Friday Night Lights in Wellington: A Conversation With George D’Ambrosio
The Turf Tour was based at Wellington’s International Polo Club for several years. It now moves to many different venues throughout town. Ph. ©Erin Gilmore for NF
In 2017, George D’Ambrosio and Olympic veteran Nona Garson expanded upon their Ridge Show Series and Turf Tour, the boutique-formatted hunter/jumper series that gave the equestrian community in Wellington, Florida, another venue option during the winter circuit.
The Ridge and Turf Tour offered quality competitions on a smaller, more inexpensive scale than the Winter Equestrian Festival. From January through April, it gave both horses and riders a more intimate atmosphere to develop and progress, and with the success of this year’s circuit, the series will bring a new initiative in 2018: Friday Night Lights.
We get back to the basics with D’Ambrosio, who discusses the inspiration behind The Ridge Show Series and Turf Tour, its effort to support the foundation of sport in the United States, and how the uniqueness of the series works to the benefit of all.
Noelle Floyd: What was the inspiration behind The Ridge Series & Turf Tour?
George D’Ambrosio: When I turned 55, I decided to start running and managing horse shows because it’s something I want to stay involved in, and Nona and I really wanted to give back to the industry because it’s been so good to us and so rewarding.
“Ten years ago, the average age of an Olympic horse was 16-17 years old. Today, it’s down to 11.”
The great riders in our country are aging out and we have a huge pool of young amateurs who are easily affording the very expensive horses, but they were never taught to develop them because the industry turned into purchase and show over the last 15 years. They’re riders who can find eight jumps sitting on not just any good horse, but the right horse, and they can win on some of them.
A professional can take a young horse at three years old, sit on it, and feel that it’s got ability; they put their time into it and develop it.
The art of developing horses and bringing them from four-years-old to grand prix level is a dying form here in America, and we feel that one of the things we can do to give back to our group, our peers, and the developing young riders, is provide a training mechanism of developing.
This is why we decided to run these horse shows on the Turf Tour. We believe that many professionals and developing horses needed to get out of the back rings where they compete at these big horse shows because they’re not getting the opportunity to develop further.
NF: Where does the fault lie?
GD: The fault lies in the commercialization of horse shows and having the format of pay to play. When you have 50 horses under your barn name, the number one professional at the facility is not teaching all 50 people. They take on a couple of people and teach the expertise that goes along with it.
“We have got to get these kids involved and desiring to be the best that they can be.”
Half of them are being taught by roughly educated flat riders. What teaches is experience and achievement; having done it, excelled at it, and accomplished it.
If you look at the European system, they concentrate on developing horses and riders by keeping it on a more personal and disciplined scale of intense education. That is the advantage that Europe has over America.
NF: How does The Turf Tour and Ridge Series support the effort to better develop riders?
GD: At the bigger horse shows, you don’t get an Olympian who is present and ready to answer a question you may have.
When you come to our Turf Tour you can walk the course and Nona can walk it with you, explaining the course design, the inside turns, and where you can and can’t save time. Or the process of developing a young horse and having the discipline within yourself to continue doing it the right way and tolerating the difficulties of an animal with the mental capacity of a three year old.
The Turf Tour is all about giving riders the time to learn and intermingle with world class professionals, because that’s what develops riders and our future.
It moves from facility to facility around Wellington, which gives you the experience of different atmospheres and footing. It has a Level 2 rating so we can run the equitation classes; the Washingtons, NALs, and Marshall Sterlings.
NF: Why was it so important to host the competitions on natural footing?
GD: Our turf tour was designed to put horses on a more natural footing and away from the fiber based footing that is very restricting. Studies have been done to support this, and we ourselves, who develop young horses, started to see injuries in our seven and eight year olds that would’ve developed in a 12 or 14-year-old.
“I can’t tell you how much people learn by watching and by being able to ask these professionals questions.”
Ten years ago, the average age of an Olympic horse was 16-17 years old. Today, it’s down to 11. There is one thing that we have done differently in the last 10 years, and that’s the footing we’re showing our horses on.
The artificial footing was designed for World Championships and Olympics in case of foul weather because they couldn’t cancel. Today, every horse show has it and every ring that people own have it because they think they’re supposed to.
Meanwhile, horses’ careers are being shortened at their highest peak of performance, and we believe that going back to turf, and looser sand-based footing will better support the horses’ longevity in the sport.
Riders like Mclain Ward, Todd Minikus, and Ian Miller have brought the best of their best to us. They start their horses on the beautiful footing where they’re not being restricted and can slowly get them fit, and then when they’re done and ready they go over to WEF and compete so that they have 5 rounds on that footing instead of 30.
NF: How is the Open Card format of The Turf Tour structured?
GD: These cards are open for hours so people have the time to fit them in during their busy show schedule. Everyday there are two classes, so you pay your nominating fee for the horse show and then you pay two class entry fees.
There are two rings that we set up and each have two courses built in; you can jump one in the beginning, one towards the end, or back to back. If you go in and make a little mistake, you can take a breather and then jump the second course to improve upon what you did wrong rather than take it home.
“…we have a huge pool of young amateurs who are easily affording the very expensive horses, but they were never taught to develop them..”
The grand prix goes from 8am in the morning until 4:30pm, and the other rings switch every three hours to different heights. You can go from a lower to a bigger heightened ring and there are no restrictions.
We also have the rings side by side so that riders can watch and mingle with the professionals.
NF: What has been the benefit of that system and intimate venue format?
GD: It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s open space and there is no deadline to get into the ring. I’ve seen McLain sit down for lunch and talk to riders who ask him questions. These horse shows give you time, connection, and it allows these riders to breathe and participate.
I can’t tell you how much people learn by watching and by being able to ask these professionals questions. That how Nona, myself, and my brother learned back in the day. It wasn’t from just a lesson from one individual, it was the input from the different riders we could talk to. That’s what develops riders and our future.
NF: Can you talk about the new Friday Night Lights that you’re planning for the 2018 winter season?
GD: This is something we are introducing for our lower leveled riders at Polo West. At the big horse shows, the children, adults and low junior amateurs are competing against numbers that make luck the deciding factor.
“What teaches is experience and achievement; having done it, excelled at it, and accomplished it.”
They’re also not the focal point of the show. We’d like to pay more attention to the younger kids, bring them to the focal point, and give them opportunities at bigger venues to create more concentration and better discipline in their riding.
We have got to get these kids involved and desiring to be the best that they can be. This will give them the opportunity to be in the limelight and ride on tracks designed by Olympic course designers, who will be there to answer questions as well.
NF: And The Ridge Tour?
GD: We are going to return to Jim Brandon Equestrian Center for all the hunter derbies for the C rated horse show. One weekend a month, we are also going to run an unrated horse show for hunters on one day and jumpers the next. It will give the local community who can’t afford WEF, the opportunity to compete and show over beautiful courses. Nona will be there and they can ask any questions they want.