The Tryon International Equestrian Center

Hunter/jumper shows have already begun.

The big news right now where I live in Tryon, N.C., should also be big news for equestrians in the U.S., if not worldwide. The Tryon International Equestrian Center opened last month, and while what’s there already is impressive, the plans for the future are mind-blowing.

This was a “soft” opening, with no publicity beyond what was necessary to let the hunter/jumper community know there were three weeks of classes being offered. So, with no notice at all, there were 1,500 spectators for the first Sunday grand prix, with a purse of $50,000. In all, there were six grand prix jumper events over the three weeks, three with purses of $25,000, two with $50,000 and one with $75,000, plus a full slate of hunter classes and lower-level jumper classes.

Mark Belissimo, the main force behind this project, gave a report of the project to a recent Polk County Commissioners meeting. He was downright gleeful with his reception here after the political struggles he’s faced in Wellington, Fla.,(and still faces) over his huge equestrian facility there. He made the statement that he and his supporters (six families, all private money, with no financing involved) intend this to be “the finest equestrian facility in the world.” 

That’s quite a promise, but it may be well on its way. There was just bare hills in January, but now there are five rings, 500 stalls, support buildings and a lot more land clearing going on. Eventually there will be 10 rings, a 6,000-seat stadium (the light poles are up already) and 1,000 stalls. That’s just the start – there will be a hotel overlooking the equestrian center plus another resort hotel inside the 1,400-acre development that will also include 800 home sites, a golf course, RV park, shopping facilities and all the other support stuff that a community of this scope will need.

There is a website, of course, and a video with all the grand plans.

After the commissioners’ meeting, I asked Roger Smith – one of the partners, who has lived in the Tryon area for a decade – whether Bellissimo’s bold promise also means a bid for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in eight or 12 years. His simple answer was: ‘We’ve talked about it.” The WEG (going on later in August in France) is held every four years, alternately with the Olympics. In four years, it’s headed to Bromont, Canada, but the huge scope of the competition is such that there aren’t a lot of sites bidding. If the WEG doesn’t come to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina eight years from now, because that would be back-to-back stops in North America, then 2022 is a very real possibility.

I mentioned this idea to several local people who just didn’t catch on to the magnitude of the idea. In 2010, when the WEG was in Lexington KY at the Kentucky Horse Park, it was the second biggest sporting event in the world that year (after soccer’s World Cup) and the largest in the U.S. There were 500,000 tickets sold for the slate of eight FEI disciplines.

I can’t even wrap my mind around the idea, since this corner of Polk county just doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure or facilities – if the WEG comes to Tryon, spectators will be commuting from Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C.

But, there were already a lot of neigh-sayers (pun intended) who’ve been proven wrong by Bellissimo. I won’t be surprised if I could rent my spare bedroom (or my horse’s stall) for a lot of money for two weeks, eight years from now.

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