Equine event rescheduled
As events around the world continue to be impacted by COVID-19, a signature equestrian competition in Marion County also has fallen victim to the pandemic. The Ocala Jockey Club’s 2020 3-Day Event, originally set for Nov. 12-15 on the rolling hills of northwest Marion County, has been rescheduled to Nov. 11-14, 2021.
The Ocala Jockey Club (OJC) property spans more than 900 acres and is located between Irvine and Flemington, on County Road 318. The picturesque campus, with its sprawling pastures, ancient moss-laden oaks, barns, paddocks and homes, offers one of the best sunset views in all of Marion County, which is larger in size than the state of Rhode Island. It offers a perfect site for equine eventing competitions, which include dressage, cross country and show jumping.
The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) holds Eventing National Championships annually at the CCI5*-L, Advanced, CCI4*-L, CCI3*-L and CCI2*-L levels. The OJC 3-Day Event was designated as the CCI4*-L National Championships. And, due to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games reset for the summer of 2021, it also was to serve as an important Olympic qualifier.
“As a number of 4* and 5* events have cancelled across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, OJC recognized the importance of the OJC event to Team USA and the USEF High Performance program and worked diligently to plan the event. However, COVID-19 concerns have become significant enough that the hard decision to cancel needed to be made,” OJC officials stated in news release. “It was clear that COVID-19 would not make it possible to conduct the 2020 event as the high-profile community and spectator-friendly event of the past four years that has created over $1 million of annual economic impact to the community.”
Given that this was a tough decision, we asked OJC President Pavla Nygaard her final impetus for canceling the event.
“We were always going to put our assessment of safety first, regardless of when the decision to go or not would be made,” she stated via email on Wednesday. “OJC would have preferred to make decisions closer to the event date. The pandemic impacts may still improve or get worse, either way affecting the ultimate wisdom of running this type of event when the scheduled date actually arrives. The impetus for the timing of the decision was due to the sport’s internal political and planning considerations affecting competitors and officials, requiring decisions to be made far out in advance.”
Nygaard noted in the release that she felt the OJC team had a responsibility to study trends and project the likely impacts on a competition four months in the future.
“I have read hundreds of articles and scientific studies about the virus’ behavior, transmission, prevention, available therapeutics, screening apps, wearable technology, mitigation effectiveness and otherwise,” she stated. “In addition to USEF and FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) guidelines, I have followed the design, effectiveness and limitations of protocols of major sports such as NFL, NBA, MLB and horse racing. I have spoken to organizers and competitors of other equestrian competitions regarding protocols, compliance and factors affecting decisions of when and how to run. OJC has worked on designing protocols including health and other feasibility metrics that would assist us with pre-event and onsite decisions and processes. While most 5* and 4* Eventing competitions around the world have cancelled months ago, until recently we have felt that our intended strategies were feasible to employ even in a very uncertain environment. However, with recent spikes in infections and changes in the demographics affected, available public health metrics no longer give us the same comfort that the strategies within our control would reliably overcome the elements outside of OJC’s control.”
She said there is no one-size-fits all to making decisions in these times, “but our perspective is to focus on our values and go from there.”
“For us, those values were safety and quality, first and foremost,” she remarked via email. “The more people there are involved, and the more communities they need to come from, the more complex and resource-intensive these values can become to implement. Risk assessment and management depends on a large number of factors. There were many aspects of the event that would have presented low risk even in a pandemic, due to the outdoor nature of the event and the fact that this is an individual sport where crowds and face-to-face contact can be minimized fairly well. However, there were other high-risk aspects, such as officials’ overseas travel or protocol compliance concerns, that we found challenging to mitigate with sufficient certainty.”
OJC officials also said their event relies on non-competition income, such as sponsorships, VIP hospitality, spectator and tailgating ticket sales, vendors and advertising, to offset expenses.
“Due to social distancing requirements, these non-competition aspects are currently not allowed or limited under USEF Covid-19 mitigation rules,” the release indicated. “Our conversations with select sponsors and other event organizers point to a clear need to understand supporters’ economic challenges in these times. We understand everyone has been affected differently in this pandemic, and feel it necessary for our supporters to be able to regroup their own lives and operations. However important this event may be, we feel this is not the year to ask people for increased support.”
When asked about the impact to individuals, Nygaard said that eventing competitors are used to taking risks on their horses each time they jump over large obstacles at high speed.
“But this situation is different, where the person taking the risk and the one affected by it may not be the same person,” she offered. “With this virus, we defeat it when we care about each other and it defeats us when we don’t.”