While it sounded like a great idea, there was always skepticism that a horse show could ever be held in Central Park, the heart of Manhattan. But Winter Equestrian Festival impresario Mark Bellissimo and his team got it done in 2014, and for four years, the Rolex Central Park Horse Show was an innovative addition to the schedule.
Last year, however, the Central Park fixture was cancelled as Mark and his organization were busy in Tryon, N.C., presenting the FEI World Equestrian Games, which ended just days before the New York show would have gotten under way.
And now this year’s show has suffered the same fate, though Mark vowed that it will return in 2020.
“There are a lot of other events being done simultaneously,” noted Mark, explaining the reason Central Park will not be running in 2019.
A 5-star Global Champions Tour show that will debut in Montreal Sept. 20-22 goes directly against what would have been Central Park’s dates. While there is no conflict in terms of U.S. mileage rules since the show is in Canada, top show jumpers who will be flown over from Europe by GCT also must compete the next weekend at another new GCT 5-star fixture on Governor’s Island off Manhattan. Meanwhile, the week before Montreal, a Longines FEI World Cup qualifier is being held at the American Gold Cup in Westchester County, N.Y., very close to the city.
Running a show at the level of Central Park is costly, especially with the risk of few name riders ending up there because of all the other shows around its dates. Without the big names, sponsors aren’t going to support the show and fans won’t attend.
Tickets for Central Park are expensive, while the Global Tour doesn’t rely on spectators for its finances, which lean on VIPs and buying teams. If potential spectators had a free option a week later in New York, they might have gone to Governor’s Island rather than Central Park.
For 2020, Mark noted, “we’d probably try to coordinate the schedule better. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We want to make it special. Our view is there’s an opportunity to create something.” While typically Mark’s group would spend a few months organizing Central Park, next time “we want to spend a year and some change” working to produce “a quality experience,” he commented.
“We want to be smart about it.”
The Central Park show originally was made possible because of Mark’s relationship with Donald Trump (the two had partnered previously on the Trump Invitational Grand Prix at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach). Trump, whose name was on the rink before he was elected U.S. president in 2016, pitched in and helped the show become reality, only six weeks after approvals for the project were given.
The competition at what is now called the Wollman Rink presented not only top show jumpers, but hunters and high-level dressage competition as well, featuring the world’s number one rider in that discipline, Isabell Werth, for several years.
The show’s highlights during its run included an exhibition by multi-gold dressage medalist Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro in 2016 after the Rio Olympics. An iconic moment came at the end of the evening, as Charlotte went back in the ring so spectators could come in and touch Valegro.
After it became difficult to get the best dressage riders to New York in September because of the way their calendars were arranged, the show switched gears in 2017. Arena eventing substituted for dressage on the schedule, and big names in the sport, including Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, were involved.
Montreal and Governor’s Island—which can only be reached via ferry — may not be permanent fixtures on the GCT calendar, since that organization utilizes many different venues. That could give a boost to Central Park in 2020, the last year of its lease on the Rink.
“I love the setting. It’s a real bucket list experience,” said Mark.
“I’m really going to put my thinking cap on to make that event very special.”
So don’t write off Central Park just yet.