With entries at an all-time high –again– this winter season in Wellington, Florida, a packed schedule of Saturday night feature classes in what some consider an overused International Arena, Canada’s Eric Lamaze picked up the microphone and took his chance to voice the frustrations that have been brewing among riders of all levels thus far this circuit.
“We’re very thankful to have this facility to come and compete, but if we can make it even better by asking the riders’ opinion, why not do it?” he said.
How Many is Too Many?
On a typical Wednesday morning at WEF, show entries for the week can top 6,000 horses. Popular classes, such as the $6,000 1.40m, attract upwards of 170 entries, week to week. The WEF Challenge Cup weekly grand prix qualifier saw a start list of nearly 100 entries in Week 2. It makes for a long slog of a day if you’re a rider, ring steward, groom, photographer, or virtually anyone else who plays a part in attending the show.
“We’re very thankful to have this facility to come and compete, but if we can make it even better by asking the riders’ opinion, why not do it?”
“If you look at other venues, they’re not hosting 130, 1.40m horses in their International Arena. And the 1.40m for 80% of the people is a schooling class,” Lamaze said. “If they just put it in a ring all day long at 1.40m and you can just sign in and go whenever it’s convenient for you to go, it’s the same thing as having it [in the main arena].”
Not only does a class of 140 create a competition that no one wants to watch, it puts more wear and tear on an already overused International Arena, Lamaze added.
“If they kept the International Arena for the feature classes like the High Amateur Classic, the High Junior Classic, and the nice young 1.45m class which gives the young horses a feature class, and the Grand Prix and WEF and thing like that, it would make it so it’s a special ring to go in,” he said. “But when you’re using it for 130, 140 entries in one class, the footing also gets a bit destroyed. The ground can’t stay perfect for the entire circuit.”
Nick Skelton of Great Britain, who placed 2nd in the Ariat Grand Prix and was sitting next to Lamaze, began nodding this head.
“There’s a lot of things that bear changing during the week,” he said. “These 1.40m classes that have 143 in it, it’s crazy.
“Maybe the De Nemethy ring should be upgraded so they can use the tent on that side, make it more of a feature ring, and put some better classes in there, so it’s not all about the International Ring, because everyone seems to want to go into the International ring. So then you end up with over 100 horses, you have a massive ring, a long course, and it takes so long in there.”
Could there be different levels of competition, with a CSI2* in one featured arena and the CSI5* in another? That’s business as usual in Europe, and riders are hoping that WEF will catch on.
“Doing that would also give a chance for younger riders to access some prize money and winnings because they wouldn’t be riding against McLain and Kent and others,” Skelton said. “They’re in a big group of people as it is now, and it’s hard for some of the young riders to get ahead, and also get some prize money.”
Schedule Adjustments for Improved Horse Development
It could have been the class that they’d recently completed which spurred Lamaze to share his thoughts. As a big, technical four-star track held under beautiful sunny skies on Sunday afternoon, the grand prix had a much different feeling than if it had been held under the lights amid the big atmosphere of a Saturday night.
“With having the grand prix on Sunday, you have got a different sort of a class,” Skelton said. “On those Saturday nights, it is just hare ‘em, scare ‘em, flat out gallop over big jumps for an entertainment point of view. I know it’s nice, but you’ve got to think of the horses. They can’t keep going week in, week out, at the speed they go, without getting damaged. It was nice [Sunday], it was quick, it wasn’t neck-breaking speed, and I think that was a really good grand prix. And I think maybe they should look at having two or three on a Sunday afternoon, so that it’s not just about the entertainment on a Saturday night.”
Lamaze agreed, and suggested that perhaps reversing the schedule, once or twice per season, to hold a 1.50m Suncast Jumper Championship class on a Saturday night would give younger horses a chance to compete at a lower level under the lights to get used to it – and still give spectators a good reason to come out and watch show jumping for a fun night out.
As the Winter Equestrian Festival has grown, it has expanded to its second venue down Pierson Road, giving riders another arena to compete in several times per season. The grass derby field at The Stadium, as well as the smaller outdoor arena that also serves as the main show arena for dressage, hosts WEF classes to much success. But for Lamaze, who entered a horse without much international experience, the week’s original schedule that had him swapping between rings was not ideal.
“We all want this place to work. We live in our sport, and it’s our business.”
“I feel that if you’re going to have the grand prix at a different (WEF) venue, the WEF Challenge Cup qualifier should be held at that same venue,” Lamaze added. He was referring to the week’s original schedule, which planned for the grand prix to be held on The Stadium’s grass derby field, while the qualifier was run in the sand International Arena. That didn’t happen because of weather complications, but in past seasons that’s how the schedule has been organized.
Does show management listen to riders’ suggestions?
“No,” quipped Skelton. “And we all want this place to work. We live in our sport, and it’s our business.”