Several hundred riders, trainers and prominent owners packed The Gallery event space on the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center showgrounds on Thursday, March 31 as Mark Bellissimo and Michael Stone held an open meeting with the facility’s ownership group of Wellington Equestrian Partners to address concerns about the Winter Equestrian Festival’s growth and future plans.

During this year’s 12-week winter circuit, riders have been increasingly vocal about issues such as footing, parking, barn and riding space and general overcrowding. The meeting gave Bellissimo an opportunity to address all of those concerns and more.

Of great significance towards WEP’s ability to accommodate growth issues, which Bellissimo stressed several times, was the recent mayoral changeover in the village of Wellington and how the previous electorate acted deliberately over the last four years to prevent improvement and growth of WEF.

Michael Stone, Mark Bellisimo and Hunter Harrison.
Michael Stone, Mark Bellisimo and Hunter Harrison.

“While we’ve collected a lot of feedback in the past, it’s been very challenging for us to operate as a business in what was a very difficult environment for us,” Bellissimo stated. “We were fighting and scrambling just to get base permits to operate the venue. By the time we ended the circuit and had the feedback, and then tried to obtain the permit to execute that feedback, we would be into December.”

However, with the transition to an electorate that supports the equestrian industry, Bellissimo made it clear that he feels the process to improve and develop the three venues owned by WEP will be much smoother.

The Third Venue
That third location is the recently purchased, 248-acre International Polo Club, which lies just a few miles down the road from PBIEC. Bellissimo stressed in no uncertain terms that the high goal polo season would remain in place via a contract with the United States Polo Association, which is currently held through 2017.

However, in addition to maintaining the sport of polo at IPC, Bellissmo confirmed that plans to also put the property into use as a hunter/jumper showgrounds were being developed. He anticipates a mid-June release of detailed information on what those plans will be.

Developing IPC to hold hunter/jumper competition and further development of the Global Dressage Festival property to also allow more show jumping competition on its Stadium grass field at the corner of South Shore and Pierson Road, are anticipated.

“We believe for the first time we can solve these issues before the next cycle of WEF,” Bellissimo attested. “We’re very eager to get as much feedback as we can so when people return next year, we’ll have a facility that is much better equipped. Our strategy is to get as much feedback as we can, and package that into an operating plan that we’ll release this summer.”

In the front row of the crowded room sat Rodrigo Pessoa, Laura Kraut and Nick Skelton, all Olympic Gold Medalists and all intensely interested, along with many other top riders in attendance, in ensuring that their concerns were heard.

The issue of overcrowding at WEF, from the stabling to the high numbers of entries, has been a sore spot for riders this season. In addition to confirming that IPC would hold ESP competition, Bellissmo announced several strategies to address that issue. For example, in 2017, Ring 8 will no longer be used for competition but will be open for riding.

A large crowd packed the room.
A large crowd packed the room.

Division of classes is also being looked at, in order to improve the on average 140 entries that the 1.40m and A/O jumper classes attracted, where even a California split has 80 entries per section. Nick Skelton asked about the possibility of adding a lower starred FEI division in order to alleviate FEI entries.

“We will be doing two star, five star splits next year, how many is really the question,” Bellissimo responded. “Our intention is to offer as many levels and classes as we can to riders, and adding a two star would alleviate the pressure.”

The eastern end of the showgrounds will also be improved, with three to four practice rings added along with specific trainer compounds. That and development of 40th street to the south of PBIEC to add an additional entrance, and more parking, will help improve overcrowded conditions.

“In a world where we were constrained and our options were limited, we can now pull permits and put our plans into action fairly quickly,” Bellissimo added. “For three years we wanted to fix the area where stabling tents 12 – 16 are. We were told that we couldn’t get the permits to do that. When [the former] council took over, the first thing they did was take away the rights to hold shows at Global Dressage. Then they came to [WEF] and did the same thing. That turned it into a yearly process for permission to hold shows. At every step in the process, they wanted to trigger things and force us to reopen the conditional use permit.”

A Footing Makeover
Even though the footing at PBIEC was replaced two years ago, this season it’s been the subject of frequent complaints by riders, specifically the footing in the International Ring. In response ESP plans to completely replace the footing in the International Ring this summer, and to examine the footing in all other rings as well, including in the FEI stabling.

“It’s absolutely critical for us as a partnership and organization that we have the best footing in the world here,” Bellissimo stated. “We know there have been concerns there and we want to address them head on so that when people come back next year we’ve addressed the footing issues.”

Bellissimo stressed that footing is the organization’s number one priority as it relates directly to the health and safety of the horse and rider.

Developing a better system to improve conditions in the international ring schooling area is also on the table. Several riders spoke up to note that dangerous moments are common in that arena, and encouraged a different traffic flow in and out, as well as perhaps a secondary schooling area that feeds to the main schooling area.

In an effort to share the perspective of a founding partner, Wellington Equestrian Partners member Hunter Harrison sat onstage with Bellissimo and Stone.

“Mark challenged me to be part of the solution,” Harrison said. “This could be a world class second to no one facility, if we want to pull together as a community and do it the right way. I said to Mark, I’ll work with you as a non-salaried employee to try to add the expertise that I can. I do have some experience around the world in other facilities.”

Fundamental to WEP’s improvement plan is and was the political climate in town, and “given the obstacles [that were] in our way, our fundamental view is we have the pathway now,” Bellissimo said. “We don’t have two hands tied behind our back and a grenade thrown in front of us every step.”

In that vein, Bellissimo strongly encouraged feedback from everyone who has an opinion about WEF, and he pledged to read every single comment and email that he received.

“We encourage everyone to offer up their insight. It’s easy to bitch about things, it’s harder to solve problems,” Bellisimo added. “To the extent that you have ideas and don’t send us an email or don’t send us the form, shame on you. And if we get 100 requests and there are 20 that we can do and we don’t do them, shame on us.”

With that, Bellissimo made it clear that he was both challenging those inside the Wellington Equestrian Partners, and those outside the partnership to expand, evolve, and improve for the better so that WEF can become a venue for equestrian sports that truly is, second to none in the world.