Reality Check: Lexington had a successful World Equestrian Games -- can Tryon?
In 22 days, hundreds of competitors and horses and thousands of spectators from across the country and globe will descend into Western North Carolina for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, put on by the Federation Equestrianne International, the governing body of world equestrian sports.
Four hours away from Tryon is Lexington, Kentucky, which hosted the games in 2010 -- the first city U.S. city to do so.
The Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park, about eight miles outside Lexington, hosted the prestigious opening ceremonies and the top-tier stadium-jumping events. Jane Beshear, the wive of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, served on the World Games Foundation that was in charge of overseeing the huge, 16-day event.
Beshear said Kentucky's leaders wanted the games and landed them well before her husband, a games supporter, was voted in as governor.
“We actually asked for it,” said Beshear, an avid horsewoman. “We felt like we had the unusual opportunity to hold all disciplines right in one place.”
The 1200-acre Kentucky Horse Park is public and owned by taxpayers of Kentucky. Since the games were held, Beshear said, the Horse Park has been able to draw in new events and competitions with improved facilities and arenas on the park grounds.
“The stands were built by the state with state funding,” Beshear said as she walked through the Rolex Arena venue.
“Everyone was so proud of the fact that the spotlight of the world was on Kentucky,” she said.
There was network TV coverage by NBC, as there will be in Tryon. Competitions run the gamut from vaulting to dressage, to cross-country and stadium jumping.
“I saw people from Canada, from Argentina, from all over the world,” said Jerry Harris, a bartender at Dudley’s, a longtime watering hole for the well-heeled horsey set.
Lexington is a city steeped in horses, particularly thoroughbred racing. Its tourism economy revolves around horses, thoroughbred farms and Keeneland, the city's well-known thoroughbred horse track.
But the World Equestrian Games wasn’t something the city had ever hosted.
The state pumped about $250 million of taxpayer monies into upgrading Kentucky Horse Park’s facilities to make sure they were up to the high FEI standards of Europe.
European countries heavily support World Games, with public funds and little push-back from citizens. Horses and the prestigious competitions surrounding them are a storied tradition for residents of Europe, where Americans often go to buy top horses to compete in top-tier competitions like WEG.
Joyce Brinsfield, president of the Kentucky Hunter Jumper Association, hosted the vaulting team for a dry-run of the games in 2009. Brinsfield, a lifetime rider who owns Ballyhigh Stables in Versailles, Kentucky, went to the games as a spectator at the park.
“It was just a great atmosphere,” said Brinsfield. “There were so many people from all over the country, all over the world. There were vendors from all over. It was just a great experience. The majority of the volunteers for the games, and there were hundreds, were horse people. So, they really knew how to handle the event well."
But it took a lot more than enthusiasm and volunteers to pull off the games. It took private donations.
The recession had just hit, and, in addition to public subsidies, tens of millions in private donations were also needed to build arenas and upgrade infrastructure at the park.
“We were the first organizing committee to fully privately fund the World Equestrian Games,” said Jamie Link, who served as chief executive of the World Games Foundation that oversaw the 16-day event. “I think the vision had always been that this facility would host a world championship.”
But Link, who acknowledges it was daunting challenge to fundraise during a recession, credited one company, Alltech, an animal feed supplement company, with pumping about $20 million into the games.
Alltech served as title sponsor. The company’s name is still emblazoned on the indoor arena, where new competitions have come and booked long after WEG came and went.
"We had 520,000 spectators. I think that's pretty terrific," Link said.
“The games were much bigger than what I had anticipated,” said Jim Newberry, who was Lexington’s mayor in 2010.
Newberry went to Aachen, Germany, several years before to witness what the games in Europe were like.
He thought Lexington needed to also host it properly. Newberry oversaw downtown improvements, from a new bridge to streamline traffic downtown, to wider sidewalks.
In addition, downtown hosted 16 nights of music, including a concert by then up-and-comer Blake Shelton.
“That enabled everyone who lived in Lexington to feel part of the games,” said Newberry. “Whether they went to the Horse Park or not.”
The state completed an economic impact report that indicated the state reaped about $200 million in economic benefits.
“The games broke even,” Link said. “That was our intent.”
Beshear has heard of other WEG venues in Europe that have had traffic nightmares in because of logistical issues, with events at different locations and narrow European roads. Normandy hosted the games and it was a known problem that traffic frustrated thousands of spectators trying to get to events they bought tickets for. Beshear has been to the Tryon facility and wonders if crowds may experience major traffic problems there. She said Kentucky made plans that helped with traffic flow.
“The city buses from Lexington would pick up people in Lexington and bring them out here,” she said.
She is going to the Tryon games and is aware of the potential for gridlock.
“I know that's going to be a huge problem, and, from what I understand, they're still working on that," Beshear said.
She hopes those organizing the games, like Mark Bellissimo, the man behind the Tryon facility, can successfully pull it off. Beshear said it can be a key event to draw horse-people to North Carolina--for good.
“Part of the idea is to give your visitors a good time. It's a tourist attraction that makes it for the state. Hotels, restaurants, they all benefit from a good World Games,” she said.
Beshear also said Tryon wasn’t the FEI’s first choice this year.
“They came back and asked if we would bid for 2018,” Beshear said. “But we put some stipulations on how we would run it.”
It included major cost cuts she would not elaborate on. She also said the FEI wanted the Horse Park to remove all Rolex watch sponsorship signs and rename the Rolex Stadium, due to its contract with Longines, another luxury watch maker.
“We would not break (the Rolex contract),” Beshear said. “They wanted us to take the name off the facility.”
In fact, it was part of the negotiation break-down for bidding on the 2018 games.
Another point has been the change of Kentucky governors. The new administration has no interest in bringing the World Games back to Kentucky, focusing instead on other economic and tourist initiatives.
The Tryon International Equestrian Center is privately owned by several investors.
Bellissimo is the man in charge, overseeing the development of the horse compound. He has a vision for Tryon to become a central location for East Coast riders and equestrian families to stay when not on the East Coast in summer or Wellington, in West Palm Beach, during winter for the Winter Festival, a horse show circuit, he is credited with turning around.
Beshear urges Western North Carolinians to turn on the charm and do everything possible to show off the area.
“Folks are coming to visit you. And the hospitality that you provide them is what will bring them back,” she said.
The World Games begin September 11.