No Easy Answers for the Future of the American Eventing Championships

Matt Brown and Happenstance. Photo by Sally Spickard. Matt Brown and Happenstance. Photo by Sally Spickard.

The USEA just wrapped up the second of three American Eventing Championships currently slated to be held at the Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler, Texas, and with the third year of the contract at this current venue set to expire next year, CEO Jo Whitehouse said the organization is on the hunt for the next home of the AECs.

Finding the next venue is just one of the problems plaguing the AECs right now, Jo said this week after returning home to the USEA’s headquarters in Leesburg, Va. Since the inception of the AECs in 2004, it’s been an uphill battle to find venues that both welcome the championships and appease the nation’s eventers from the standpoint of location.

The USEA formed a task force last year to look at the issue of location — whether to pick one permanent venue in the middle of the country; rotate annually between east, central and west venues; or continue on the current three-year rotation schedule between venues. But there was no consensus.

“Everyone had their own opinion,” Jo said — not surprising in a country that covers 3.1 million square miles and takes days to haul a horse trailer across. So is there an answer to the current dilemma of where and when to host the AECs in order to appease the greatest number of eventers? Let’s break it down.

East, West, Central Rotation?

“For those who say rotate the AECs annually between east, central and west, that’s harder to do on one-year contracts because the sponsorship base isn’t there,” Jo said. “In Texas, we’ve only just started to get the local sponsors behind it in the second year. We had TV coverage there for the first time this year; that’s when you pick up momentum and gain support from the local community.”

The USEA has found sponsors are more willing to sign on when the AECs can offer multiple opportunities for exposure, as the championships can on the current three-year rotation structure. So the idea of an annual rotation hasn’t been ruled out, but Jo knows going that route would likely make sponsorships and exposure for the AECs more difficult to procure.

“This year we got the city of Lindale, Texas, on board as sponsors,” Jo said. “As a result, we had two billboards — one with Laine Ashker and one with Jon Holling — and we had spectators coming into the venue to watch because they saw those billboards. We certainly didn’t have that happening in the first year at Texas Rose. It takes awhile to build up the momentum and keep it.”

There’s also the issue of a potential host venue needing six championship-level cross country courses to run Beginner Novice through Advanced levels, along with all the infrastructure required to host an event of the AEC’s magnitude, like trailer parking, camper hookups, stabling and numerous arenas.

What About the Kentucky Horse Park?

Which brings us to the question of the hour and a venue that many eventers have vocally voiced support in favor of as a host site for the championships: Isn’t the Kentucky Horse Park perfectly primed to host an event like the AECs? If only it were that simple.

“Brian Sabo and I spent two days out in Kentucky working with the horse park and speaking with organizers who also host events there during the year,” Jo said. “We thought it would be a wonderful venue. There would be a lot of upgrades needed, plus building an Advanced course — because you can’t send those horses around the four-star course! — but we came home excited about the idea.”

But the Kentucky Horse Park ultimately withdrew from being considered as an AEC host site because the other organizers who host events at the venue believed holding the championships there would cannibalize the entries at their own events.

“The East Coast organizers are very leery of the AECs, which we don’t see as much in the west,” Jo said. “The West Coast is excited about having it on their side of the country.” The past nine of the 11 runnings of the AECs have been on the East Coast, with Texas being the closest the championships have come to the West Coast.

Entry Totals Hinge on Location

This year, 389 total entries contested the AECs in Texas, down slightly from the 408 entries in 2013 in the championship’s first year at Texas Rose Horse Park, and down significantly from the 566 entries in 2012 in the final year the AECs were held at Chattahoochee Hills in Georgia.

The fact remains that with a higher percentage of USEA members clustered on the East Coast near eventing hot spots like the Mid-Atlantic and southeast, entries will always see an upswing when the AECs come to an East Coast venue.

But Jo said the USEA is determined to serve West Coast members in the spirit of ensuring the AECs remain a true championship accessible to all members.”We had riders this year driving four days from Redmond, Wash.,” Jo said. “The way the West Coast got behind it was very exciting. Even Hawley Bennett came home from the World Equestrian Games, tuned up her Training level horse and brought him out to compete.”

Some members have suggested splitting the AECs up into three separate championships in the west, central and east parts of the country to mitigate travel logistics and expenses, thereby giving more members the chance to compete. But the USEA continues to support the idea of holding just one event to give the true feel of a championship.

A Permanent Venue and Date?

Jo said she has sat in many eventing technical committee meetings over the years in which members voiced support for holding the AECs at the same venue and on the same date each year.

“We thought we had a date that would work for everyone, so we picked it, and now it’s not working anymore,” Jo said. “We need to be able to find a slot on the calendar that’s not going to impact the organizers of other events and that is within easy driving distance of everybody.”

Of course, in a country as big as the U.S., finding a central location for all eventers just isn’t possible, but Jo said the USEA received less negative feedback on the venue during the period between 2007 and 2009 when the AECs were held at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Ill. “At Lamplight, people thought Chicago wasn’t that far, so I like the idea of holding it in Area IV again.”

But it’s not as simple as just choosing an ideal location. “We do not want to do any damage to any organizers in any which way,” Jo said. “You have to remember that the AECs create entries for other events all the time. We have people calling every week who need to get into an event because they need one more qualifying score.”

But Jo knows the weeks directly after the AECs do create hardships for organizers, as Greenwood Farm Horse Trials in Weatherford, Texas, is experiencing right now with a drop off in entries for its October 10-12 date. But Jo said the AECs received far more backlash from organizers on the East Coast when the championships ran in that part of the country.

The Hunt for the Right Date

And therein lies another major issue when it comes to choosing an AEC host site: Organizers are extremely protective of not just their venues, but also their date on the USEA calendar. For the past decade, the AECs have struggled to find the best spot on the calendar for the championships, and Jo knows the current slot isn’t working.

“A lot of people think we should have it during the summer holiday when the younger riders are out of school, but my question to them is where and what date? We couldn’t hold it in the summer in Texas because it’s way too hot. The heat also rules out pretty much anywhere in the south during the summer.”

The current date of the last weekend in September — which has already been confirmed as the date for next year’s AECs — makes it difficult for upper-level riders to attend the championships, as Plantation Field and Morven Park — both qualifiers for the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International — run the weekends before and after.

Other dates currently being considered are the third weekend in August — which would be right after Richland Park Horse Trials in Michigan — and the end of July right after the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in Kentucky. Jo knows neither option is ideal.

Attracting Upper-Level Riders

The current date conflict is undoubtedly hurting entries in the Intermediate and Advanced levels at the AECs. Though the Intermediate division boasted a relatively healthy 33 entries, the Adequan USEA Gold Cup Final had just 12, down one from last year’s 13 entries.

“Having 20 to 25 riders in the Gold Cup Final would be ideal, though this year’s final still attracted riders at the very top of the sport,” Jo said. “For the lower levels, it’s certainly more of their mini Olympics and their championships. At the Advanced level, it remains a great opportunity to win prize money.”

The USEA has entertained the idea of turning the Gold Cup Final into a CIC3* to attract more Advanced riders to the championships, but there are significant hurdles to cross with hosting an FEI-level competition at the AECs.

“CIC3* events are very expensive to put on, and if we’re not going to get a decent turnout, it’s hard to justify going that route,” Jo said. “And with all the CICs there are available to riders now, we also wonder if it’s really necessary to add one more to the calendar.”

Jo continues to hope the generous $40,000 purse offered in the Gold Cup Final will draw more Advanced riders to the AECs over time. “A lot of these riders have a horse that’s maybe finished with its four-star career, so they could drop it down and ride for some serious prize money,” Jo said. “That’s what the Gold Cup is all about — promoting the upper-level riders and getting some prize money into their hands.”

AECs ‘Not a Cash Cow’

The USEA works year-round raising the $100,000 in total prize money that is distributed across all the divisions at the AECs. “There isn’t one penny of member money spent on this event,” Jo said. “It’s all funded through sponsorship dollars, and it’s certainly not a cash cow for the USEA.”

The USEA managed the AECs for the first time in 2013 and did so again this year, as opposed to contracting out the management like in years past. Last year’s event netted $21,000, which Jo said went right back into USEA programs and accomplished the organization’s goal of keeping member fees at the same rates.

“You can’t keep member dues, horse registration dues and other fees at the same amounts without looking for additional forms of revenue,” Jo said. “Managing the AECs was one of our ideas to raise enough sponsorship dollars to put toward prize money, with whatever is left going back into programs and ensuring we don’t raise dues.”

All About the Members

And that philosophy of serving the members through the AECs acts as the impetus behind the hard work the USEA staff pours into the championships year round. “The whole goal of the AECs is that everyone comes together — Beginner Novice through Advanced riders — to cheer each other on, which is exactly what happened last weekend. The camaraderie, friendship, support and passion — it was a wonderful event.”

That’s been the idea all along since Denny Emerson first suggested the idea for the AECs at the USEA’s annual meeting in 1998, giving the example of the American Quarter Horse Association’s World Championship Show held each November in Oklahoma City.

“Denny said, ‘Why can’t we do this for eventing — have everyone come together for a week-long celebration of the sport?’ At the time, I was the executive director of the USEA, and we started figuring out how we could make it a reality,” Jo said.

“It took a lot of years of planning before we held the first AECs in 2004, but it’s something we believed in then and still believe in now. Our riders, whether they are at the Olympic level or Beginner Novice, all deserve a place to shine, and we always hoped that place could be the AECs.”

The USEA is always looking for feedback on the AECs. If you’d like to contribute to the ongoing discussion of where and when to hold the AECs — and especially if you represent a venue you think might be a good fit for the championships — please email Rob Burk, USEA senior director of programs, at [email protected].

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