The Ocala Jockey Club International Three-Day Event ran for the first time in 2016. It started with a conversation between Erik Nygaard (my husband) and Jennie Brannigan, who has been renting one of the townhomes at the Ocala Jockey Club for the last number of years over the winter season. At the time, one of the 300-acre sections of the farm was used as a cattle pasture and Jennie felt that the rolling hills and the ground would make a very suitable cross-country course. Richard Trayford from EquiVentures, who ran the first year event, invited Mike Etherington-Smith to come look at the property in July 2015 and Mike immediately had a vision of what the property could become. It reminded him of the feel of quaint English countryside, and he felt that the 100-year old established natural turf would form a perfect foundation for superb footing. Given how important footing is to competitors and horses, this was a large part of the appeal of developing the property for this use. Also, Mike felt that the Ocala Jockey Club existing clubhouse building would provide for excellent viewing opportunities of multiple jump efforts, which is quite rare at many events simply due to the way the land flows, but already existed at OJC.
While OJC and Richard went our separate ways after the first event in 2016, he did have a vision of the event in the first year and put together a number of top class professionals to kick start the event and develop the initial infrastructure. Richard Jeffery was involved to design the competition arena and the practice arena, and those have worked out wonderfully. Chris Barnard worked with Richard the first year and has been able to take Richard’s vision further with his work. Mike Etherington-Smith has continued to be a significant supporter of the event and his wealth of experience designing cross-country courses has been instrumental in the riders’ acclaim of the layout, the flow, and the all-important balance of enough challenging questions and safety of the course.
Alec Lochore, who has been involved from a TD role to organizer role at the Olympic and similar high performance level around the world, has also been part of the event from the start and brought his experience regarding layout and organization. Clayton Fredericks has been one of the most significant supporters of the event from the start in a number of roles, from designing the cross-country courses to riding in the first year to sponsoring the riders’ tent and working with the event with his new FEI Stabling venture to provide top notch temporary stabling. Shelley Page has brought her expertise of running well-organized competitions, and there have been scores of local professionals who have worked hard behind the scenes to take the load off some of the time and costs of organizing a complex large scale event that is still in its beginnings. Katie Wentz has handled the incredibly important work of managing volunteers for the event.
The year-round OJC staff spends much of the year on the foundational and time-consuming work behind the scenes, such as attention to the arena and galloping track surface, administration, public relations, marketing and soliciting feedback and relationships with sponsors, vendors and riders. Jon and Jennifer Holling, Jennie Brannigan, Peter Gray and Paul Delbrook, Sinead Halpin, Tik Maynard, and Sara Kozumplik Murphy would be some of the locals who have been very helpful along the way.
On the non-competition side, there is an enormous number of moving parts, and it takes not just one village but at least a dozen villages to pull things together. Sponsorship support is crucial to allow a complex event to come together on the financial side as well as to provide synergies that would be challenging for just the event organizer to provide. We have had some sponsors with the event from the start, such as Ram Trucks, Clayton Fredericks, the Ocala Visitors and Convention Bureau, and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. Jenni Autry with Eventing Nation has been supportive of our event from the start and that has been hugely helpful to get the word out to the community over time.
The Ocala Jockey Club is a total of 924 acres in size divided into three general 300-acre sections. The middle section is the core of the farm and comprises seven barns and 179 permanent stalls, the 9,700 square foot clubhouse, a 35-townhome development, the grass arenas, the 5/8-mile Thoroughbred training track, and many paddocks and pastures. The eastern 300 acres is where most of the cross-country courses are located and where the temporary stabling is set up for the event. During this winter season, this is also where riders have been able to come and condition their horses along the galloping tracks. We have chosen not to set up schooling courses as we feel that there are plenty of other places in the Ocala area for this, but we felt that making our rolling hills accessible for galloping would provide value to riders for conditioning purposes.
Our cross-country courses are made of long and spacious galloping lanes with generously wide turns. The footing is maintained throughout the year and we work with Dan Millstead from Equine Turf on preparing the courses months before the event. As we are in the racing industry, we understand how important footing is for maintaining a top athlete, and we do what we can to provide a safe surface so that the horses and riders can focus on clearing jumps and their time constraints.
The cross-country portion is, of course, the most exciting part of the event. Also, there are aspects of the event that we have been working to develop as events within the event, such as the Ladies’ Luncheon on the Friday of the event with accomplished women riders who can provide inspiring stories and suggestions to those coming up the ranks. I have enjoyed sitting in those we had in the last two years, with Karen O’Connor being the featured speaker in 2017 and Lynn Symansky along with Gemma Tattersall speaking about their experiences at WEG 2018 and beyond. It is important for our event to provide an excellent competition, as well as for opportunities for the local community to come together and be entertained and inspired.
I am biased, of course, but I believe that the property is special in that it has much of the raw natural beauty that leaves behind the feel of civilization and focuses on the horse. The sunsets on the farm are glorious, the oak trees along the property provide a beautiful visual experience, and the event provides a true experience of days out in the countryside.
We are proud to have grown from a green site only a few years ago to an end-of-year event that is now on many riders' calendars. We are proud to have the trust of riders who bring their horses that they plan to qualify for top-level events. There isn’t much room for error in bringing along a horse that may have taken years to develop, and we understand the effort that takes. We are also proud to provide special prize money fund to Thoroughbred entries. As racing owners and breeders, we feel it is important to highlight the use of a wonderful breed that is so well suited with their work ethic and stamina for the eventing job, and we want to reward those riders and owners who choose their mounts from the off-track Thoroughbred offerings. We feel that provides second chances to some super athletes, and we are proud to play our part in incentivizing that.
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It’s the turn of the world’s best Eventing athletes to stand under the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games spotlight over the next few days as all but one of the horses presented at this morning’s horse inspection at Baji Koen Equestrian Park were confirmed for action by the Ground Jury.
And they're off! Eventing kicks off today in Tokyo (Thursday, July 29 – 7:30 p.m. ET), with the first of three Olympic dressage sessions. Competitors from 29 nations will go head to head, vying for a spot on the coveted Olympic podium.
There were a few last-minute dramas at the first horse inspection for the Tokyo Olympics which took place in the main equestrian park at Baji Koen Equestrian Centre at 9:30 a.m. JST today.