The Longines Global Champions Tour has sported a bevy of glamorous venues around the globe: Shanghai, Berlin, Paris, London and St. Tropez, to name just a few. But LGCT impresario Jan Tops knew he needed New York City to make his catalogue complete.
“We were just missing this one,” he said, explaining why 51 CSI five-star riders from 19 nations and their 95 horses last weekend found themselves on an island accessible only by ferry for the LGCT finals. Most of those who came had never heard of Governors Island in New York Harbor, but once the riders arrived, competitors were impressed by its view of gleaming skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.
“I don’t think anybody was sure what to expect,” conceded Great Britain’s Ben Maher, the show’s big winner. He led the London Knights to victory in the GCT League capper by a one-second margin, then shortly thereafter won the 300,000 Euro Grand Prix, all on the fabulous Chacco Blue son, Explosion W. He wound up as the tour’s leading rider for the second year in a row.
Noting that the competition was a real 5-star experience, Ben suggested, “For the first year, I think the show was a huge success. I think the show’s going to be one of the best on the tour in the future.”
As Jan observed, “I think we found the best location; unique, but still right downtown in Manhattan.” It is technically part of the Borough of Manhattan, separated by just 800 yards of water.
Commenting that the island has “a special backdrop,” Jan pointed out that it took “very, very great preparations” to make the concept reality.
The man in charge of pulling it off, event director Marco Danese, spent nearly two years implementing a New York stop on the tour. There were some roadblocks along the way. After all, there aren’t a lot of places to hold a horse show in Manhattan. The Central Park show had that rather obvious midtown location covered, although it did not run the last two years.
At first, LGCT was looking at Randall’s Island, which is in the East River across from the South Bronx and Queens, but it fell through. Governors Island got some publicity when Great Britain’s Prince Harry played polo there in 2010, so horses had made an appearance previously. Marco came with LGCL’s logistics manager to visit the island, which is even closer to Brooklyn than Manhattan, and spent all day walking around.
After meeting with the island’s management, “We found a lot of young people with passion, motivated with a lot of enthusiasm,” Marco said.
“We spent one day explaining the concept and that it was part of a series. At the end of the day, it was a win/win situation. We were looking for a very nice place; they were looking for events to promote the island. A lot of people living in New York don’t know the place,” he said.
A strategic military outpost for the British during the Revolutionary War, U.S. forces took it over after the war and had three forts there to protect the harbor and the city. The island eventually was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard, which left in 1996. It was opened to the public in 2005.
Interestingly, the Dutch West India Company was the first European entity to set up camp on the island in the early 17th Century. Jan is, of course, Dutch, so perhaps it was karma that the LGCT landed there. Even in the modern age, though, the organizers faced the same situation as the early settlers — how to get to the island from the larger land mass of lower Manhattan.
“Logistics-wise, it is very difficult, because there is no road, so we had to send everything by boats and barges,” said Marco.
“We organized for the first time a water shuttle instead of a car shuttle. It was something different, unique,” he said of the need for dedicated ferries to run day and night. Normally, the island is open from 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. during the week and until 7:00 p.m. on weekends, with public ferries serving it accordingly, but LGCT put in a ferry service for riders, grooms and support personnel that began at 5:30 a.m. with the last boat leaving at 11:00 p.m. There are no accommodations on the island, so vital staff and veterinarians lived in RVs.
Horses flew from Liege in Belgium to Newark Airport in New Jersey, less than an hour from New York, and served their quarantine in the European stables on the island. Originally, LGCT scheduled a show in Montreal the weekend before New York. The horses were supposed to come from Canada to New York in vans, but things had to be rearranged when the Montreal show was cancelled in July.
The stands were filled for the Grand Prix with an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom were folks who had visited the island for recreation and happened upon the show. Free admission was an incentive to stay around and watch.
“We came because we had never seen the events, and thought it would be an amazing experience as a family,” said Daniel Shepard, a New Yorker who was with his parents, visiting from Kansas.
“It seems like a very complicated course,” he observed of Uliano Vezzani’s Grand Prix route, but noted, “We’re virgins, it’s our first time. This is a world we never have been aware that existed.”
And until last weekend, the show didn’t exist.
Starting from scratch made things, “a little bit more difficult than the other events,” said Marco, noting bringing in everything needed was done “with help from local suppliers, some of whom were used to working on the island and knew the rules and timing. It’s a strange location, but in the end it was a success. We are very happy. The view is something fantastic, it is New York.”