What is the future of the Wellington International showgrounds, home of the Winter Equestrian Festival? And how is a new showgrounds, planned for adjacent property, being affected by turmoil over Wellington International’s prospective sale? Those are among the big questions affecting the future of Wellington, Florida, as the self-proclaimed “Winter Equestrian Capital of the World.”

“There are a lot of different scenarios, and that’s part of the complication,” observed someone familiar with the tangled web.

The long-running controversy has affected the image of the Village and the horse industry within its borders, some fear, but Wellington Mayor Michael Napoleone is more optimistic.

“I expect we’ll still have a horse show when this is all over,” he said, “and hopefully, it will be run by someone who is in the business of running horse shows and wants to run a top-quality horse show in Wellington.”


A flow chart.


After eight months of contentious hearings, the Wellington Village Council approved plans for a new showgrounds in return for rezoning that would allow construction of a high-end golf community on the site of Equestrian Village. That’s where the Global Dressage Festival is held, a short distance from Wellington International, which is used by hunters and jumpers.

Equestrian Village is set on 96-plus acres that was part of the municipality’s Equestrian Preserve until the Council voted to rezone it. The Preserve, which is 9,000 acres Wellington-wide, was created to protect against high-density development. This was the first time land had been taken out of the preserve—despite a vociferous protest and efforts to stop it by the Keep Wellington Green group and others against development there.

But the council felt the controversial move was worth it to get a better Wellington International showgrounds that wouldn’t be overshadowed by newer facilities in Ocala and near Sarasota.

The Council decision may have seemed as if a difficult situation was resolved, even though the outcome didn’t satisfy everyone.

And when bidders interested in buying Wellington International had submitted their credentials, sale of the venue appeared imminent in March.

But some weeks later, WI FL Acquisition LLC, organized by Mark Bellissimo, sued financially troubled Wellington International owner Global Equestrian Group. WI FL sought a stay of the sale, contending it had a contractual right of first refusal (ROFR) to buy Wellington International, formerly known as the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Exercising the ROFR would give WI FL control over the facility if it could match the winning bid. Then it could sell to a buyer of its choice.

Otherwise, the issue WI FL faces is whether the high bidder would want the property designated for the new showgrounds as well. That’s an issue, because completion of the new showgrounds is mandated before construction can begin on the Equestrian Village golf community being built by Wellington Lifestyle Partners, with which Bellissimo also is involved.

WLP also has to build the new showgrounds as part of the deal and it must make sure the showgrounds on Pod F is constructed to comply with the conditions agreed on by the Wellington Council. If a new owner comes in and buys Ped F, but doesn’t build the showgrounds quickly enough or in compliance with the mandated specifications, that could be problematic for the golf development, which is at the heart of all this.

As a condition of being granted the ROFR in connection with GEG’s 2021 purchase of Wellington International, WI FL was required to make a $5 million investment in GEG, according to the lawsuit. It also stated, however, that GEG did not recognize WI FL’s ROFR. The matter is not scheduled for trial in Palm Beach County Circuit Court until Feb. 28, 2025.

Before GEG’s financial woes surfaced, it was going to buy Pod F and expand Wellington International there. Without Pod F, Wellington International is landlocked. Pod F still could become part of Wellington International if the buyer wants it, or it could host a separate show of some kind if they don’t. Pod F is slated to include an indoor arena, which Wellington International does not have, as well as a derby field like the one currently used on the occasions when hunters and jumpers compete at Equestrian Village.

Meanwhile, several groups of investors reportedly were vying to buy Wellington International. Landowners with a big stake in their Wellington farms need values to stay high by insuring the integrity of the Winter Equestrian Festival and other shows held at Wellington International during the year.

Sources say the potential buyers appear interested in improving the tired, cramped showgrounds and refreshing its luster along with its weary infrastructure. Prominent show jumpers had lobbied for major improvements at Wellington International during the hearings about rezoning Equestrian Village for the golf community.

Very little information about the potential buyers’ plans is available, however, because all those involved have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements, known as NDAs, that bar them from talking about the matter.

If the Wellington International buyer does not want the showgrounds on Pod F, WI FL would have to find another buyer. And since Wellington International currently holds the U.S. Equestrian Federation licenses for major hunter/jumper shows, a different owner of the new showgrounds either would have to devote it to dressage, which doesn’t go year-round in a big way in Wellington and can’t support an entire showgrounds, offer competition unrecognized by USEF or perhaps put on another type of show—someone suggested western competition, though that seems out of character for Wellington. Could it also be rezoned at some point for another use? Those are just a few of the possible scenarios.

GEG, part of Waterland Private Equity, had purchased Wellington International three years ago with a promise of holding the property for five to seven years. That was before financial problems led to it being put on the market. Along with the Right of First Refusal provision, the 2021 sale agreement provided that Wellington International would have to be used for equestrian purposes for 50 years. GEG originally was supposed to buy Pod F from the Bellissimo ownership group. As a condition of granting the Right of First Refusal, Bellissimo’s group was required to make a $5 million investment in GEG.

According to the lawsuit, however, GEG refused to honor the ROFR provision.

Wellington International is being sold as a going concern. That means whoever buys it would keep it running; there would be no point in shutting it down. There are questions, however, about what happens to dressage. It is supposed to remain at Equestrian Village until the new showgrounds is finished according to a provision agreed to by the Village Council. That is likely at least through 2026, though it could be as long as 2028.

If dressage does not go to the new showgrounds, former Equestrian Preserve Committee Chairman Jane Cleveland said the discipline will continue to have competition opportunities. She noted there are 33 dressage shows in the Wellington area, including at Jim Brandon Equestrian Center in West Palm Beach and White Fences in Loxahatchee. Only 11 of those shows are at Global, she pointed out. And anyone with sufficient funding can put up a tent, serve food and attempt to replicate the hospitality at Global, Cleveland continued, noting that for non-VIP members spectating at Equestrian Village, there are few amenities. It came out during the hearings that dressage at best is a break-even proposition there; the profit comes from VIP hospitality service.

Lauren Brody of the Keep Wellington Green initiative said WLP had asked her to look at their plans for Pod F, but she has heard nothing since the lawsuit was filed. A Realtor who is a member of the hunter/jumper ranks, she thinks “dressage is critical for the Village of Wellington.”

But she sees that in terms of dressage enthusiasts buying property and spectating at the shows. Like Cleveland, she believes there are other venues for national level dressage competition. National exhibitors likely would be very unhappy in the midst of a busy hunter/jumper show, Brody feels. But she contends international dressage, with its limited number of horses, could work at a Pod F showgrounds, and the featured Friday night freestyle would be held when the rest of the showgrounds is quiet.

During the hearings about the golf community, it was maintained several times by WLP’s managing director that Bellissimo no longer played a major role in the partnership seeking its development, but many were skeptical. His involvement with WI FL shows he is still a player in Wellington.

Bellissimo bought the showgrounds in 2006 and built Equestrian Village five years later, all the while acquiring land throughout the municipality. As the lawsuit notes, he “had a vision for the equestrian development of Wellington and saw potential for enormous growth and evolution of the equestrian industry.”

In the process, he and his partners took ownership of hundreds of acres in the Village. But despite what he had built, his reputation soured on some fronts in Wellington, with people citing a history of broken promises.

Responses were not received to HorseSport’s queries from the attorney who filed the lawsuit for WI FL, GEG’s chief commercial officer or the company involved in selling Wellington International about whether the sale will continue despite the lawsuit.