What Happened to the Central Park Horse Show?

The unique Central Park Horse Show has yet to return after COVID-19 ended its 4-year streak.

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A horse show inside one of the most densely populated urban landscapes in the country doesn’t happen often. But the Central Park Horse Show brought elite horses to the city—for four years in a row.

That streak ended in 2017 after subsequent scheduling issues. And an anticipated return in 2020 was sidelined by COVID-19.

Central Park horse show
Photo by David Handschuh

Last fall, when the Central Park Horse Show would have taken place, there was still no sign of it. As New York City re-opened to previous leisure activities and sports, the safety protocols weren’t enough for the beloved Central Park Horse Show to return to Wollman Rink. The logistics and funds required to pull it off seem to have rendered one of New York’s most unique events of the last decade a thing of the past. Fans and competitors are concerned it’s gone for good.

“To lose a city show, especially in America, is really sad,” says Sophie Gochman, a first-year student at Harvard who competed in the Central Park Horse Show in 2017 and who is one of the many New Yorkers who loved the event and appreciated the visibility it brought to the sport. “We’re just not going to have that same opportunity and accessibility.”

“The atmosphere was electric,” says Jennifer Wood, who managed media and communications for the Central Park Horse Show. “From where we were in the ring, you could see the city skyline. It was really special.”

Spectator’s Paradise at the Central Park Horse Show

The Central Park Horse Show was notable for bringing in Olympic-level show jumpers from around the world to a unique city environment. It also aired on primetime television, broadcasting on NBC Sports, according to Horses Daily. It was also the first outdoor, four-day equestrian sporting event held within New York City. With large sums of prize money from sponsors, including more than $200,000 in 2017, hundreds of big-name riders came for a chance to win, including Georgina Bloomberg and Jessica Springsteen.

At its peak, the arena saw a total of 3,000 spectators.

Central Park Horse Show
Photo by Sportfot

“You’d have people who didn’t even get tickets standing on the hilltops of Central Park watching,” says Gochman.

The show attracted a range of spectators, so people from various socioeconomic backgrounds could attend. This was especially true on Family Day, when admission was free and included face painting, Miniature Horses and games for kids.

Logistical Nightmare

At the helm of the show were Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, and Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions.

“We’d always wanted to do one in New York, and everybody said it’s impossible, ‘You can’t get Central Park,’” says Stone.

And though they were successful, it was a logistical nightmare, even before the pandemic, he explains.

Horses had to be shipped in at a certain time of night so as not to block the roads. Everything was imported, from the hay to the food to the footing. For the horses to walk from their temporary stables by Tavern on the Green to the ring, the asphalt had to be covered in mats.

“We put up all the bleachers and grandstands around Wollman Rink,” says Wood. “They built a VIP pavilion on top of the rink and offices overlooking the ring. It was a huge undertaking.”

Spiraling Costs for the Central Park Horse Show

Additionally, there were scheduling difficulties. There was only a two-week window in which the Central Park Horse Show could take place at Wollman Rink. In 2018, Bellissimo and Stone were chosen to run the World Equestrian Games at Bellissimo’s facility in Tryon, N.C., which, according to Stone, is like the Olympics for showjumping and an honor they couldn’t pass up. Unfortunately, the date of the Central Park Horse show would have fallen too close to the World Equestrian Games, meaning 19-hour trailer rides for horses to get to New York City in time for the show.

“In some ways, we were the victim of our own success,” says Stone.

Charlotte Dujardin at Central Park
Photo by Meg Banks

And then the reality of the show’s price tag set in. Even with funding from sponsors like JetBlue and Rolex, and tickets selling for $500 to $600 on Stubhub, the event wasn’t profitable. And though profit wasn’t the goal for either Stone or Bellissimo, it was teetering on the edge.

“The costs kept going up,” says Stone. They weren’t selling the amount of tickets in 2017 that they had in the inaugural year. Stone likened this discrepancy to a Broadway musical.
“I can go and see ‘Hamilton’ once, but you know, you’re not going to pay $300 to see it a third time, no matter how fantastic it is,” he adds.

Future of the Central Park Horse Show

As the pandemic continues, Stone confirms there are no plans to hold the show in the fall of 2022, but he doesn’t believe it’s gone for good.

“I never say never,” he says. “It was a fantastic event, and it was a lot of fun to organize. And it does have the opportunity to promote the sport in a big way.”

If it did happen again, there would be at least one fan to welcome it. Gochman, if given the opportunity, said she would return.

“A show like that would definitely entice me to miss a weekend at college.”

This article about the Central Park Horse Show appeared in the March 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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