By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
The council of the Village of Wellington on Wednesday approved six months of dressage shows and jumper competitions on an adjoining grass derby field from Nov. 1, 2012, through April 30, 2013, at the multimillion dollar Global Dressage Festival grounds that are part of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
The vote was 4-0 in favor of the GDF calendar with the fifth council member, John Green, recusing himself from voting because of a conflict of interest but after the vote pledging to work with Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP) that organizes GDF and the the world famous Winter Equestrian Festival of 12 weeks of jumper and hunter competitions with $6 million in prize money.
The U.S.gold medal teams in 2004 and 2008, Canada’s 2008 silver medal team and three of the four members of Great Britain’s gold medal team and indvidual bronze medalist Cian O’Connor of Ireland at this year’s London Olympics based themselves in Wellington for their winters.
The Global Dressage Festival was created by ESP for an inaugural season in the winter of 2012 to emulate the success of its companion WEF tournament that over the past 30 years has become the premier winter equestrian destination at what is now named the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
ESP spent millions of dollars over the past five years rebuilding and enhancing the WEF showgrounds.
Millions of dollars more were spent constructing a world class facility of five dressage arenas of Olympic-quality footing, 200 permanent state-of-the-art stables and a covered arena large enough for three full size dressage arenas with room to spare.
The approval of GDF’s 2012-13 winter season by the council that governs the community of more than 50,000 people came after six months of political turmoil during which plans for the dressage and jumping derby facilities, a condominium hotel and an equestrian centric mall of boutique stores, coffee and wine bars was proposed.
The GDF grounds was approved by the council, then revoked after election campaigns for three of five members of the council were funded largely through so-called SuperPAC (political action committees) of the Jacobs family that has a sprawling estate near the dressage grounds. The GDF facility was built on polo fields that almost 30 years ago hosted matches played by Britain’s Prince Charles while his bride, Princess Diana, looked on.
The political obstacles erected by the Jacobs family led to withdrawal of Palm Beach as a candidate for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, the quadriennial championships of the seven international horse sports plus para-dressage that, if successful, would have led to an economic impact of an additional $100 million on South Florida’s economy.
On Tuesday night, however, the dressage community rallied to support moves to save the facility and the circuit that last winter provided almost $300,000 (€243,000) in prize money, second in dressage only to the World Equestrian Festival at Aachen, Germany.
A decision now, said Mark Bellissimo of ESP, was critical for the plans of top international riders who were making decisions on winter for them and their horses.
At the meeting that began Tuesday night and went into early Wednesday, a series of speakers in turn pleaded for approval of the facility and denunciation of opponents, specifically the Jacobs family, owners of Delaware North, one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States whose holdings include the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins, an extensive international network of food and accommodation services and gambling and horse and dog race tracks on three continents.
U.S. 1996 Atlanta Olympic bronze medalist Michelle Gibson described GDF as a “dream come true” for its quality of stabling, warmup and competition arenas and design that made it an ideal world class show grounds and urged approval.
Terri Kane, the owner of Diamante Farms, one of the largest private dressage centers in Wellington, and other dressage and jumper riders appealed to council members to listen to the more than 100 supporters who turned out for the meeting although it was held in mid-summer when only year round residents remain in the sub-tropical climate.
Victor Connor, the 2013 incoming president of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce and an equestrian of many years, won the loudest applause with a stinging denunciation of “arrogant” demands by a single family, the Jacobs.
According to an open letter to ESP Chief Executive Mark Bellissimo, those demands included competitions to be held up to 6 pm weekdays, no later than 9 pm weekends, no entertainment, no loud music, no bright lights, severe restrictions on stabling, limited vendor spaces.
And the council asked ESP to hold off on legal moves against their on-again, off-again politial actions that have caused widespread uncertainty over the status of GDF.
However, the final vote rejected all of the “conditions” of the Jacobs family, allowing competitions and accompanying entertainment in accordance with the same rules as the rest of the community and approving a temporary stabling tent adjacent to permanent stabling over objections by a Jacobs’ attorney.