World Equestrian Center to debut next month amid tiff over event sanctioning

The World Equestrian Center-Ocala is less than a month away from its public unveiling. The site’s developers, the Roberts family, have promised a first-class operation for equine enthusiasts in or visiting Ocala.

But Roby Roberts, owner and operator of the facility, known as WEC, said the venue will appeal to more than horse lovers.

Equine competitions and shows are integral to WEC, he said in a recent interview.

Yet the broader vision for WEC includes one day being an entertainment destination – with dog and car shows, musical acts, sporting events, movies on its “megatron” screens, and date nights for those who want dinner at one of its many restaurants or just to tour its grounds – with more to come.

“There’s just so many things you can come and see and do and experience,” Roberts added. “It’s just endless what our plans will be.”

The public will get a preview of that – with no admission cost – when WEC formally opens on Dec. 10.

In the run-up to its premiere inaugural equestrian event, however, WEC has rankled one of the leading governing bodies for hunter, jumper and horsemanship competitions.

WEC’s Ocala Winter Spectacular is a 12-week-long bonanza of hunter, jumper and horsemanship competitions that begins on Jan. 5 with $9 million in prizes at stake.

Yet the U.S. Equestrian Federation, or USEF, has balked at Roberts’s choice of an alternate sanctioning organization for the event.

USEF, which qualifies competitors for the U.S. Olympic equestrian team, has vowed that any riders or animals that participate in the Winter Spectacular will not earn points toward championships for the horse of the year title, overall top ranking and leading money winner.

Moreover, USEF CEO Bill Moroney announced that his group has raised the issue with the International Equestrian Federation, or FEI, which could slap a six-month moratorium on its competitions for any FEI-affiliated officials, riders, or horses involved in the Winter Spectacular.

Besides pulling back from WEC and threatening its participants, Moroney also announced that WEC would not host the FEI’s Jumping Nations Cup, the premiere team event of the sport, unless the FEI vetoed that plan.

In a statement to the Ocala Gazette, an FEI spokesperson said the organization has noted the situation with WEC. Its board will discuss the matter, including the Nations Cup, at a Nov. 25 meeting.

The controversy stems from WEC’s scheduling proximity with HITS, the New York-based outfit that has produced USEF-sponsored hunter/jumper equestrian events in Ocala every winter since 1985. Its 2020-21 program kicks off Dec. 9, the day before WEC opens.

WEC officials wanted the USEF’s blessing for all 12 weeks of its competitions, and sought an exemption to the mileage mandate, according to Moroney.

For Florida competitions, USEF rules say simultaneous events must be 50 to 225 miles apart, depending on the type of activity. At just 11 miles apart, the WEC-HITS situation obviously failed that criteria.

The USEF listened at first, and while it didn’t go as far as WEC requested, the organization showed a willingness to make some accommodations.

USEF approved four of the 12 weeks of the competitions, identified for WEC some “lower level” events that it would sanction and endorsed WEC as host if it did the Nations Cup. It supported the latter, Moroney said, “even though this is the first year of operation of this venue, and the organizer has never hosted an FEI event.”

Yet the USEF backtracked as Roberts tapped the National Snaffle Bit Association, or NSBA, to govern WEC’s events not under USEF’s domain.

Moroney, in his remarks, said USEF withdrew because using two licensees was “confusing” to participants, “jeopardizes horse and human safety and welfare,” and is not in “the best interests of the sport.”

Roberts downplayed USEF’s reaction.

“There are multiple federations you can have a horse show with,” he said. “With HITS being so close, we just went with a different federation.”

As for the NSBA, he said, “They have horse shows with 4,000 to 6,000 horses. They’ve been in business for 40 years. They have made their reputation. To us, it’s no different than buying a Chevy or a Ford car. They’re very similar to each other.”

Stephanie Lynn, executive director of the National Snaffle Bit Association, noted in an email to the Gazette that her group has been sanctioning horse shows for more than three decades and runs more than 450 shows a year across the country.

“We look forward to welcoming a new community of equestrians to our organization and providing services to the owners and exhibitors participating in the hunter/jumper events,” she said.

“The Roberts family is providing a beautiful venue for all equestrians to experience.”

Roberts pointed out that FEI, which is based in Switzerland, does not apply mileage rules. He said he wasn’t sure how that organization would react to USEF’s complaint.

As for the USEF distance mandate, he added, “That doesn’t at all bother us because there’s other federations, there’s other avenues. It is what it is. If you go to Chevy, and they don’t have the truck you want, you can go to Ford or Dodge, and they have the truck you want. To me, it’s just not a big deal.”

Roberts said he didn’t believe the controversy would cause people to flee WEC, and instead suggested WEC and HITS would mutually benefit by running events at the same time.

“We’re going to be full. I think HITS is going to be full also. I think that HITS and us together is amazing because we’re just going to bring more horse people to town. It’s not like one has to succeed and one has to fail. I think we can help each other. We can feed off each other,” said Roberts.

Some competitors, he maintained, would want to participate under both organizations and would “bounce back and forth” between the shows. “It makes it even better for the horse world in Ocala,” Roberts added.

Because of USEF’s position, Roberts noted that the NSBA, which was initially set to judge 10 of WEC’s events, will now oversee all of them.

“We were already heavily weighted to the NSBA anyway,” he said. “And it doesn’t seem like our spectators care.

“I don’t see any negative in it whatsoever.”

Since the dispute has gone public, equestrian competitors have flooded social media with opinions about “prohibitive” rules and costs associated with USEF shows.

One particular Facebook post by Ann Glavan that was shared almost 6,000 times opined that the “Roberts and WEC understand what no one seems to be able to get into anyone at USEF’s heads: 95% of us do not care about Horse of the Year awards. We do not care about ‘money won’ points or young horse this, green horse award that. We do not care about any of the new random championships or awards USEF invents every year.”

Glavan insisted, instead, that the majority of competitors cared most about receiving having access to safe facilities, decent food and good classes at a fair price.

Erin Webb, a spokesperson for HITS, said the group had no comment on the issue.

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