Monday, March 12, 2018

Letter from Wellington

by Holly Peterson

People in New York may have heard of a big horse competition in Florida that riders attend in winter. Some may know it’s in Wellington. Almost no one outside the horse world understands much of what goes on this horse capital of the world.

Mark and Katherine Bellissimo.
What started as a small competition in a couple of rings around thirty years ago, now has blown up into the largest and longest horse show on Earth. It’s called the Winter Equestrian Festival, and it's the brainchild of businessman and entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo. I’ve met him several times; he’s polite and driven. His wife Katherine is elegant in that Ricky Lauren mold of long, sandy hair and beautiful face. Their daughters, Nicole and Paige, are excellent riders.

They have to be, not because their parents took over and developed most of what is Wellington today, but because the top riders, including those on national and Olympic teams, flock here for 12 weeks to test themselves and their animals against the best riders in the world. There are dozens of divisions battling each week from Wednesday to Friday, some for four-year-olds up to adults.

Palm Beach International Equestrian Center is a complex of 13 rings, with over 7500 horses and 2500 riders. Families own spectacular homes lining the rings that mirror the great estates south of the highway in Southampton, if not quite in price. Dan and Ellen Crown, the Gates, the Jobs, and the Springsteens own homes a golf cart distance away from the rings.
Exquisite barns and stables also surround the competition rings, mahogany and bougainvillea covered buildings that look more like Napa Vineyards than an edifice for a horse to sleep. For those who can’t afford a fancy stable for their prized pets, there are hundreds of temporary tenting grounds.

Some winners are judged on their equitation style while guiding a horse around 14 jumps with hair pin turns, others on the graceful and steady stride of their animals over eight jumps, and in other divisions it’s all speed without knocking over a rail.
Ready for action ...
Riders also compete in adjacent polo grounds against equally top-notch teams, or in the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival for dressage superstars (and best friends) like PJ Rizvi and Ashley Holzer.

I’ve moved here for twelve weeks because my daughter Eliza is a competitive rider in three divisions. We pulled her out of “normal” school and put her into a school for professional athletes, musicians, and artists of all kinds — all for whom a “normal” school schedule does not compute for performances and competitions.

Besides the fact that I’m scared of horses, I have trouble understanding what they’re actually judging. Every Saturday night in Wellington, there is a must-watch show with a winning purse worth up to half a million dollars.

Sam and Libby Edelman with Pro Rider Spencer Smith.
For the ignoramus in me, this past Saturday night at the glamorous $150,000 Nations Cup event in the International Ring, I asked pro rider Spencer Smith to play Howard Cossell live for me.

Spencer Smith is an up and coming US show jumper who competes all over this country, Canada, and Europe and takes his horses over 14 to 20 different 1m60 jumps, usually in less than the 75 or so seconds allowed. His parents, Ken and Emily Smith, from Ashland Farms, are widely known as some of the very best trainers here.

This sport is the only competitive Olympic sport where age and sex don’t matter. You heard that right: men and women compete against each other in every division. For most adult classes here in Wellington you can see 17-year-old Lucy Deslauriers going up right after 72-year-old Ian Miller.

I found it particularly timely that is this #metoo era, the United States team this week at Saturday night’s Nation’s Cup CSIO 4*, presented by U.S. Trust Bank of America Merrill Lynch was represented by four women. Four women were simply the four best American riders of all ages and sexes who made the team.

Leylan Gleeson, a professional rider and trainer told me, “There is no discrepancy between men and women now, it’s about the drive these girls and women have — they don’t let anything, especially their gender, get in the way.”
Sam Reid and his accomplished equestrienne daughter Chloe Reid. Pro Rider Leylan Gleeson.
Serena Marron, daughter of Catie and Don, and who jumps too high for me to look, told me, “The fact that we can put together a team of all women is fantastic for our country right at this moment. I like being competitive with men.”

For the Nation’s Cup with our all women team, the mood under the International Club tent was exciting as hundreds of horsey people ate lamb roast and sipped wine and whiskey.

Barry Sternlicht, whose daughter Adrienne made the Nation’s Cup team this year told me, “It’s total butterflies to watch her. That’s all I can say. I can talk in front of 3000 people and be less nervous than I am right now.”
Night time at Nations Cup ...
The designer Sam Edelman was sitting with his wife Libby, and explains that he’s bought and sold over 1300 horses in his career and that he rode competitively from age 10 to 55. “It give me the basis of everything I create and do. This world is the classic, thoroughbred, elegant style combined with modern fashion. It’s not just me, it’s Ralph Lauren, Hermès, and others.”

Spencer Smith told me what riders experience when jumping over high and wide jumps. To me, the horses look like rabbits suspended in mid air over an SUV.  “For the single tall vertical rails, you guide the horse in slower so you can put together a powerful small stride at the critical jump off point, much like letting a spring loose. For the wider double rails, you have to be moving super fast so your pace will carry us over in the shape of a rainbow.”
Pro Rider Spencer Smith (far left) and friends Matt Bellissimo, Gates Gridley, Tommy Quecuty, and Max Cohen.
Barry Sternlicht, father of Adrienne Sternlicht, who was on the Nations Cup team, with Avery Bourke.
Sam Reid and friend feeling very American in support of all women's American team.
Even the socks!
In the end Saturday night, our team of Lillie Keenan, the Harvard Spence star, Cat Tyree, from Chicago, Adrienne Sternlicht, Brown University grad and competitive skier, and finally 53-year-old superstar Beezie Madden, two time Olympic gold medalist — could not bring home first place. That honor went to Team Great Britain. In any case, the crowds cheered the Americans most loudly as our women bravely sailed over those jumps, about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide.

They looked Super-heroines on flying rabbits to me.
Just how high they go ...
Onto the money and horses issue. People always assume horse riding competitively is very expensive. That it is. There are certainly a lot of wealthy families involved at all levels. It’s fun, and can be glamorous. You can travel the world and FedEx your horses from competitions in Dubai to Shanghai if you want. No joke.

But, a few things to remember for those not in the horse world: the rich girls on the fancy horses often don’t win, and, the working kids who could never afford their own horse often do. These kids toil in the barns training other peoples’ horses to become great champions. These working kids end up doing just that in the ring ... they turn the unlikely, literal dark horse into another Seabiscuit story, a newly valuable animal on the market because they rode it so well in the ring when it counted, often besting the horse someone spent a fortune on.

Sport is sport, and, at this level in Wellington, it’s very competitive. You can’t put someone with a learner’s permit behind a million dollar racing car and expect that they will win the Indianapolis 500. Same deal with the horses. Money helps, but only so far. We all know money is not a guarantee of happiness. Money is also not a guarantee of a blue ribbon in a ring up against 60 of the best, most dogged and fierce competitors in the world.
There are also generous sponsorships by brands such as Rolex, Hermès, H&M, and Land Rover that support the better riders and pay for their worldwide travels. The sponsors do great work to even the financial playing field.

So, there are many ways to compete here without family money or a last name like Gates. People say Georgina Bloomberg did it all with so much money. Well, I say she is one of America’s most decorated riders and regularly goes faster than 50 riders in center ring on Saturdays. Safe to say her father has kicked some ass in business and politics, maybe, just maybe, she got those kick-ass genes too.

But those riders on super pricey animals who don’t have natural talent, whether they are aged four or in middle age, will never win consistently in Wellington against the best in our country and in the world. To do that, you have to have serious chops and bravery inside your soul and heart, not just a deep wallet in a parent or spouse’s pocket.

And so, when the ribbons are placed and the silver cups thrust in the air here at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, remember that God is a big fan of come-from-behind champions, and capable of making sure they win plenty here. And from the sidelines, as the unlikely winners get pinned with a blue ribbon, I know that God is always watching above ... and she’s smiling on the ring.