Beloved Central Park Horse Show Sidelined by COVID-19



View of city skyline from Wollman Rink where the Central Park Horse Show takes place. Photo courtesy of Sportfot.

A horse show inside one of the most densely populated urban landscapes in the country doesn’t happen often. But in Central Park, it did, 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. 

But this fall, when the show would have taken place, there’s still no sign of it. As the city has re-opened to previous leisure activities and sports, the safety protocols haven’t been 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 the most unique New York City events of the last decade a thing of the past. And fans and competitors, with little information from event leadership, are concerned it’s gone for good. 

“To lose a city show, especially in America, is really sad,” said Sophie Gochman, a first-year student at Harvard who competed in the Central Park Horse Show in 2017. “We’re just not going to have that same opportunity and accessibility.”

Gochman is one of the many New Yorkers and attendees who loved the event and appreciated the visibility it brought to the sport. 

“The atmosphere was electric,” said 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.” 

The Central Park Horse Show, which ran successfully from 2014 to 2017, was the first horse show of its kind, bringing in Olympic-level show jumpers from around the world. It was the first horse show to be aired on primetime television, broadcasting on NBC Sports, according to Horse Daily, with one of the dressage horses featured on the Stephen Colbert show. 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, Jenn Gates and Jessica Springsteen. 

“This show is at a really high level, so you’re having people who compete in the Olympics come to Central Park for the show,” said Christina Tabacco-Weber, president of the southeast region of New York State’s Horse Council, an organization that helps advocate for horse owners across the state. “It’s the elite of the elite.”

At its peak, the arena located inside Wollman Rink saw a total of 3,000 spectators, and that’s not including those who watched from afar. “You’d have people who didn’t even get tickets standing on the hilltops of Central Park watching it,” said Gochman.

The show, by nature of design, attracted a range of spectators, so people from various socioeconomic backgrounds could attend. This was especially true on Central Park Horse Show Family Day, when admission was free and included face painting, miniature horses and games for kids. 

Central Park Horse Show during the main evening events. Photo courtesy of Sportfot.

At the helm of the show were Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions and managing partner of two world-class show jumping facilities, 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,’” said Stone. And though they were successful, it was a logistical nightmare to make it work, even before the pandemic, he said.

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

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

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, North Carolina, 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,” said Stone.

And then, the reality of the show’s price tag set-in. 

Even with funding from sponsors like JetBlue and Rolex, along with tickets that at one point were selling for $500 to $600 on Stubhub, the event wasn’t profitable. And though profit wasn’t the goal for either Stone or Bellissimo, the show was teetering on the edge.

“​​The costs kept going up,” said 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.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wood Media. 

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

“I never say never. 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,” he said. 

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 of college.”