Is Wellington the dark horse in the race for WEG 2018?

Donald Trump, Cassadee Pope, and Mark Bellissimo.
Mark Bellissimo, right, pictured with Donald Trump and Cassadee Pope after a charity jumping event at Trump’s property in Palm Beach in January. © Sportfot

It would be easy to assume that the World Equestrian Games (WEG) would be biggest horse show to hit pretty much any town.

Think again. It transpires that WEG would bring considerably fewer horses and riders to town than the hugely popular Wellington-based Winter Equestrian Festival, in Palm Beach County, Florida.

There are three potential venues in the frame for hosting the Games in 2018 – Bromont, Canada; Lexington, Kentucky; and Wellington.

I must confess that I assumed Bromont, which is in Montreal, and Lexington, would have been the frontrunners for a couple of very simple reasons.

The FEI Bureau threw open the bidding process for a second time at the start of July after the last candidate standing in the first round, Bromont, had been unable to provide the full public sector financial support the FEI required before granting the hosting rights.

Bromont remains in the running and, given that everything else about its original bid was clearly satisfactory, it would seem that it has just one more hurdle to clear- albeit a fairly substantial one – before ticking all the boxes.

Lexington would also appear to have an advantage, given that it hosted the Games in 2010, meaning much of the infrastructure is already in place.

Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Checkmate 4
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Checkmate 4 during Wellington’s Winter Equestrian Festival last year. © Sportfot

Wellington, through Mark Bellissimo’s company, Equestrian Sport Productions, had its hat in the ring for the 2018 Games in the first round, but withdrew over differences with the Wellington Village Council.

So, could Wellington swing it this time round?

It would seem so, and the main reason is its proven ability to handle the Winter Equestrian Festival.

The festival attracts about 5500 horses overall, with a peak of about 2800 horses in one week. By comparison, WEG will draw about 850 horses over two weeks.

The 2014 winter festival runs for 12 weeks from January 8, based at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. It draws riders from pretty much every US state, and competitors from 30 or more other countries.

While it is too early to say that all differences have been put to bed with the local council, the evidence would suggest the path is looking smoother.

Firstly, the Wellington backers met an important mid-November deadline to submit a formal bid applications and questionnaires to the FEI. This came after a late-October meeting between representatives of Equestrian Sport Productions and the Wellington council to discuss hosting the Games.

While the council has yet to declare its formal position on a Games bid, it would seem it hasn’t been dismissive of the company’s vision.

It transpires that the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, which underwent a $US20 million upgrade in recent years, and Wellington’s Equestrian Village have pretty much all the infrastructure between them that would be needed to host the Games.

Bellissimo told late in October that, in his view, Wellington was uniquely qualified as a venue for the Games.

Wellington, Florida is back in the frame to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
Wellington, Florida is back in the frame to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

“We wanted to open a discussion with [the village] to see if there is an interest in pursuing a bid,” he told the website.

“There is no requirement that we have a collaboration with the village, but we believe it will be more successful if it’s a collaborative effort.”

Palm Beach County could easily provide the facilities and venues for the eight events that make up a World Games – showjumping, dressage, reining, eventing, endurance, driving, vaulting and para-equestrian competition.

Bellissimo explaind that showjumping and dressage would be held at their respective venues, with reining and vaulting in  the Equestrian Village’s covered arena.

It transpires that course designer Mark Phillips had been to Wellington and had mapped out an eventing cross-country course using nearby golf courses and local bridle paths.

Driving and endurance competitions could use a similar course, Bellisimo said.

It also transpires that, between the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and Wellington’s Equestrian Village, there are already nearly enough permanent stalls to accommodate the 850 horses that would arrive for the World Games.

Bellissimo pointed to the $US233 million economic benefit that the 2010 Games produced for Kentucky, let alone the 500,000-plus spectators who watched over the two-week Games period.

The television audience was put at 405 million.

So, with such significant infrastructure already in place, the investment needed to host the Games in Florida would pale against any city that needed to build most of the facilities.

Documents on the Wellington council website show the council has been sounded out for its view on the Games bid.

Just where it stands may become clearer on December 2, when the FEI is scheduled to enter the “Candidate phase”, when the world governing body for equestrian sports will formally announce the candidates. Potential hosts then have until March 31 to make remaining required submissions and provide a signed host agreement.

The path to WEG 2018 is already littered with abandoned bids.

Whether this bid for a 2018 host ends with a three-way photo-finish in front of the FEI Bureau, or another round of scratchings, remains to be seen.

At this stage, on my reading, the form book is not showing a clear favourite.


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