It became obvious to organizers early in May that the only alternative to a Covid cancellation for October’s Pennsylvania National (Oct. 8-17), Washington International (Oct. 20-25) and National (Oct. 23-Nov. 1) horse shows would involve making major changes in how these historic fixtures are presented.
The principals of the three U.S. shows on the North American Fall Indoor Circuit came together to determine how they could be staged, with managers, executive directors and officers talking daily about bringing “indoors” outdoors, where the virus is less viable. And they came up with solutions that keep the shows on the calendar.
“If we had all been working separately, we probably wouldn’t be having horse shows,” Washington International president Vicki Lowell believes.
The Royal Horse Show at Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the final show on the circuit, was cancelled a month ago. But the outdoor option, which chilly Canada lacks in November, gave U.S. organizers another avenue to pursue.
The 4-star Washington International, pending FEI approval, and 3-star Pennsylvania National are moving to the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, while the 4-star National Horse Show will remain at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Teamwork was key to finding answers. “The trust that was built up among these three horse shows…was very wonderful,” said Vicki, who works as the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s chief marketing and content officer.
“Our goal was to put on the safest show that we could with the highest odds of success. That’s how we made this decision.”
The shows’ representatives looked at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Equestrian Village (home of the Global Dressage Festival) in Wellington, Florida as a possible venue. That choice was scuttled due to a sponsor conflict, because it is a Rolex facility and the grands prix at Washington and the National are Longines FEI World Cup™ qualifiers.
Then National Horse show manager Michael Morrissey suggested Tampa, a place he knows well.
For many years, the Tampa fairgrounds on Florida’s west coast were the site of shows after Wellington’s Winter Equestrian Festival, under the banner of Stadium Jumping Inc. Michael, formerly Stadium Jumping’s CEO of operations, ran the shows.
As Vicki pointed out, the site is horse-friendly and there are lots of motels and an airport nearby. It also has the advantage of being “somewhere new and fresh and different that the horses haven’t seen.”
The Penn National and Washington are going to run consecutively at the Tampa showgrounds, which underwent enhancements in 2018. The facility has plenty of acreage for social distancing. It may even be possible to offer hospitality in the pavilion between the main and covered arenas, where there is room to spread out tables. In addition to being an amenity for exhibitors and sponsors, the ability to have a VIP area is important in terms of raising revenue.
Washington’s Tampa show will be less expensive to put on, however, than it was in the heart of D.C., where horses were stabled on the street and shuttled back and forth between divisions to the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Maryland because of space limitations.
Washington’s usual venue, the Capital One Center, is not going to be open in October. This was to have been the final year of the show’s contract with the facility. Whether it can be extended until 2021 depends on the schedules of the arena’s basketball and hockey teams, which are not yet set for next year.
While the show will have some similarities in Tampa to what was done in the past, access to two rings offers more flexibility and the possibility of additional classes. Washington’s regional competitions will remain at Prince George’s, but no riders qualifying from those sections will be able to compete in the main show, as was the case when it was in Washington.
For 41 years, until 2015, Tampa also was the home of the American Invitational grand prix, held across town from the fairgrounds in a football stadium. So there definitely are show jumping fans in Tampa, but whether they will be able to attend the Pennsylvania National and Washington depends on guidelines from the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which has barred spectators from shows at this time. The various states also have rules limiting how many people can be at a venue, although it is hoped those restrictions can be eased this fall.
There had been talk that all three shows would be held either in Kentucky or at the same location in Florida, minimizing exhibitors’ need to travel during the pandemic, but that didn’t happen. A three-way solution was precluded because Washington wraps up on the same weekend as the National begins with a series of equitation classes. As a result, the National is staying indoors at the Alltech Arena in Lexington, KY.
The Tampa shows likely will skip the night sessions that were featured when they were held up north. Days at these shows were always long, but having two rings should ease the time schedule and more classes may be added.
“We’re trying to make it special at the end of a really challenging year,” said Vicki.
Susie Webb, Pennsylvania National’s executive director said, “We had one goal, to do what was best for the industry.”
It was important for Penn National to make sure the venerable Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunt Seat Medal Finals and the Neue Schule/USEF Junior Jumper National Championships could be held in 2020.
“The kids have worked hard and I know it’s been a huge disappointing year,” said Susie. “If we could end the year on a positive note, that’s what our goal is.”
The situation was the same for Washington, which has its own equitation and pony equitation championships, as well as the National, which offers the iconic ASPCA Maclay and recent innovations, the Hamel Foundation National Horse Show 3’3” Equitation Championship and the Taylor Harris Insurance Services Adult Equitation Championship.
For the Pennsylvania National, one important event has to be delayed. This is the show’s 75th year, and plans were to have past Medal and grand prix winners on hand.
“The invitations went out a week before Covid hit,” Susie noted ruefully. The celebration, which includes a history book that is being written, must stay on hold until 2021, but the $137,000 Grand Prix de Penn National will go on as planned.
“We hope to add more horses to the schedule,” said Susie, noting her show and Washington will complement each other with what they’re offering, coordinating and sharing some expenses. Working together, even without the same location, means all three fall shows can be more consistent with fees and qualifying criteria.
“It’s going to be a good way for us to streamline things, too, because if all three horse shows are using the same system, it will make things easier for exhibitors,” said Susie.
“If we can just make it more productive and efficiently run, I think that’s what we’re going to be able to pull out of this whole thing,” she said, envisioning that in the future, for instance, the process could make it easier for whoever does a barn’s entries so all three shows could be handled at one time.
“We have to think outside the box,” Susie emphasized. “Hopefully, everyone will be willing to come and celebrate the end of the show season with us so we can do something to salvage what’s left of the show year.”
Dealing with Covid has mandated a new way of thinking in a lot of areas, and this is one of them, since the collaboration is not just about 2020.
“The relationships between the three shows now are established, they’re strong and I think they will continue forward as we look toward how we make the indoor circuit as strong as it can be for the future,” said Vicki.
“It was wonderful to collaborate and have a brainstorming group,” agreed Jennifer Burger, president of the National. “This is a tricky year and it’s still not over, because we’ve got three months between now and then.”
As the Covid situation continued, Jennifer was in all too-familiar territory.
“I’m on the Devon board and I also founded the Brandywine Horse Shows, so I’ve kind of been through this twice,” said Jennifer, who had to deal with their Covid cancellations earlier this year.
“But these three (the fall circuit) are the crown jewels of our industry. There was a little more pressure to stay on top of doing anything we can with any of the championships.”
Highlights of the National in addition to the equitation include the $50,000 Hunter Classic and the $213,300 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Lexington.
She is hoping to have the Taylor Harris VIP area open at Alltech, but noted, “that will come through guidelines of the state. We’re going to do everything we can to have everything we can. The National Horse Show is committed to safety and keeping the integrity of the horse show as intact as possible.”
Jennifer added, “We all kept saying our main goal was to have successful horse shows, and go into 2021 and beyond as stronger organizations. It wasn’t easy, but I think we ended up in a good place. Everybody worked around the clock to put these plans together.”