An Open Letter to Tom Struzzieri

This is not a complaint about one horse show. This is not a whining because it rains a lot at your horse shows. Or the footing is an issue. (Which it is). This letter is about the decades long feeling there is a lack of empathy for your customers which continues to resonate through our little horse community. I am now totally confused as to where we stand with you. Where do your clients (exhibitors) stand with you? Where do our horses stand with you? Where does horse welfare stand with you? It would be comforting to hear some honest answers for once.

I have to admire your ambition for growth, we all have been impressed at one time or another about your remarkable ability to build some sort of business out of horses, purchase show dates, erect show grounds out of nothing, and throw huge prize money into a few classes, generate hype, and we all fell for it. We all wanted to be a part of the essence of the Million Dollar classes, gravitate to big money, big sales, big dreams, big business, and cool perks. I know I did. I spent years showing at Culpeper, Ocala, Indio, and even Saugerties.

There are reviews on your FB page which give you five stars and include all sorts of wonderful positive comments. To find them, you have to sort through some painfully familiar negative ones

Rachel *******· November 18, 2015

So this in many ways is a great well run show. My specific complaint is the way they treated my division. 2’6″ hunters. First classes were cancelled as the ring was too busy. Not rescheduled- which could have been an option. Second the last day of the show they could not be bothered to water and drag the ring. My poor horse has a respiratory problem and almost choked on all the dust. She was coughing and sneezing constantly. If you are going to take my money I deserve the same quality experience as folks showing over bigger fences !!

Jamie ***** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 1 starJanuary 18 · 
Balmoral is for harness racing, not jumping horses.
Eric ***** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 2 star March 24, 2014 · 
Decent footing in the rings with cool trees. But, the place is basically a dump, the temporary tents have inadequate electrical power, the pathways are rutted, office staff is hostile, and too few restroom facilities. Not going back.
Ann ***** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 1 star     March 24, 2014 · 
After having to stand in line since 330 this afternoon for our tables in the VIP tent……got stampeded as we tried to get a table when they opened the doors at 5. Very poorly organized for the $ 1 million class
Margaret ***** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 1 star     March 24, 2014 · 
HORRIBLE management at the VIP tent! Extremely disappointed in how the seating is being managed.
**
Marge ****** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 5 star     March 26 at 11:26pm · 
Very good attendance , great competition and the weather was about as good as it gets. Ocala, Florida March 26, 2017
Donna ****** reviewed HITS Horse Shows — 5 star     September 12, 2016 · 
What a great place, hope some day my daughter rides there!

**

In Ocala one year I stood stoically as I was berated for holding up the children’s pony division because of the children’s jumper classic. Jerry Dougherty sped around me as I was wearily heading back to my barn, slammed on the brakes of his golf cart with one leg dangling out to the side, sunglasses on, and said if I didn’t manage my days better, I would have to find somewhere else to show in the winter. He didn’t want to hear my excuse of the shoe being pulled in the deplorable schooling area and that I chose to have it repaired by the farrier before continuing to allow the horse to compete. Meanwhile the long line at the children’s pony ring had dwindled and they had to wait 20 minutes for me to finish with the jumper. I didn’t argue. He didn’t offer me a ride back to the barn. I didn’t cry. When I look back on that episode now (which obviously had an impact) I cannot imagine that happening to me in Ohio, Kentucky, Vermont. or ANYWHERE.

I spent a summer in 2009 sloshing around in the mud and rain, watching the trailers disappear under several feet of water, helping stranded golf carts push through unpaved gravel roads, adorned with potholes so deep fish were spotted swimming in them. I trekked for what seemed miles to the show rings, telling my students they would be so tough and resilient after surviving Saugerties. I think they just ended up tired.

When I came back that fall for the special classes I qualified for, I had to leave two horses home, one sold, one was lame. I decided I probably wouldn’t need the extra grooming stall. Knowing you were sold out and had a waiting list I called you immediately and said I would be happy to sell the three stalls back or to someone else. When I got there, your secretaries refused to acknowledge such actions, forcing me into paying for three extra stalls which had already been promptly sold to someone else on the wait list. I tried not to be bitter about how much money you just made over selling those three stalls twice, but I couldn’t get past it.

I left your company for good right there and then, vowing I would never ever give you another dime. I would never, ever allow myself to be sucked into the HITS circuit again. But, you didn’t give a f**k. You didn’t even notice.

I missed nothing about not attending your shows, and instead made new loyalties, supported new venues. I raised my eyebrows when I heard you helped purchase Balmoral and renovate it. Same when I heard you were involved in a restaurant in NYC.  A running festival. A marina. There were so many grumblings about your current facilities, I thought it was odd you were expanding. Again. and again. Since I personally wasn’t showing with HITS anymore, it didn’t directly affect me. I thought it curious you were quoted in an article about your dedication to making horse shows better, however.

“Every day we’re trying to make the horse shows better,” he said. “I want to make sure Diamond Mills is doing well. I want it to be humming along.”

http://www.dailyfreeman.com/article/DF/20120818/NEWS/308189993

During the 2015 USHJA annual meeting (which you sponsored), I watched you come totally unglued during about how the location for the International Derby Finals are chosen. It is a pretty clear bid process for all of the major USHJA/USEF Finals, but the process did not seem to suit you and there was an enormous amount of angst expressed in the room. Apologies were apparently made later and outside of our view, but it was a pretty shocking site to us sitting in the chairs.

During the 2016 USHJA Annual meeting (which you ALSO sponsored), I witnessed some improvements being made in Coachella. We were all escorted to your facility, fed copies amounts of food and drink, and entertained with a pony club demonstration in the Grand Prix ring. What great fun.

Are you sponsoring the Annual meeting for a reason? Are people like me who speak up the reason? Or is it another reason?  The Annual Meeting needs to be more accessible to our members, less costly, so people will actually show up, and are you able to help with those efforts? I can’t help but feel there is a plot twist in this somehow.

The West Coast riders had been begging for years for improvements, and it looked as though you were answering them. New buildings, new rings, but what happened to getting each day started? No way to sign up for start times online led to lines at 7am similar to Los Angeles rush hour. A living nightmare of a way to start the day. The excitement over the improvements started to wane after dozens and dozens of riders, trainers, and grooms waited hours each morning to negotiate start times.

You also stung a few riders by lowering the height of the Million Dollar GP on the West Coast, claiming that the horses in Thermal would benefit from 1.50m height rather than 1.60. My first thought was maybe the horses are there, but the riders are hesitant to jump 1.60 on your footing. The reaction others had was way more tepid.

At what point do you sacrifice extraordinary prize money for actually just having top notch facilities?

Are you only making 1 Million dollar improvements to Ocala next year because of the threat of WEC setting up shop right next door? That’s what it took? After all these years? I know people who are so excited about that future facility, they are thinking of changing disciplines just to show there.

I don’t even blink about a $1 million dollar improvement happening in Ocala. Try 10. You could put in a $1 million dollar entrance for all we know,  just re-grading the roads to the barns would eat up that $1 million quickly enough. My guess is every year the operating budget alone is $1 million to even get the first two weeks running and we are being distracted with a press release. If you are only addressing 6 of the 12 rings with pushing back the footing and installing drains, that means there are 6 satisfactory show rings in existence? And the schooling areas? http://www.ocala.com/news/20170413/hits-plans-1-million-in-improvements-before-2018

You own this little Show grounds in middle Virginia, which used to be an incredible mecca for show people. I grew up eventing there, I galloped the cross country fences, flew around stadium courses like it was the venue of a lifetime. It is where Superman had that career ending injury. We listened to older trainers tell remarkable stories about a previous owner of the Commonwealth Park facility dropping dollar bills out of a helicopter an hour before the Grand Prix to make sure people would attend the big class.  For years, we watched it fall into a decline while you took on other ventures. You expanded in Ocala, New York, Thermal, Arizona, Chicago. I noticed my friends stopped wanting to show in the Virginia location. The barns were collapsing, the rings were struggling to be safe to ride in. The structures started to really rot.

Last year, when I was injured, my horses came back to Culpeper. My best friend was stabling next door, and she really, really wanted to show my horses at your show, so I agreed to let her show one. I hated to do it, not because of her, but because I had to give HITS money. It killed me, but I got over it, she and the horse were terrific, and it was good publicity for him in the end. This year the same thing happened. I am injured again, and I agreed to have a client take the same horse down to show in the adults this time. I couldn’t sleep. I was riddled with worry. When I woke up on Friday morning and checked my news, my heart sunk. There were several complaints about the conditions in Culpeper, and it was escalating quickly. The weather was not helping, but even with good weather, conditions were far from ideal. The list was long and getting longer. by the minute. By Friday half of the few competitors scratched and went home. Only 10 competed in your Grand Prix. Not even the horse stabled next door coming off a win in Ohio would set foot in that ring.

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No tractor available (broken part) to drag the rings for first two days. Ironically, this place is surrounded by farms AND a Kubota dealer right in town. 


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Constructing and moving a judges stand in the middle of the competition. 


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Seems safe


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One loose pony and it is all over. exposed stakes AND wires to trip over

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wires everywhere

Yes, I get the collapsing barns you replaced were supposed to make us feel better, but really, did you think about layout at all? Or, did you erect the barns simply to get us to shut up? These shows only take place in the summer months, so direct sunlight is actually an issue. There is literally no shade. And when it rains……It rained so much and so hard, water was pouring in from the roof into the actual ‘new’ barn aisles.

Why do so many of your show staff seem so unhappy? Why aren’t the rings seeing a tractor more often? Or, at all? Why does the simple act of retrieving a back number out of the show office intimidate so many people? Why ARE the stalls $300 a week this year? Why is there an extra fee if we choose to use straw? Why is there an extra fee to take deep breaths?

People come to this horse show because it is convenient. We live here. We are close to it. Like people live close to your show grounds in Ocala, bought property for themselves to be in the sunshine state, the same goes for Virginia. Zone 3 is pretty freaking healthy right now, we have a lot of hunters and jumpers. We have other shows in the same vicinity which sell out each year. We also are seeing other show managers think outside the box to help exhibitors.

I am just curious as to how you come to your conclusions with regards to exhibitors. You see, it seems as though you can get away with all of these mediocre to crippling facilities because you simply up the ante for special classes. 1 million for this, 1 million for that, $250k for the Jr/Am, 100k-500k here for hunters,  50k for the young ones. Do you think we won’t jump a Grand Prix for $750k? Or a Derby for less than $500k? Have you met us? Or, is this your way of suggesting we shouldn’t complain? Well, it is really hard not to complain when we can plainly see what’s happening around us.

We do love to compete, but we also really, really need our horses to stay sound to compete. Without the horses, we are nothing. I believe we would be more impressed with our horses LOVING the facility, just as much as that big paycheck, and I believe it is your job to find out exactly what the balance should be.

I don’t feel your blessing to push up the existing footing in three of the six rings and install drains will satisfy your customers. But apparently that will be happening in June. Is that really enough? Do the schooling areas count as being equally important to you since the horses jump more in the schooling areas than they do in the actual show rings? i can guess the answer.

In Virginia, the other event which suffers is our Zone championships. There are people who have no interest in being on our championship jumper teams specifically because the finals are being held at Culpeper. This is kind of irritating. With limited options to hold major events, we have depended on your facility to help us out, and it looks like we will not be able to experience the same competition we had envisioned for our (USHJA) members. I personally believe the priority of the USHJA SHOULD be for it’s members, and not for the show managers, but maybe I am wrong. I believe our members look to the Board of Directors and Zone Committee members for answers, not to you.  Maybe the bidding process for these events needs to be re-evaluated? Maybe the mileage rule caused this, and the responsibility lies elsewhere? A monopoly on the market doesn’t usually mean competitions improve standards each year, after all, where lies the motivation? The dates are yours to keep, after all.

You may have permanently lost the last of your Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and even New Jersey customers last week, I am sorry to say. I think people finally have realized you aren’t here for them, all the patience and tolerance has been wiped out, and that is a sad situation. I loved that facility once. It even could be nice again one day, maybe for the next generation.

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Elitism, own it or move away from it?

I am absolutely gutted to hear about the giraffe cam will have to be pulled because of assholes. What else can I say? April has left such an impact on thousands of people, and the park is beginning to realize it cannot even function anymore because any observation of April taking a misstep sends the public into an uncontrollable frenzy.

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“We are well aware, long before the first email that April had a small twist of her leg today which has her favoring it. This is not unheard of in such long legged animals. Dr Tim was on site and all is well.

We appreciate concern but the bogging down of email servers and other platforms is the exact reason the giraffe cam will need be pulled.

While we appreciate the concern, it is interfering with normal park operations and preparation for opening; at a period when our resource of time is limited and cannot be hindered. Please allow our team to do as they are trained to do – we have their care covered!”

ouch. This will happen to us.

I have been mulling this over for months, and months, and months. I listen to people like John Madden, respected people, who seem to be driven to gain more sponsorship, more acceptance, more television coverage, more support from the every day folk to cheer our sport on, to support equestrians into the Olympic Games (most do not) and I think it is a bad idea. The human race keeps taking small steps away from animals. Away from captivity, away from ownership, and more and more people who struggle to feed their families have zero compassion to our lives with animals. The technology will actually harm us, not help us, and we really need to think about the ramifications of inviting a non-horsey group into our world. This is not the right time to argue about Show Jumping riders having to wear jackets versus rugby shirts. This is not the right time to worry about attracting more sponsors like Red Bull. I use this company as an example but I don’t see Red Bull sponsoring a Grand Prix in Miami, when they are happy to enough to be supporting PBR. Nor have I ever seen a Gucci banner on the side of a rodeo event.

We need to pay attention to the public, we need to acknowledge that a giraffe cam can be removed, or a circus be shut down, or Facebook can ban the sale of animals if they want to, (this last one even hard for me to acknowledge) because if we don’t, one day our children will not have this luxury of riding horses.

I am gutted about the giraffe cam, because I look at the highest level of equestrian sport and think yes, absolutely, the same can happen to us. Instead, we, as horse people, live with our own blinkers on, and cannot understand why anyone would NOT want to have a pony bring up a child, when it could possibly be the best thing that ever happened to a child. I see it in the city, I see it in the country, I see it in the suburbs. We need to be really careful how we introduce horses into the general public, and so far, we are not getting it quite right. I do love the GCT, but it seems to be heading in a less accessible direction, and if the show managers in Europe gain ground on globalizing entry fees, we really will see talented riders slip off the radar. What then?

Longines and Rolex. If you recognize those two names, you know they are title sponsors, necessary sponsors to a large portion of the highest Equestrian Sport. How many of you own a Longines or Rolex watch? Really think about that for a minute. And then ask, how many people in the general public own a Longines or Rolex watch or accessory? When I look at how the LGCT entices sponsors? And who are they? Mercedes, Longines, Gucci, and Hermes. Great. Yes, sure it is lovely the entire beach is open for people to walk up and watch for free, but if you want to sit at a table, be prepared to spend anywhere from $7,000- $15k for you and your friends to eat and watch for the week.

Exclusive brand exposure on a global scale…

Be associated with a dynamic, world class sport that reaches tens of millions of people across the world. Show jumping is an Olympic sport with a passionate and growing audience spanning high net worth individuals, and middle and upper income families. Exceptional networking opportunities are accessible through our sponsorship and VIP packages bringing your company to the audience you need to reach.

I have to question reaching tens of millions of people across the world, but ok.

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I was really uncomfortable when I listened to the FEI forum this year in Lausanne, Switzerland about dress code. The idea of stripping away the jacket and tie to replace with actual athletic clothing was really hard to envision. So we want our Grand Prix riders to look like Polo players? Or cross-country riders?  So ALL jumping or sport riders look the same? But maybe with a name on the back of a shirt??  What about the dressage riders? Take away the shadbelly? And if we do this, more of the public will associate with our top show jumpers and be willing to sponsor more events? I don’t think so. The word ELITE is so closely tied into Grand Prix show jumping, or Dressage, you cannot separate the two anymore. A google click to Elite Show Jumping will produce several pages of references you won’t want to sort through. Syndications often INCLUDE the word ELITE into their own business.

Elite is becoming a dirty word, yet it is everywhere in the horse world.

Elite Horse Ownership

Elite Trailers

Elite Equestrian

Elite Eventing

It is even in names of boarding facilities.

Yes, of course the public views us all as Elitist. How can anyone blame them?

I personally think there is only one way to get the general public even remotely interested in Equestrian Sport. More Wagering.

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I am a born equestrian with countless generations of horse women behind me. I chose to marry someone who prefers that I leave all my horse clothing in the car before I enter the house. If I asked him to name a single famous Equestrian, he would seriously struggle. However,  if he were able to easily place a bet on McLain Ward winning the World Cup Final, and walked away with a little play money in his pocket to buy beer, he might remember McLain Ward’s name for a few months. Ask him to name a player on a baseball team, he could name all of them, without hesitation.  As a tight horse community, we have watched what the wagering effect has had on the general public, have we not? The Triple Crown is easy to understand to loads of people. Why? Because you can win money betting on a winner. Do you really think the Triple Crown would be as interesting if no money was able to be won by Joe Schmo?

I am not talking about the little wagers behind the scenes on Grand Prix Sunday, I am talking about real life wagering online, or Vegas, with bookies, or betting windows beside the Tiki Hut, or surrounding the George Morris arena in Tryon, so as the locals come out of the diner they can place a $2 bet on Kent Farrington to win that night.  Betting websites dedicated to Show Jumping events (outside of the U.K. lol). Active, accessible, and cheap. This might have more of an effect than wearing a rugby shirt and worrying about a brand name on the breeches. (Or maybe that is just my viewpoint.)

I have to come back to the Giraffe cam. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably have seen or heard about the comments, the concerns, the outcry that April did not give birth in a timely fashion. And once the baby was born, the utter rage that ensued when the Animal Park asked for $5 (only $5 made people explode in anger) for the baby naming competition (which would directly benefit Giraffe conservancy and other charities, maybe even to fight activists, who knows?), and hopefully you considered the impact on ALL animals we have in our world. We are not living in a blessed universe, we are living in a confusing, and chaotic, often mean-spirited world, where a high percentage of humans look another being in the eye and think HIM VERSUS ME. The more this percentage increases, the less likely the general public will have sympathy toward animals participating in the Olympic Games, and this will greatly change many of our lives, or the lives of our children, so just pause for a second, and imagine life outside the horse bubble. Because if you don’t someone else will, and gain an advantage.

Maybe we should be spending less time worrying about what clothes to wear in the ring, and worry more about important factors to help sport, like education. If the general public wants to join in on the fun, they will find us, but hopefully it won’t become a case of “Be Careful What You Wish For”