There’s no question that the competitive highlight of 2018 will be the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C. But show impresario Mark Bellissimo already is looking beyond the September compilation of global championships to other competitions that can be showcased at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.

The man who is also behind Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival never overlooks an opportunity. He sees the WEG, an incredibly ambitious and consuming project in itself, as a curtain-opener for future marquee events at TIEC.

Mark long had an ambition to stage a WEG, talking about it practically from the day in 2007 that he took over the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla. So in 2016, when Bromont dropped out as the venue for the next WEG, he leaped on the opportunity to offer up the 1,600-acre TIEC, which opened in 2014.

The situation didn’t involve much in the way of lead time, but Mark works best under pressure. Don’t forget, he’s the guy who made the Rolex Central Park Horse Show reality, when other experts scoffed for years at the idea a show could be held at that iconic location in Manhattan.

The WEG at TIEC, Mark explained, “will allow us to secure a lot of sponsors who are looking for a longer-term investment in the sport.” He foresees the multi-discipline format of the WEG and its vendor expo as a base for an annual festival going forward. Among his next ambitions for the facility is to host a group of U.S. national championships.

That could play into the desire of U.S. Equestrian Federation President Murray Kessler to elevate the profile of those championships. A first step in that direction is presenting all 14 dressage national championships, from Young and Developing Horses through Grand Prix, at one location. This August, it’s the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Illinois that is hosting the Dressage Festival of Champions. But one of the items on Murray’s radar also is the desire to come up with a meaningful national show jumping championship, something difficult to do in an era when competitions with six-figure purses are offered around the world nearly every week of the year.

The WEG already has sold tickets to residents of all 50 U.S. states and more than 30 countries. Explaining his desire to ride the wave of enthusiasm being created by the WEG, Mark explained, “You don’t want to disappear overnight.”

Unlike most of the WEGs that have been staged since the concept took its first bow as what was supposed to be a “one-off” 28 years ago in Stockholm, the North Carolina version of the event has a base from which to continue building on the WEG excitement. Only Aachen (2006) and Kentucky (2010) had permanent facilities that could benefit from having hosted the WEG.

“There’s an appropriate pressure for us to do a great job and make sure this impression is a good one and (that) people come back and want to do more championships here,” said Mark.

In addition to the FEI titles that will be awarded in eight disciplines, Mark is planning to use evenings at the WEG to showcase audience-friendly versions of traditional sports. One will be Gladiator Polo, already a fixture in the arena at the Wellington showgrounds where the Adequan Global Dressage Festival is held.

Another to be is his new World Speed Horse team competition concept.

“If you want to compete in top (show jumping) sport,” he observed, “you need a multi-million dollar horse, and from my perspective, that’s not a good thing.” While World Speed Horse “won’t replace top sport,” his plans call for the 1.40-meter competition to be highly publicized and promoted to “allow someone passionate about their 1.40-meter horse” to have a major goal.

As Mark pointed out, there are “thousands of 1.40 horses that can compete. The competition will focus on the connection between horse and rider. It’s not going to be moneyball in terms of who can buy the horse that can do 1.60 meters. This is going to open it up to a whole group of aspirational riders.”

And in the broader sense, that’s also his hope for what the 2018 WEG will do for horse sports.

by Nancy Jaffer