The 2020 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) and the 2020 Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) opened in Wellington this week, and to welcome back the three-month equestrian season, a special event was held in the Wellington Club at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center on Tuesday, Jan. 7 featuring five top figures in equestrian sports.
The panel included Equestrian Sport Productions President Michael Stone, two-time show jumping Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden, 2019 Pan American Games dressage individual gold and team silver medalist Sarah Lockman, top hunter rider and trainer Christopher Payne and 2019 Pan American Games show jumping team bronze medalist Alex Granato.
The group offered competition updates, noted recent changes and issued an invitation for the public to come observe world-class athletes in action at this season’s WEF and AGDF competitions.
With the cumulative prize money at $13 million, the stakes are higher than ever. For those festival enthusiasts who might remember it as only $9 million just a few years prior, Stone said they’ve been steadily adding money to the prize lists each year, sometimes without the general public even knowing.
“We never really updated that — we just kept giving more money away,” Stone said. “We’re very pleased about that, and we thank our sponsors — especially Rolex and Adequan — who contribute hugely to that, and we’re looking forward to a great season.”
According to the 2020 WEF Prize List, awards vary greatly, with many classes in the $1,000 range, but top prizes for big events well over $100,000.
The production team has also upgraded the footing at the facility, including the iconic International Arena. Stone said he expects the geotextile — a material laid beneath the sand in the ring in order to keep it as ideal as possible — to be an eventual game-changer in the sport.
According to Stone, the most important thing about this material is that it handles high-performance competitions while simultaneously being kind to the horses, which are two tasks that can be hard to balance.
“This is the first really engineered footing that has ever been created in the United States,” Stone said. “If you remember 10, 12 years ago, we created the first footing with geotextile. But things have evolved, and using proper engineering discipline design from the bottom up has produced what I believe is going to be one of the best footings in the world.”
In response to a question from the audience as to upgrades at other rings, including at the dressage festival, Stone answered that they plan to upgrade all the arenas, but as each one requires different things, it takes time and quite a lot of money.
“Obviously, you can’t stand still. If you stand still, you go backward,” Stone said. “So, we’re looking at the ways we can improve all the rings.”
Other upgrades include an addition of rubber throughout the grounds to aid in the comfort of both the horses and humans, as well as fresh paint and all new railings.
“A lot of the changes are small, but significant, so possibly people won’t notice them,” Stone said. “But all in all, we’re trying to improve, and we’re going to continue to improve and continue to invest.”
One of the larger improvements Stone noted was a growing general interest in equestrian sports. While the Winter Equestrian Festival has been an enormous competition for riders for decades, it only recently began to attract the eye of the general public.
“It’s no disrespect to Beezie,” Stone said of Madden, also seated at the podium. “But when we took over, the general public didn’t know who Beezie was. Now, when Beezie comes into the ring, everybody goes, ‘Ooh, here’s Beezie.’”
According to Stone, where the masses were once unaware of the talent that rode before them, they are now recognizing equestrian athletes for who they are.
“I think that’s something that we’ve managed to achieve by making it accessible and open,” Stone said.
Lindsay Brock, the conference facilitator, later built on this point by saying that the most important thing the local community could take away from the meeting is that the festivals are completely available for the local public to enjoy.
With free admission, the public has, at its fingertips, the opportunity to witness these top riders, and Brock encouraged local individuals and families alike to make plans to visit.
“The best riders in the world are here in the winter, and there’s not a lot of opportunity where you get to have access to those kinds of riders for 12 weeks straight,” Brock said.
While admission is free, parking is $20 per car on Saturday nights, when the popular Saturday Night Lights events take place.
The Adequan Global Dressage Festival is also seeing significant and positive changes. One such notable change is this year’s implementation of eDressage, a digital form of scoring that was used in the main ring last year.
“Now we’re having it in all the national rings as well, so that’ll speed things up for everybody,” Stone said.
In addition to this initiative, they have also added two new competitions: the Young Horse Prix St. George for horses 7 to 9 years old, and the Young Horse Grand Prix for horses 8 to 10 years old.
Each of the riders also discussed their plans for the upcoming season, which has many top equestrians trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
While unable to attend the press conference, Equestrian Sport Productions CEO Mark Bellissimo released a statement focused on the continuing expansion of equestrian sports in Palm Beach County.
“We are entering our 13th season as managers of the Winter Equestrian Festival,” he said. “We created the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in 2012 and brought the International Polo Club Palm Beach into the fold in 2016. With these three incredible venues, we strive to provide a quality experience not only for the exhibitors competing, but for spectators, sponsors and our local community. We are proud to be a part of the equestrian community and help set the tone for top horse sport not only in the United States, but for the world.”
WEF kicks into high gear this weekend with the $75,000 Battle of the Sexes, presented by Wellington Regional Medical Center, during Saturday Night Lights on Saturday, Jan. 11.
To learn more about the Winter Equestrian Festival, visit www.pbiec.com.
To learn more about the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, visit www.globaldressagefestival.com.