Chattahoochee Hills is a stunning eventing venue in Fairburn, Georgia — so stunning, in fact, that rumor has it that it was one of the filming locations for the iconic movie Black Panther. Needless to say, it’s a fantastic venue with big, scopey cross country courses, and it has a special place in my heart, too, as I galloped around my first 4*-S there with Bendigo several years ago.
This spring, the venue is offering $35,000 in prize money at its spring events, which should attract top competitors from around the country. The spring events are March 11–12, which is running BN-A as well as the 2* and 3* levels, and March 31–April 2, which is running BN-I in addition to a feature A/I division, which will offer the 5* dressage test and a big, technical show jumping test.
I caught up with Hugh Lochore, course designer and organizer of Chatt Hills, to get an inside scoop on his plans for the spring events — and his views on how the eventing calendar has changed recently. Lochore has been designing at the venue for eleven years, and he explains that the FEI eventing calendar in America has been up in the air over the past couple of years. The FEI awards dates to eventing venues based on the levels they offer and what other events would like to run on those same dates. Especially of interest for competitors at the Advanced/4* level is the timing of 4* events throughout the year as they prepare for their long-format competitions in the late spring and fall — but another crucial consideration is that if two popular events run on the same weekend, both venues will suffer in terms of entries. The reality is that riders and horses cannot be in two places at once, even if they love both venues!
After the announcement of the cancellation of Red Hills from the eventing calendar last year, many riders wondered what the first feature 4* of the year would be on the East Coast. The early March Red Hills date went to Chatt Hills, but the venue will not be running a 4* — instead, the feature class will be the Advanced division, which will have $10,000 in prize money up for grabs. Lochore mentions that this new date is desirable because it does not clash with the Bruce’s Field Eventing Prix, and he expects lots of entries there.
The second Chatt Hills event is now the first weekend in April. Lochore spoke with enthusiasm about hosting an A/I division with the 5* dressage test, 5* show jumping track, and a championship-style cross country course. That class will have $25,000 prize money and is designed especially for horses heading to the Kentucky Three-Day Event.
“I have always thought that choice was a good thing,” Lochore explains, remarking further that when riders have the ability to tailor their calendar to their horse’s needs, they not only produce horses more thoughtfully but also drive up competition between venues, pushing all of the venues to make improvements to attract more competitors. However, there are drawbacks to having too much choice: entries can suffer overall if they are divided up among too many shows. For example, Lochore explains that previously, riders bemoaned the fact that Chatt Hills and The Fork fell on the same April weekend. This meant that the entries for both venues were reduced, and riders who would have liked to benefit from running at both venues could not do so, at least not in the same season.
“The new calendar does mean that people have fewer options [of where to run their horses],” Lochore says, but he also notes that there is always a push and pull with the calendaring process, which will be under review again after this year. There is another drawback to having less choice on the eventing calendar. When there are fewer events, there is less competition among events, so they have less incentive to offer prize money. Whether riders choose events based on prize money is hard to say, especially because of the dearth of prize money in eventing generally, particularly compared with show jumping. However, it is always an attraction for riders when a venue does offer generous prize money.
A lot of riders are starting to understand the complexity of calendaring changes and how that affects their schedules and the dynamics of producing horses. While there will always be benefits and drawbacks to any changes that occur, it is important to think about the amount of planning that goes on behind the scenes to put on these top-tier events.
“The economics of the show are in the lower levels – we don’t make money off of running the 4* level,” Lochore expounds. Venues are often known for their upper-level divisions, which provide the greatest spectator draw and media interest and attract the ‘star power’, but the reality is that the costs associated with building these big, technical courses and hiring the officials to run FEI divisions often exceed the entry fees that they bring in. Thus, when venues plan their budgets for these events, they depend on the lower-level entries. One benefit of having upper-level divisions is that the riders competing in them will often bring their young horses and students with them to the same shows, so while they may pick their venues based on what works best for their upper-level horse, that will also determine the additional entries they bring in for those shows.
An analysis of the economics of eventing venues is perhaps the subject of a different article, but it is notable to say that Chatt Hills runs 32 horse shows per year (including jumping and dressage shows), as well as seven full events per year, so they do bring in considerable entry fees. The facility is permanent, with hundreds of stalls on site. This high number of shows means an overall total of several thousand entries per year, which does give them the flexibility to offer prize money for their feature events. Furthermore, the venue hosts music festivals during the summer months, so it is a versatile property that makes great use of its space.
Another reason that Chatt Hills can offer prize money is that Lochore himself works for free — he designs the courses purely for the love of the sport, and thus, the venue does not have to pay for his course designing. Other venues have different business models, but it is worth thinking about how venues plan their own calendars and investments in jumps, facilities, and the like to stay viable.
Just as no horse person gets into the eventing industry to make big money, it is also true that no venue gets into the eventing industry to make money. It is all, in the end, about the horses and the competitors.
“We want the positive energy,” says Lochore, whose enthusiasm for the venue and for the sport is palpable. He emphasizes that they are always making improvements to Chatt Hills’s facilities, and he continues to imagine and build more diverse cross-country courses for competitors.
With the discontinuation of the fall Tryon CCI-L event, which has run in November for the last couple of years, the eventing calendar has also shifted further south. Now the Terranova Equestrian Center will host the fall CCI4*L championship in November, and Chatt Hills has stepped in to host a 4*S as a preparation event for that long-format show.
The opening date for the March Chatt Hills event was January 24, so you can send your entries in now. The April date opens on February 14.