First week of World Equestrian Games a 'rollercoaster ride'

September 18, 2018

The World Equestrian Games are hoping to finish on a positive note after a dreadful first week that included the cancellations of two events, an organizational mistake that sent riders in the wrong direction at the start of a race and one horse being euthanized.

"It has been a rollercoaster ride," organizing committee president Michael Stone said Tuesday.

The games, which are considered the "Super Bowl of equestrian competition," drew more than 600 equestrians and 700 horses from 71 countries and six continents to the Tryon International Equestrian Center in the small town of Mill Spring, North Carolina — about 90 miles east of Charlotte. More than a 500,000 spectators were expected to attend the event, which concludes Sunday.

The WEG got off to an embarrassing start Wednesday in the first competition when some riders in the 100-mile endurance competition were sent off in the wrong direction by race officials to start of the race, which began before dawn. Some horses ran nine miles before the race was stopped and the decision was made to restart.

However, the race was later called off midway through because of intense heat and humidity —as well as sloppy course conditions — following a mid-afternoon rainstorm, causing more frustration from the riders. The event was not rescheduled.

"That meant a few unhappy people who were leading the race," Stone said. "But the one thing we have to do is make sure the horses are looked after and are safe. Horses can suffer badly in those conditions."

The Federation Equestre Internationale, equestrian's governing body, has started an investigation into the error.

Thomas Timmons, the president of the Veterinary Commission, said the decision was made to end the race after horses were tested mid-race and many were deemed to be in danger.

"This was a difficult decision to make, but it was done with horse and athlete welfare in mind as the conditions this afternoon after the rain resulted in extremely high levels of humidity and, combined with rising heat, it was deemed unsafe to continue the ride," Timmons said in a release.

One horse from New Zealand, named Barrack Obama, had to be euthanized.

The horse, a 20-year-old Anglo-Arab gelding, had competed in international endurance events since 2009 — which is a long time for a race horse.

Weather caused more problems over the weekend when the popular dressage freestyle competition — where horses dance to music — was canceled due to weather. Obstacles in trying to reschedule the event proved insurmountable.

Stone said it "was not an easy decision," noting that many of the riders and horses had come from overseas to compete.

"We know this is desperately disappointing for the 15 athletes who had qualified their horses for the freestyle, and of course for all the spectators who had bought tickets, but the weather has simply left us with no choice," Stone said.

There was also a problem with the accommodations of the grooms — the people who look after the horses — when they arrived at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

Mark Bellissimo, who built the center, apologized saying he "made a mistake" by underestimating the demand for on-site housing for grooms. The WEG eventually found suitable accommodations.

"I made a personal commitment to housing grooms on-site and I underestimated the demand. I was too optimistic," Bellissimo said in a statement.

Stone said despite the issues, he expects a strong finish to the World Equestrian Games and doesn't foresee the problems preventing the Tryon from hosting the event again in the future. Stone said the first two days of dressage, eventing and reigning competitions were "fantastic."

"All of these major events, you learn from it the first time that you are better prepared for the second time," Stone said.