Lowering Height for Long-Term Growth: Tom Struzzieri Explains Why the 2017 Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix Will be 1.50m

Andre Thieme competes in the HITS Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix, March 2016. Ph. Bret St. Clair

Since 2012, the HITS Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix has been one of the biggest annual draws for West Coast equestrians. No other grand prix in California comes close to it in prize money, difficulty or, until now, size. As the first leg of the HITS Triple Crown of $1 Million grand prix competitions held annually in the United States, the Thermal Million falls in mid-March, at the end of the HITS Desert winter circuit.

When HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri announced last week that the 2017 HITS Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix will see the cups lowered from 1.60m heights to 1.50m, we went straight to the source to find out why such a decision was being made (for the first time in 2017, riders will also be able to enter two horses in the $1 Million Grand Prix.) After all, lowering the height of California’s biggest grand prix splits from conventional thinking in sport: the higher the prize money, the bigger the fences. Will this also lower the quality of the competition?

Not necessarily, says Struzzieri, who took a long, hard look at the tone of the sport on the West Coast and the gaps that are holding show jumping back. Read on as he explains why the needs of the horses and riders who attend his shows come first, and how he wants to build the level up long term, by lowering it temporarily:

Q: The Thermal Million is one of, if not the most difficult and exciting grand prix competitions on the West Coast. Why lower the height?
A: It’s in response to a few different things. In part it goes back to a conversation I had with Murray Kessler when I was on a committee with him a few years ago. We were discussing, how can we raise the bar in the amateurs, and how can we get horse show managers to offer more classes that prepare horses and riders in the states for international competition.

If you were to examine the calendar in the USA now, in comparison to five years ago, there is, some might call it a plethora of those type of high performance grand prix classes. My opinion is that at this point, we probably have a little too much inventory now and not enough depth in horse and rider that can continue to complete all those classes.

You only need to look at the horse show happening this week in Long Beach, where they’re offering a high performance class where they’re going to jump pretty big jumps, to see how difficult it was for them to fill that show.

Tom Struzzieri
Tom Struzzieri. Ph. Bret St. Clair

Q: However, the Thermal Million has always attracted a strong startlist of at least 30 riders. In forecasting that that may be more difficult to do in 2017, has HITS made a sport decision or a business decision?
A: I think it’s both. I don’t know that you can separate the two. What’s good for HITS is good for the sport, particularly in the winter as people are heading to Florida. That makes it even more difficult to find enough horses that aren’t in South Florida that jump 1.60m.

So it’s a reaction to what my clients out there [in California] want. I don’t have a large number of clients, at this time in their careers, that can jump the 1.60m classes.

And the Million should continue to be a class where I reward the clients of mine for all they do to make my business thrive.

I think that, it we take one step back, we can take two steps forward.

We are always trying to grow the sport, raise the bar, and also to respond to what I see as maybe a saturation [of 1.60m classes] right now in the market.

If you talk to any honest show manager in the US, they will tell you they’re troubled by the numbers in the high performance classes. So you have to decide what’s best. Should we continue to offer what’s not filling, or should we massage what we have and see if we can’t fix it for the long term?

It’s not the simplest thing to put together that start list. In light of that and in light of what I’ve seen over the last 12 months, it seemed to make sense to lower the height.

Q: Will the Thermal Million permanently be a 1.50m class now?
A: No. This isn’t a permanent decision. It’s organic and it will change along with how the sport changes.

It’s not going to be a national-level class, it will be difficult, it will have new jumps and a great atmosphere, and it will also meet the demands and the needs of the people who are showing horses in that area.

Hopefully then, as people develop new stock and new owners get in the game and get involved in that class, the response will be that people will come up and this class will evolve so that we put the level back up.

Q: There may not be a terribly large group of 1.60m riders on the West Coast, but every year of the Thermal Million, a group of East-Coast based veterans have traveled to California for the Million. Do you think this adjustment will change that?
A: I think it will be less appealing to them. I would think that they might find that to go that far, where they don’t have as distinct an advantage at 1.50m as they have at 1.60m, and I think it might make them less inclined to make the trip. That’s just me though, I’m not the one doing the riding.

“This isn’t a permanent decision. It’s organic and it will change along with how the sport changes.”

Q: Do you have plans to alter the height of the Million classes at Saugerties or Ocala?
A: No, that wouldn’t make sense. Ocala offers a different inventory of clients. And Saugerties also attracts a different group of riders.

The East Coast classes and West Coast classes are a little bit different now. There are terrifically talented riders out West and I want to reward them for their business. And hopefully we can get this class back up to 1.60m together.

Q: You’ve achieved CSI5* status at Saugerties for two years now. Do you have a similar interest in making the Ocala and Thermal Millions CSI rated?
A: I wish this were a business where what I wanted would happen, but I try to listen to my clients. They may not know it, but indirectly they steer the ship. I respond to their interests, their needs and their desires the best I can. And those needs are not the same every part of the year in every part of the country.

I believe that the FEI has a place at certain horse shows, I just don’t know they have a place at every horse show. We tried to do a five-star in Thermal last year during the circuit and it was met with very, very, very little support.

Q: We have a couple different grand prix trios in the sport that offer big bonuses; the Rolex Grand Slam, the Longines Masters trio. In your eyes, how does the HITS Triple Crown fit in with those other trios?
A: I think that it certainly has its place. Each HITS Triple Crown class is unique and different. The two winter classes are the culmination of two very big winter circuits. I’ve talked about them being the frequent flier classes. It’s all about saying thank you to the clients who again, support what I do around the country.

The Saugerties class to me is much different, since whoever wants to can come to that class if they’re ranked, It’s a different type class and produces a different start list for sure. They are not all cut from the same cloth. This year, the Triple Crown won’t offer a bonus for winning all three classes.

Q: Traditionally in sport, the higher the difficulty, the higher the prize money. Do you agree with that statement?
A: Traditionally, perhaps I agree with that statement. But you tell me about this sport in the USA right now. Are we strong? And I mean below the top, where obviously after our performance in Rio we are strong. I look at sport growth and try to see where my company is going to be in ten years.

Where is the sport going to be? I think the decision in Thermal will lend itself towards sport growth, more so than sticking with that traditional thinking that the bigger the jump the bigger the prize money.

The feedback I’ve gotten from the great majority of riders has been quite positive. For sure, no one sees it as a perpetual decision. It’s a decision that’s reacting to the market tone.

Q: Finally, can you give us a quick update on the development of the newest HITS venue, at Balmoral Park in Chicago, Illinois?
A: We’re getting there. We’ve got 50 people working there every day, and we’ll be ready for a spring 2017 start. Permits for a lot of the grading are just coming in. we’ve been working mostly on the barns because we got those permits early.

There’s so much infrastructure that was there prior to us starting. It’s an exciting property, there are no cookie cutter facilities. We’re close enough to a huge market we can tap into, and hopefully announce a big class there in the future.

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