Tryon Working Round the Clock to Create Disneyland, Phantasialand, Slice of Aachen for World Equestrian Games–Part 1 of 3
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April 25, 2018
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
A round-the-clock effort is underway creating a show place for the World Equestrian Games that is immense and dramatic, almost beyond belief, but compact and horse friendly. Some describe it as Disneyland or Phantasialand, Most find it simply jaw-dropping amazing.
No matter the superlatives or comparison with instantly recognizable global names, with just 20 weeks to the start of global championships of eight international horse sports at Tryon International Equestrian Center these World Games promise to be like no other.
A permanent three-story VIP and media center; a giant covered arena being trebled in size and fully enclosed; a new spectator stand patterned after that of International Polo Club in Wellington, Florida; a hotel; maybe the first ever athletes’ village for the eighth edition of the WEG held once every four years.
Mountains of dirt dug, moved and molded into tracks for four-in-hand driving, cross country eventing and endurance, parking lots and vendor rows–all part of building TIEC at a cost of well above a quarter billion dollars provided by wealthy individuals.
So daring and massive is the creation of the Tryon championship grounds for WEG, that individual elements may grab attention but simultaneous developments across the landscape are almost beyond comprehension.
Despite the immensity, it likely the show grounds will be the most convenient ever for horses, stabled next to the stadiums where they will warm up and compete, as is true for the dozens of dressage and hunter/jumper shows that fill the 1,200 stables in a semi-circle around the competition arenas. More than a dozen restaurants are permanently on the grounds.
Aachen, Germany set the standard at gold when it hosted the WEG in 2006. But it had plenty of practice, staging the world’s best horse show for more than a century. Every year, Aachen hosts the top in dressage, jumping, eventing, driving and vaulting. The main grass stadium with seating for 40,000 spectators and the dramatic Deutsche Bank dressage stadium are icons to equestrian excellence.
If most of what’s underway in Tryon is completed by Sept. 11–and many folks are holding their collective breath, but few are betting against success as Mark Bellissimo’s decade-long run in Wellington has shown–Tryon may set a new standard.
Take the assessment of Dr. Dennis Peiler, managing director of the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sport (DOKR): “Huge and yet compact, a small village in the middle of nothing, with great accommodation for the horses, great training and competition conditions–a mixture of Aachen, Lexington and Phantasialand.” (Phantasialand is a popular theme park near Cologne.)
Or as put by Adrienne Lyle, a 2012 Olympian for the United States and a prospect for the American WEG team on one of her three Grand Prix mounts: “It’s like driving into Disneyland. It’s so well thought out for spectators, riders, from the horse’s point of view. Someone’s really thought this through.”
That “someone” is Mark Bellissimo, a 56-year-old entrepreneur of American derring-do style who views impossibilities as obstacles to be overcome. A mountain in the way? Move it. A government doesn’t share the vision, which is what happened in Wellington, Florida. Go elsewhere to fulfill the dream, in this case, Tryon.
How did the World Equestrian Games that is among the top billed events on the global calendar for 2018 with an estimated half million visitors expected to be be drawn to “the middle of nothing” over two weeks in September instead of the 1976 Olympic venue in Bromont, outside Montreal? The Canadian group didn’t have the resources on their own and couldn’t get politicians to have taxpayers foot the bills.
When Mark heard in July, 2016 of the end of Bromont as a WEG host, he asked Michael Stone, his executive and operational partner for more than a decade, whether he thought Tryon should apply as a replacement. With a wealth of experience organizing top sport including secretary general of International Equestrian Federation (FEI), and coincidentally who had gone through a similar situation in Dublin which had to pull out because of a lack of financial support so the 1998 Games were moved to Rome, Michael’s response was clear..
“That’s crazy,” Mark recalls the answer by Michael.
“So I said, ‘Let’s do it’.”
Then he asked what he thought the chances were of Rolex, that has naming rights to Tryon as it does in Wellington and at the annual Central Park Horse Show also operated by Mark’s group, to step aside so Longines could be named as title sponsor as the prime FEI commercial underwriter.
“I don’t think so,” Mark again recalls the answer, adding: “Michael is the voice of reason, that’s why we work so well together.”
Mark flew to Switzerland and got Rolex to agree to step aside for the sake of the sport, while maintaining naming rights for Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Global Dressage and Winter Equestrian Festivals and New York’s Central Park.
Michael Stone’s opinion: “The funniest thing is working with Mark, you never know what’s coming out of his mouth.”
Like so much in America and throughout its history, individuals are paying the bills.
In addition to Mark and Michael, the organizing team includes Eric Straus, a life-long horseman and highly respected for his deep involvement in the highest levels of event and business management, and Sharon Decker, a former North Carolina government official who has been vital to building relationships with governments, businesses and communities across the Carolinas that provide much needed support.
The biggest factor in Eric’s experience so far, “Is watching the dream come true, and watching it literallyhappen before my own eyes.”
The horse park is on almost 1,700 acres (688ha) of spectacularly beautiful and largely unspoiled land in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina.
Turning a part of the country with high unemployment and few opportunities into an international horse sport destination became a mission for Mark Bellissimo, along with his team and Katherine, his high school sweetheart who became his wife and mother of their four children, and is active in the venture as well as a partner in the ownership group.
Tryon was the last hope of the Lausanne, Switzerland-based FEI to salvage the WEG, the championships of dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining, vaulting and para dressage that has endured a checkered history since the first combined championships in 1990.
Laura Graves, who with her Verdades is the top American rider on the world rankings at No. 5, came to Tryon for the first time in the past few days to see where she could be competing for the United States in less than five months.
“So glad that I found a day to come and see Tryon!” she texted dressage-news.com. “It is like no other equestrian venue in the world.
“Shopping and restaurants for people plus, most importantly, absolute luxury accommodations for the horses.
“It is an incredible vision–you don’t need to leave the facility for anything! We should be so proud to host the World Games at this venue and can’t wait for September!”
Part 2: What’s Building at Tryon to Prepare for the Big Show–the World Equestrian Games–in September.