When the morning’s carpool directions read something like “drive to the landing strip, and wait near the patch of green grass,” you know it’s going to be no ordinary day.
But when there are two major sporting events taking place a four-hour drive and 250 miles from each other, and you’re the athlete, sometimes it’s simply easier to leave your wheels behind for wings.
This weekend, the annual Live Oak International CSI3*-W in Ocala, Florida is a major draw for show jumping riders and horses who are based a few hours south, in Wellington, during the winter months. And with Live Oak’s critical Longines World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix occurring simultaneously with the CSI5* week of competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival, including the season’s richest grand prix thus far, a rider can be in two places at once.
Enter said wings. On Friday morning, a small, seven-seater jet plane touched its wheels to the ground at Wellington’s private Aero Club Airport, just a stone’s throw from the showgrounds. Minutes, before a small group of riders had pulled up alongside the unofficial boarding area, including young professional Lillie Keenan, Irish star (and 2015 Live Oak Leading Rider) Cian O’Connor, and Germany’s Markus Beerbaum. No security lines or boarding passes were required, and the pilot doubled as baggage crew.
Almost as soon as the propellers stopped and the passengers climbed up a wood-paneled trio of steps into the cabin, our pilot closed the hatch and climbed into the drivers seat. The flight between our two locations clocked in at just under an hour, and in such small quarters, everyone said their hellos and then pulled out books and laptops to pass the time. It was just like an ordinary commuter flight. . . but not really.
Our pilot took us on a flight path directly over Disney World and the contrasting landscape of Florida suburban sprawl and untouched Everglades, but there was no question of when we had arrived in Ocala. As the plane descended into the heart of Florida’s horse country, I counted no less than seven racetracks.
A slightly larger, but still very small airport with a row of iron lawn jockeys (again, no mistaking we were in racehorse country) greeted our group upon touchdown. No racetracks were in our future, however; the riders jumped into a black Escalade waiting next to the plane and were ferried directly to the Live Oak grounds about 20 minutes away.
All in all our commute to an entirely different area of the state took just over one hour. Making this very elite but essential service available to busy riders is just one more way that Live Oak International organizers have taken their event above and beyond the ordinary to create a truly spectacular weekend.