Ocala’s World Equestrian Center, Amazing Horse Show “City” of Disneyland Style with Touch of Gucci
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
OCALA, Florida, Oct. 5, 2020–The World Equestrian Center opening in three months is an amazing horse show city of a size unmatched anywhere that the family building it is taking a leaf out of the customer-friendly culture of Disney World about an hour away but adding a touch of Gucci.
More than 2,000 permanent horse stalls in concrete climate-controlled buildings, four indoor arenas also climate-controlled each one almost twice the size of the Wellington’s Van Kampen covered arena and at least that many more to come, two outdoor Grand Prix rings with stadium seating, another 17 open air outdoor competition rings.
A five-star hotel, 278 recreational vehicle spaces with full hookups, a permanent veterinary center, a gasoline filling station, 11 restaurants with a bakery to make their own hot dog buns among other treats, horse feed store, a grocery. And six electric generating plants to keep the lights and air handling equipment on in lightning-prone Florida. And a chapel with a full-time chaplain.
Roby Roberts, chief executive of the family’s privately owned businesses from the trucking fleet to several coastal resorts and the horse show grounds, said the enterprises employ about 14,000 people.
“When people come here,” he explained of the show grounds that are on 4,000 acres/1,620 Ha., “it’s not our showgrounds–it’s theirs. The quality will be different than Wellington. Wellington seems to wrap itself around the higher end. We’re going to be higher end but we’re going to wrap ourselves around all the people.
“We’re blessed that my daughter has horses to ride, but not everyone is that way. It’s for everybody not just for people who can ride top horses. We will try to have classes so that everyone can feel comfortable.
“That’s our goal. Hopefully we can achieve that. We try to be more Disney World than Vegas. Wellington is Vegas. I look at us as Disney World with a Gucci section.
“Everybody feels comfortable with Disney World. You come in smiling and it makes you feel happy.”
The Ocala show grounds are the fulfillment of the passion for equestrian sports of the family of Ralph L. “Larry” Roberts who in 1965 bought a single truck to haul furniture and grew it to become a fleet of 21,000 tractors and trailers based in Wilmington, Ohio. The family created a World Equestrian Center in Wilmington first–600 climate-controlled horse stalls and four indoor arenas as well as three outdoor competition rings. From that experience and lots of figuring out what works best and doesn’t at horse shows has become WEC in Ocala.
The results of an investment of a reported half-billion dollars will be on display when WEC launches with its first horse show Jan. 5, a 12-week hunter/jumper circuit that includes two 3* events and the official calendar lists a provisional 5* jumper Nations Cup, competing head-to-head with the long-established HITS Ocala events. Another four international jumper events are on the calendar for the remainder of the year.
Three national dressage events will be held over the winter, one each in January, February and March with CDI competitions scheduled for April 15-18, Oct. 21-24 and Dec. 9-12 with last two possibly becoming World Cup qualifiers.
Already sold out with a long waiting list are the more than 2,000 climate-controlled horse stalls–1,380 measuring 12 ft./3.65m x 14 ft./4.26m and 660 12 ft./3.65m x 12 ft./3.65m.
Alongside the show grounds is Golden Ocala, a luxury community set of 1,200 acres/485 ha. with championship 18-hole golf course, tennis, state-of-the-art spa and fitness center and a large club house.
Condominiums and 300 farm estates of three acres/1.2 ha. are also being offered in what is called World Equestrian Estates beside the show grounds.
Ocala is one of five communities in the world–four in the U.S. and one in France–that have the right to call themselves “Horse Capital of the World,” based on the size of the horse business. In the case of Ocala an estimated 44,000 jobs are sustained by breeding, training, and related support of the equine industry, which generates over $2.2 billion in annual revenue. That has been due until now mostly to the Thoroughbred business that moved to the rolling hills of pastures with the same type of “bluegrass” in Lexington, Kentucky and Newmarket, England right after World War II.
For several years, hunter-jumper acitvities in Ocala have been centered in winter at the HITS or “Horses in the Sun” grounds that has a winter competition schedule.
Wellington’s Palm Beach International Equestrian Center four hours south on Florida’s Turnpike with its three months of Global Dressage and Winter Equestrian festivals of hunter/jumpers from January to April and many more weeks of shows throughout the rest of the year is the most famous American circuit. The show grounds sprawl over 500 acres/202 ha. centered around the main grounds where WEF founder Gene Mische moved the show after holding competitions in the parking lot of a polo field beginning in 1979. That circuit grew into one of the largest and longest running equestrian events in the world. A new ownership group took over in 2007 and the Global Dressage Festival added five years later on the polo field where it all began and improvements in facilities and prize money brought growing numbers of Europeans and many from Ocala.
The Wellington show grounds are in the midst of major refurbishment, upgraded footing in the main hunter-jumper arenas with the Global grounds on the schedule for a do-over. A local government opposed to horse show development despite the industry’s size and its unique characteristics killed efforts for expanded permanent stabling, VIP dining and hotels and condominiums.
Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, another 7 1/2 hours further north from Ocala, was created by the same management as Wellington and hosted the 2018 World Equestrian Games. It hosts all the International Equestrian Federation disciplines–dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining, vaulting and para dressage as well as polo and steeplechase in its 13 all-weather competition rings, an indoor arena that seats 5,000 and more than 1,400 permanent stalls.
Europe’s premier event at Aachen, Germany that began 120 years ago is nowhere near as large but every year is about as close as it gets to being a world championships in practice if not name of jumping in the 40,000-seat main stadium, dressage, the 6,300-seat Deutsche Bank stadium or eventing, driving and vaulting. In 2019, the 10-day event attracted 368,500 paying spectators.
While Ocala has not had the same cachet as Wellington, its location has close-by attractions.
Disney World is just over an hour away in Orlando that along with Tampa straight south offer a variety of theme parks and numerous pro sports teams such as the NBA Orlando Magic, 2020 NHL Stanley Cup champions Tampa Lightning, NFL Tampa Bay Bucaneers, Major League Baseball Tampa Bay Rays and major league men’s and women’s soccer teams.