Ocala’s World Equestrian Center is a dazzling wonderland, and not just when it’s decked out in millions of glittering Christmas lights.
Year-round, its amenities for both humans and horses include a five-star hotel, a spa, lots of shopping and a charming variety of restaurants. That’s on top of many inviting paddocks, an on-site veterinary hospital and state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor arenas.
The facility is like no other in the world. In addition to a variety of equestrian competitions, it hosts dog shows, trade shows and conventions, including an auction of top-class cars for collectors, and even a blueberry festival. Multi-breed shows with, for instance, Arabians in one ring and Paso Finos in another, also are a feature. Variety is the spice of WEC, where there is an abundance of moving parts.
Keeping an eye on all of them is WEC’s Director of Operations, Vinnie Card, going non-stop to keep everything running in the style to which competitors and spectators have become happily accustomed. He lives alone just three miles away, spending more time at WEC than at home.
Vinnie comes from Westport, Ontario, a town of about 700 people three hours from Toronto.
“We have more employees at WEC than population in my town,” he observed, putting the number of WEC workers at over 750. He tries to remember as many names as he can. Although that’s really impossible, Vinnie is not the kind of supervisor who wants to call someone over by saying, “Hey you.”
He has a close relationship with the people who are part of his team, understanding their jobs as well as he does his own, while overseeing everything that makes WEC go.
“If it needs to get done, he takes care of it,” said Jim Wolf, a consultant for WEC who has worked with Vinnie.
An electrician with both a commercial and industrial license, Vinnie, 45, came from a “hands-on” family. He is the son of a carpenter and when he was a child, he pitched in with his dad to build the house in which he grew up. Visiting the dairy farm owned by his grandfather wasn’t an opportunity to relax, either. Vinnie recalls working there “from the time I could walk. Milking, haying, cleaning the gutters.”
When he was 21, Vinnie decided to see some more of the world, so he headed to Ocala. That was long before the WEC that would be built there had even the status of a dream. He wound up at HITS, which has one of its venues just a few miles down the road from the property that eventually became WEC.
Vinnie worked for HITS founder Tom Struzzieri for 17 years. He started out stripping stalls but rose quickly.
“I just kept plugging away, learning new things,” said Vinnie, who soon moved up to driving the tractor. From there, “I went to the ingate, and from the ingate, I went to helping be one of the technical coordinators.”
Then his background in commercial and industrial construction led him toward building things for HITS. He became an all-around resource.
How did he move up the ranks? “Keeping my head down, learning new things and seeing opportunities that presented themselves,” he explained.
Between his stints at HITS he would travel to a few other shows, including working in Virginia with the late Gary Baker and being associated with the Jump for the Children show in Raleigh, North Carolina, which benefits the Duke Children’s Hospital.
“My wife, Joan and I, think the world of him,” said Glenn Petty, who runs the Duke show where Vinnie served as technical coordinator. “He was on top of everything. He managed the crew and worked with judges, announcers; making sure everything on the grounds ran smoothly. He was a master at working with exhibitors and helping solve whatever their issue might be.” Glenn said he and his wife felt that Vinnie always had their backs, and they appreciated his attention to detail.
One of the things that impressed Vinnie about the Duke fixture was “how well the community backed the horse show.”
While the Duke show had been on the scene for decades to build a following, he is glad to see the same type of involvement in Ocala with WEC, even though it just opened in 2021.
“The community is so much behind it here, it’s phenomenal,” said Vinnie, noting more and more people are showing up for the Saturday night grand prix. “The food and wine festival is a huge hit,” he added, noting the facility “definitely is becoming more of a destination, not only for our local residents, but also for people who don’t live here.”
“We need to talk.”
Vinnie’s WEC involvement began with a phone call from Roby Roberts in 2016. “Son, we need to talk,” said Roby, whose family built WEC.
Vinnie wound up talking not just to Roby, but also to his parents and the entire WEC board. “To this day,” Vinnie recalls, “my mind was spinning with the opportunity that was presented and the whole nine yards. It was just incredible. I don’t know if I could describe it the right way. It was a super opportunity to start with a blank canvas from the Roberts family and go from there.”
Vinnie was offered the Director of Operations post, but as he points out, “it started out a lot different than what we ended up with. Each day was a new day when we were designing, and this is where we landed.”
In the process, Vinnie spent several months at the first WEC in Wilmington, Ohio, which has quite a different look than the Ocala venue, but operates under the same principles. The WECS are above all family-friendly, built on pillars of “quality, class and distinction.”
And of course, “They definitely put the horses first here,” he said.
That was never more apparent than when Hurricane Ian struck hard in September. WEC was receiving calls from people evacuating who had nowhere to go with their animals. Vinnie called Roby and his mother, Mary, and they told him, “`Take care of the people’. The office girls were bombarded with emails and phone calls.”
The venue’s 3,000 stalls were filled not only with horses, but other animals, including a kangaroo. “Our grounds team did the shavings and hay and we fed everybody,” Vinnie said. He chuckled and added, “It was a hurricane on the property and off the property. For us to be able to help all those people in a short amount of time, it was an exhausting six, seven days going through it all. At the end, I was so proud of our team and how they all came together and pulled it off on such short notice. It was quite phenomenal. It was such a good feeling to be able to extend a hand to help all those people and it was all because of the Roberts family and what they’ve built here to accomplish those things.”
Vinnie is not one to take the credit for what happens at WEC. “When people ask, `How do you do your job?’ I say, `Because I surround myself with people smarter than I am.’ I fully believe it’s a team effort around here.”
Colleen McQuay from the famous reining family keeps up a dialogue with Vinnie as WEC “is opening doors to the reining world and some possible projects in the future together.” She is also very much involved in the English riding scene through the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and her own training and showing experience.
There’s a lot that impresses her about Vinnie. “Here’s a young guy doing so well, but he’s still always searching for more information and covering more bases. I was always most impressed because he’s thoughtful and humble while he’s talking about what’s good and not good.
“It’s a hard quality to find nowadays, especially with young, successful people. Even under adverse conditions, his response was always calm and appropriate. The successful managers in the world have the mentality to be calm and useful in a time of need, rather than showing their emotions or losing their tempers. I’ve only seen good things from Vinnie in all of those circumstances.”
Surprisingly, Vinnie was not involved with horses before working at the shows, but he finds the animals fascinating after having been around them for so long now.
“How they connect with their rider, that’s a team; the way they present themselves in the show ring,” he commented, detailing what appeals to him.
He has only ridden 10 times in his life, he reported, most recently aboard a Marion County sheriff’s mounted division horse who was at WEC. He was delighted with his 20 minutes on a “super-smart animal. That horse was automatic; if I thought I wanted to go left, he went left. I really didn’t have to do anything. It was awesome.”
Asked if he could have believed in his earlier years what he’s doing now, and where he’s doing it, Vinnie said, “It would not have crossed my mind.”
He emphasized, “I’m very blessed and fortunate. The stars and planets all lined up just right for me to land this position I was offered, and I have this great opportunity here to build the sport.”