Hear What They Have To Say: Key Players Weigh In on 2019 Winter Equestrian Festival

Wellington, Fla. – Jan. 8, 2019 – A day prior to the 2019 season kickoff of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) and Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF), some of the equestrian industry’s top talent and management came together to address what to expect this year in terms of advancements, changes and the future.  The panel consisted of the following individuals:

Mark Bellissimo – Equestrian Sport Productions President CEO
Liza Boyd – U.S Hunter Rider & Three-Time Champion of Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship
Margie Engle – U.S. Show Jumping Olympian & World Equestrian Games Team Silver Medalist
Tinne Vilhelmson Silfvén – Swedish Dressage Rider & Seven-Time Olympian
Adrienne Sternlicht – U.S. Show Jumping Rider & 2018 World Equestrian Games Team Gold Medalist
Michael Stone – Equestrian Sport Productions President
Anne Caroline Valtin – Great Charity Challenge Director

From left to right, Anne Caroline Valtin, Tinne Vilhelmson Silfvén, Michael Stone, Mark Bellissimo, Adrienne Sternlicht, Liza Boyd and Margie Engle

Here’s what they had to say:

Opening Remarks

Mark Bellissimo: This will be the 40th year of the WEF. It is now the world’s largest equestrian event centered around show jumping, dressage and polo. We’re excited about this year. It looks like based on the pre-WEF competition, we are up considerably in numbers from previous years which is always a great sign. That’s also true of dressage. We also have a record-breaking number of 16 teams in the U.S. Open for polo, which is a record-breaking number. I think that equestrianism is alive and well and we are excited about our future. We are hopeful we will have fantastic weather and a great series of competition over the next 12 weeks.”

Mark Bellissimo

Liza Boyd: There is so much for young horses and for young ponies this year at WEF. There are nine weeks of the USHJA Incentive Program, a good class with great prize money for young hunters, two international derbies – one Hunt-and-Go format and a $50,000 class in the field – three national derbies, which is great for children or adult riders and great exposure for young horses, and then a pony derby and a classic every week for the small, medium and large ponies. It’s great exposure for young horses, riders and the sport. We’re excited for this year.”

Adrienne Sternlicht: “I’ll be using this winter to build my string, taking some pressure off Cristalline. I have a new mare this year who will probably act as my top horse this winter. Her name is Just A Gamble. She just turned ten and I haven’t shown her yet. Tomorrow we will be making our debut. I also have a seven-year-old and he is my pride and joy. I have a bit of depth in my string so I hope to be jumping a lot of WEF and Saturday night grand prix classes, while getting used to these new horses and hopefully looking for a spot in the Pan American teams. It will be somewhat of a building circuit for me.”

Adrienne Sternlicht

Anne Caroline Valtin: “We’re very excited. This year marks our tenth anniversary of the Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments. The event was founded ten years ago by Equestrian Sport Productions, the Bellissimo family and Wellington Equestrian Partners, and to date has distributed $12.2 million to over 230 local non-profits. I’m very lucky I am able to see the impact it has had in the community. It has been absolutely life-changing. This year, we said we would distribute another million and we’ve exceeded that already, and we are four weeks out. We look forward to being able to keep on fundraising and have a great night Saturday, February 2nd.”

Margie Engle: It’s amazing to have 5* events in Wellington. It’s fantastic to have one or two, much less this many and so close to my home. It brings the best riders and competition from all over the world. It’s nice to be competing at that level. It’s really upped the game and those shows are a bit more demanding than the other shows, so you try to save your top horses for those classes. I think it’s just a fantastic thing to have those kinds of events in South Florida. We never had that until just a few years ago. It’s exciting for someone who has grown up here for a long time. I was here when it started all. Just seeing what it’s grown into is amazing and the level of competition is as good as anywhere in the world.”

Margie Engle

Michael Stone: One of the main things we’re concentrating on this year is the footing. We hired the FEI’s world experts to work with us on the ground. The two of them were responsible for the footing at the [FEI World Equestrian] Games™ in Tryon (WEG), which everyone said was the best footing they’d ever jumped on. They’ve analyzed our footing, and we’re working with them to create the same experience here for the riders. One of the challenges we have here is you have so much competition and so many horses, and 12 weeks is a lot of jumping. The biggest issue we’ve discovered was maintenance – we were probably not maintaining it as well as we could do with all the new technology, so we’ve improved the actual mix with felt and fibers, and the way we maintain it. [Our experts] will be there the whole time to answer riders’ questions, [and we have] a scientific way of analyzing the footing, so we can say ‘It is actually hard today, we are going to soften it, or today we’re going to harden it.’ We also have a Rusty Stirrup division now for the older riders just getting going. We’re trying to bring the hunters to everyone.

Questions from the Audience

How do you see the economic impact in the community growing this year and how do you plan to keep that moving forward?

Michael Stone: “If you stand still, you’re dead. We’re not going to stand still. You improve every year by analyzing each year and seeing what was good and what was bad, what we need to improve on. At a simple level, the footing was an issue last year so we’ve addressed that, and now after Tryon we are focused on looking to what we can do to keep people coming here. More and more of the top riders want to come here, and ways we can keep them doing that is improving footing, improving the competition, changing formats. It’s hard to keep people coming if it is exactly the same every time. You need to be innovative, and you need to look at ways of making more interesting competitions and things to make it the equestrian lifestyle destination that we want it to be.”

Michael Stone

Mark Bellissimo: “I think Wellington’s best days are ahead of it. We have systematically, over the past 10 years, put the resources in place to make it very unique and special, with dressage, show jumping and polo, and we are now going to try to cross-fertilize the spectators and the sponsors, and also use each of those events for competitions in each venue. I think next year will be the breakout year for that activity, and you’ll see us trying to reinvent ourselves in 2020 as we focus on the different portfolio products we have. With the WEG, we had a goal of trying to elevate the awareness of the sport, specifically within the USA, and we think that mission was accomplished, with about 4 billion media impressions before, during and after the WEG, and 60 hours of TV coverage. We had millions of unique visitors watching the broadcast, which was unprecedented in this sport. The impact of that is you start attracting a bunch of new sponsors, and we think we will see new sponsors coming into the sport and this show as a direct result of that. We believe the impact of the WEG will end up having a very positive impact on the sport.”

How does WEF, specifically, continue to work promoting the equestrian sport, especially via live stream and other outlets?

Mark Bellissimo: “I think that’s something we have worked on for a number of years. When we first took over the event, the Grand Prix was on Sunday and if you had 1,000 people here it was a good night. We committed to now having those classes on Saturday nights and we have really developed a great following for those events. In general, if you think about sports across the spectrum, there is a huge decline in on-site attendance. I think a lot of sports are rethinking their formats to generate more interest, but the reality is that a lot of the audience and spectator interest is moving toward streaming services and things like that. What’s interesting about equestrian sport, if you look on Facebook, there are 250 million people who have an interest in equine-related activities. It is a very significant group of people, but people have not figured out how to tap into that interest. As an organization, we are continuing to explore ways to do that, and it is going to be through social media and a number of other initiatives that we put forth over the next couple years.” 

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