cross the Atlantic for winter.

With a little over two months remaining for Olympic qualifying, seven of the 27 events on the global calendar to meet the deadline of March 6 to earn a start at Rio de Janeiro are on the schedule for Wellington’s lineup of seven weeks of international competitions with a world leading total of almost $700,000 in prize money.

Top ranked CD5* and CDI4* events, four World Cups and the only Nations Cup outside Europe make up seven weeks of CDIs that in 2014 saw the number of entries in international classes repeatedly break records, exceeding 1,600 rides for the season.

The United States has already earned its start in the Rio team competition but Canada is looking to claim two more individual places to the one it won at the Pan Ams so it can join the lineup of teams while the Dominican Republic’s Yvonne Losos de Muñiz will be competing to hold on to her lead as an individual for South America.

Other prospective Olympians may also join American riders looking to make the U.S. team.

The same organizers of the Global circuit are expanding international dressage competitions outside Florida, including the first CDI3* at the newly created multi-million dollar show grounds in Tryon, North Carolina next April and hosting the North American Junior & Young Rider Championships amidst a growing jumper/hunter circuit in Colorado. That’s in addition to dressage at the Central Park Horse Show in the heart of New York City that has become a world renowned event since being launched two years ago.

The Tryon Interntional Equestrian Center main arena. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
The Tryon Interntional Equestrian Center main arena. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

To give perspective to the impact of the creation of Global at the Stadium complex that’s part of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the year before the circuit was launched in 2012, not one of the 25 international dressage shows in the U.S. were organized by Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP) put together by Wellington-based entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo with groups of owners.

A total of five CDIs were in Florida, none in Wellington that is the world’s leading destination in winter for the largest and longest running jumper and hunter Winter Equestrian Festival also at the Palm Beach show grounds, as well as the biggest series of polo tournaments second only to Argentina.

The 20i6 Olympic year lists 10 of the 25 events on the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) calendar for the United States–more than any other nation–at show grounds owned by Mark Bellissimo’s groups.

Global hosted its first championship in December when the U.S. Grand Prix and Intermediaire championships presented by the Dutta Corp were staged in Wellington for the first time. Despite lackluster promotion by the U.S. Equestrian Federation that owns the event, spectators that typically pack Global’s Friday night Freestyles under lights during the winter showed up in larger numbers than at the traditional championship home in Gladstone, New Jersey.

South Florida’s dressage circuit was formed more than three decades ago with shows in relatively rustic Loxahatchee, a neighboring community to Wellington.  A handful of dressage shows shared space with the Winter Equestrian Festival which at the time was spread over weeks and not months.

When ESP took over the Wellington show grounds and competitions in 2007, the Florida dressage circuit had become significant but still driven mostly by riders based in northern states fleeing brutal winters. Not too dissimilar to European winter circuits in Spain and southern France.

2010 CDI5* Palm Beach victory gallop by Isabell Werth on Satchmo, Anky van Grunsven on Salinero and Steffen Peters on Ravel. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
2010 CDI5* Palm Beach victory gallop by Isabell Werth on Satchmo, Anky van Grunsven on Salinero and Steffen Peters on Ravel. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Except, a more stable sub-tropical climate, literally abutting Everglades National Park; a half hour from beaches and deep sea fishing; resort hotels, restaurants, museums, art galleries and theaters; the Americas crossroads and hub of sports powerhouses like the Heat in Miami an hour away and add another hour to the theme parks of Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and a thrill matched by few other events, witnessing the launch of spacecraft from Cape Canaveral (and as of this month returning to Earth).

ESP undertook a major rebuilding costing several tens of millions of dollars, and expanded the jumper circuit to 12 weeks from six weeks, a template that was to be adopted years later in creating the Global circuit. Initial efforts to squeeze in dressage–including staging the first top level CDI5* events ever in the Western Hemisphere in 2009 and 2010–had mixed results and dressage was dropped from the Wellington calendar in 2011.

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Ground breaking for the new dressage facility at Florida’s Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Village of Wellington Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, Darell Bowen, mayor at the time, Mark Bellissimo, chief executive of Equestrian Sport Productions and Wellington Equestrian Partners, and Robert Dover, six-time Olympian. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Global was founded on the polo fields that were the original equestrian heart of Wellington where Britain’s Prince Charles played while his then-wife, Princess Diana, looked on and where WEF was first held in the parking lot more than three decades earlier.

An ambitious effort to build a condominium hotel, a cluster of permanent equestrian-themed boutiques, coffee and snack shops and wine bars alongside the dressage grounds ran into opposition from an unexpected quarter, the wealthy owners of a nearby farm some of whose family members compete in jumpers, none in dressage. The family launched a vitriolic but unsuccessful drive with a local gossip columnist and press agent their mouthpiece to block ESP from taking over the licenses for the WEF shows at the grounds ESP had acquired.

When ESP created Global, the family re-launched opposition, financing to the tune of $600,000 an election campaign that succeeded in winning a majority of three candidates to the five-member council that controls Wellington’s government with the same gossip columnist and press agent their public face.

Approvals already granted for the hotel and other commercial developments were pulled. Construction of what were to be 400 permanent stables were cut to 200, a permanent VIP club was blocked and remains a tent. Shows were initially limited to just a few months a year and access was limited to a single entryway and exit on to a one-way road. And although the Grand Prix Freestyles under lights on Friday night were filling the stands with spectators the local government ordered early lights out.

Competitors and spectators from around the world voted with their feet and hooves. Some of the restrictions have since been lifted but the majority of the local council is still hostile to the dressage facility.

The schedule of Global events that began with about $250,000 in prize money the first year is now up to almost $700,000 five years later.

Dressage riders representing 30 countries from Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Australasia now make Wellington their winter home to compete in the CDIs at all levels as well as the international amateur division that was launched first in Wellington two years ago.

The VIP pavilion has become so popular that it’s being expanded in 2016.

More Californians are making their way to Wellington despite an effort to improve the Southern California winter shows under the California Dreaming Productions’ banner.

Like other long established CDIs throughout the United States, however, international competitions in California are World Cup qualifiers and 3*s–no 4* or 5* events with big purses and no Nations Cups that are used to upgrade formats for the Pan American Games, a continental Olympic qualifying championship.

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The 2015 Nations Cup medals podium with United States gold, Canada 1 silver and Canada 2 bronze. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The United States has already earned its start in the Rio team competition but Canada is looking to claim two more individual places to the one it won at the Pan Ams so it can send join the teams while the Dominican Republic’s Yvonne Losos de Muñiz will be competing to hold on to her lead as an individual for South America.

Part 2: Opponents still seeking to tear down Global Dressage Festival grounds, but are staging own jumper show almost next door