Embracing the Beautiful, Bizarre Experiment That Is Arena Eventing in Central Park

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Equestrian sport, and eventing in particular, is something most of us associate with wide-open, rural spaces. So there’s some cognitive dissonance to see it transplanted into a polar opposite context — like the heart of Manhattan, as is the case with this evening’s U.S. Open $50,000 Arena Eventing Team Competition at Central Park Horse Show.

The venue is a glowing orb of light encircled by bushy green trees, white VIP tents and grandstands at the foot of the New York skyline. Beyond it skyscrapers loom large, a snaggle-toothed grin of glass and steel. Altogether, it’s quite the sight to behold. Yesterday evening I watched the sunset from a rocky outcrop overlooking the arena, the sky blooming like a still-wet watercolor painting, champagne pink into lavender into cobalt blue.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

And then the house lights went down and the city’s twinkling lights came up. As the evening’s headline Grand Prix class began, the arena’s incandescence attracted the attention of park passers-by, who clamored up the hillside or peered through gaps in the fence for a glimpse of the action. Curious onlookers collected along the bridle path, gawking and snapping photos of the big, gleaming horses with their phones as they passed.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

This isn’t, of course, the first time we’ve held our sport up against an urban backdrop. Images from the 2012 Olympic Games, which ran cross country through Greenwich Park, come immediately to mind. And it’s nothing new for show jumping, whose Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) has set up shop in in the heart-center of metropolises around the world: Paris, Mexico City, Miami Beach, Shanghai, Madrid, Hamburg, Cannes, Monaco, Berlin, Rome, Doha, among others.

A few stunning images from the series, which bring equestrian sport to the people while creatively celebrating context with place-inspired jumps:

Paris

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Miami Beach

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Monaco

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Rome

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Vienna

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Photo by Stefano Grasso/LGCT.

Where does LGCT, with its opulent prize-giving and plush social texture, fit into the sport of show jumping? It’s endured friction with the FEI over the years over this question, although recently they seem to have recently settled into a more amicable coexistence.

Where does this evening’s arena eventing competition fit into our sport? It’s a distinctly strange experiment, impulsively set into motion earlier this month when Central Park Horse Show’s originally scheduled dressage CDI competition fell through. When it was announced there was plenty of enthusiasm but also some faint “ruining our sport” grumbling in the eventing community, denouncing the format’s lack of tradition and overly-shiny presentation.

I guess to eventers for whom the short format still feels like a punch in the gut, arena eventing is the ultimate low blow. It’s not even arena eventing in its truest sense in comparison to the European model, wherein the cross country portion of the course usually takes a pass outside the arena. (Which would be a cool idea for the future, if we can wrangle a v2.0 out of tonight’s competition.) But rest assured, tonight is not going to ruin our sport. William Fox-Pitt and Boyd Martin are not going to swear off flatwork. Kentucky is not going to become a watered-down two-phase event. This isn’t supposed to be an accurate replication of the sport but a best-foot-forward showcase.

I can also see how it might be unsettling to watch an “eventing” competition encircled by VIP tents full of uptown New York socialites dolled up in suits and cocktail dresses, who might not know a crossrail from an oxer. But if that’s your way of thinking, maybe it’s time to reconsider which party is sporting the too-snug tie. Eventing has always been the wildchild of Olympic equestrian disciplines; we pride ourselves on being a little bit more up-for-anything and versatile than our stuffed-shirt dressage and show jumping brethren. So we should be able to roll with this, right?

Who cares if it’s all a bit seat-o-the-pants and last-minute. We’re keeping an open mind. It’s an adventure! Let’s take eventing where it’s never gone before — the big apple.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The brilliant thing about CPHS visionary Mark Bellissimo, even if it also makes him a bit of a wildcard, is that he makes stuff happen. “Team relay arena eventing” wasn’t even a sport that existed before tonight. Bellissimo doesn’t waste time batting ideas around a table or seeking permission from curmudgeonly committees; he just sees an opportunity and advances on it. He seems to have taken a liking to the eventing crowd (and I mean what is not to like, really?), and the riders who are coming out to play tonight were game enough to scrape up a horse last-minute and show up to play.

Our sport is too cool to hide away out in a cornfield somewhere. If even just a few folks, whether park passers-by or Wall Street businessmen who paid thousands for a VIP table, have added the word “eventing” to their vocabularies by the end of the night, success. Let’s show ’em what we’ve got.

Comments