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WoSJ Exclusive; Michael Stone – on the Winter Equestrian Festival & the importance of Nations Cups

Tuesday, 03 January 2012

ESP-president Michael Stone. Photo by/copyright Equestrisol.Michael Stone must have one of the most exciting jobs in the world; as president for the company Equestrian Sport Productions he is responsible for the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida – the largest and longest running horse show in the world, packed with weeks and weeks of showjumping with top riders and horses. We decided to have a word with Stone about the festival – but also about which issues he would have liked to work with if he was still in his previous job as Secretary General in the FEI.

How did you end up as president for Equestrian Sport Productions?
“I came from my previous job as Secretary General in the FEI. Equestrian Sport Productions were looking for someone with international jumping experience to run the festival. So the one week I was in the FEI, the next I was in Florida. I have been here for four years now, and I love the States – I have always wanted to live here,” Michael explains happily. “I also used to be a professional showjumper, and rode internationally myself. I have also been the Secretary General of the Irish Equestrian Federation and have been involved in horses all my life. In the FEI I was responsible for many of the championships so I also had experience from organizing big shows.”

The International Arena at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Photo by/copyright Dunns Aerial Photography.Tell us about the festival – it seems like a huge event?
“It runs from January to April, for twelve weeks. During the event we have around 300 people working at the festival. The permanent staff consists of about 25 people. It’s a well oiled machinery by now,” Michael lets us know. “Around 5000 horses come for the WEF, and about a 1000 riders. We have twelve rings, twelve sets of jump-crew that come in from all over the States and we have about seven course designers in action. We bring in the top course designers; like Bob Ellis who is building at the Olympics in London. Monday is the day off for everybody, so Sunday is the big party day here,” Michael laughs. “But it’s not just the WEF that runs here in Wellington; we have shows 40 weeks every year.”

A nice view from The Wellington Club. Photo by/copyright Anne Gittins Photography.How has the festival become such a success?
“We have tried to follow Spruce Meadows in what they do. So we have free entrance for the spectators; except for two nights – when the Nations Cup is on and when we have our Charity Challenge where we raise money and charge the entrance for a good cause. Our Nations Cup is really special. Spectators come in from all of Florida, and support their different countries – I would say it’s no other Nations Cup like the one at the WEF!”

Which riders can we expect to see at the WEF in 2012?
“You can expect to see some good riders as we have plenty of ranking classes and a good amount of prize money. Also we have the USEF Selection Trials for the U.S. Show Jumping Team for the 2012 Olympic Games. There are a lot more European riders coming this year. I think the Europeans like it here, and more and more come as its beautiful weather, and less stressful on the horses as they don’t have to travel around. There is time for the riders to train the horses, bring their families and also have some time off as we finish the shows at four o’clock most of the time. The riders have everything here; golf, beaches – it’s just a unique spot. It doesn’t cost a lot more to come over here than to compete on the World Cup circuit in Europe – and the riders get ranking points for the world ranking and good prize money. So they have realized that it’s worth the trip,” Stone explains.

“In 2012 we have around 20-25 European riders coming. The Germans are bringing a development team over here, the British bring many of their Olympic prospects for preparations towards London – riders such as Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Johannes Ehning, Harrie Smolders, Daniel Zetterman, Cian O’Connor and Sergio Alvares Moya are coming. Lots of Mexican and Argentinean riders will be here as well.”

Michael Stone, NY City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ESP CEO Mark Bellissimo. Photo by/copyright Kenneth Kraus.What are the biggest differences between the European and American showjumping circuit?
“These are two different cultures when it comes to how shows are run. In Europe there are big crowds, and television coverage that also pays part of the shows. When I came to Florida there were no spectators to speak of and little sponsors for the shows – so the owners almost paid for everything. We have managed to change that somewhat though, and the reality looks a little different now. I would also say that a difference is that it’s cheaper to show in the US than it is in Europe; as an example we don’t ask riders or owners to buy a VIP table at the event in order to get to show,” Stone explains.

So, is it right that Wellington is aiming to bid for the WEG in 2018?
“We are waiting for the details from the FEI, but yes we would like to bid. Even if we don’t get it, I think the whole process would be great to be a part of,” Stone says.

Wellington seems like a Mecca for horse people?
“Yes! You can’t move without seeing horses here. In addition to showjumping there is a huge polo scene as well as dressage – the latter is big in Wellington.”

The Nations Cup teams at Palm Beach. Photo by/copyright Sportfot.If you were still Secretary General in the FEI, which issues would you like to go deeper into?
“I would have to say that I would like to work on the calendar! I think the FEI made a big mistake not controlling the Global Champions Tour better. The GCT is for a small group of really good riders, and I don’t think the Tour has developed any great media attention outside the equestrian world. Media wise it can’t compete to shows that has Nations Cups such as Hickstead and Dublin, where the media’s focus is on the country’s efforts in the team competition. It’s not that Jan Tops hasn’t done a great job with the GCT, because he truly has – but the Tour doesn’t open the sport up to the outside world and neither does it create much movement on the world ranking as there are the same riders competing in the Tour and thus the same riders collecting world ranking points. It’s also a fact that many riders buy in, which isn’t really a positive development for the sport as the places available to compete should go to qualified riders. The GCT does also to a certain degree kill the Top League shows, especially when it clashes with the Top League events – and these events are so important to every country. It’s what many thought would happen when the GCT was launched,” Michael says.

"Our Nations Cup is really special"; here's Margie Engle & Indigo competing for the US last year. Photo by/copyright Sportfot.Why are the Top League shows so important?
“The sport is not very good at publishing itself, and that is where the importance of the Top League shows comes in. And now those important shows are being messed with; I think just the name of it is a bit silly “Top League” – it doesn’t really mean anything does it?”

“The Top League shows should also be looked closer into. It’s a problem when a rider only has one top horse, and is competing in both the Nations Cup and the Grand Prix in one weekend. The Americans are a proof of that; they won many Grand Prix classes this season, but fell out of the league. I think the Nations Cups need to be strengthened; more money needs to be put into it and also more ranking points. Riders should want to choose those shows,” Stone points out.

“Another important issue is that the riders need to learn how to become sport personalities – like in other sports. Just look to Lindsey Vonn [downhill Olympic gold medalist and extremely popular in the US]; in 2010 she earned half the prize money compared to that of McLain Ward, but four or five times the endorsements – and she is a household name in the US. Riders end up training pupils and selling horses, and can’t focus 100 % on their sporting careers which I think is a problem. So I think the riders need to learn how to promote themselves, and that mainly happens through the team competitions where they represent their country. People love that!”

Any other parts of the sport you would like to have done something about?
“If I still was Secretary General I would also like to get my hands on to the whole hyper sensitivity thing! The way it’s been handled is ridiculous. There are no certainty surrounding this issue, and so many things are unclear. I feel that sometimes the riders are being played with. Something has to be done in this regard; I think it’s one of the biggest problems in showjumping,” Stone closes off.

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