Many athletes on the East Coast can hardly imagine what it would be like to have one of our iconic horse show locations announce that their doors were closing. The properties, many of which are privately owned and operated for only a few months of the year, were built for horses, their riders, grooms, and enthusiasts, and they are carefully managed to not only protect the heritage of the sport but also grow with the sports expansion. Equestrians in California unfortunately do not have this same experience with their horse show locations. With the recent closure of Del Mar Horse Park due to environmental concerns from the non equestrian community, California equestrians lost an important horse show location that has been home to some of the west coast’s most recognizable events.
According to a surprise announcement from the Del Mar Fairgrounds officials, all entertainment including grandstand and midway shows for the annual San Diego County Fair, and all upcoming equestrian events at the 64-acre Del Mar Horsepark have been cancelled for 2021. People who board their horses there have been told that they will have to find somewhere else to stable their animals after March 31, 2021. The decision calls into question the immediate future of not only the fairgrounds but also the long-term viability of equestrian events in Southern California.
The final decision to close the location was made over environmental concerns but was also another consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. With most public events in California cancelled, running the state-owned property that has been operating on a bare-bones budget, was likely impossible. The more significant reasoning behind the horse park closure was a requirement by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board that the fairgrounds curtail the groundwater pollution that results from boarding, training and showing horses there – a requirement that costs a large amount of money.
Unlike most other government agencies, the 22nd District Agricultural Association that runs the fairgrounds, also known as the Del Mar fair board, is funded almost entirely by revenue from the events held there. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of all mass gatherings this year, it also switched off about 90 percent of the annual revenue for the fairgrounds, with the exception of horse shows, which had been one of the last remaining sources of income for the location. This loss of revenue prompted a closure that had long been threatened and regardless of spoken plans to move the horse shows to the fairground with the horse racing, it seems unlikely that would happen in a way that makes sense for either sport.
Horse Show Managers across California have called the closures a travesty to equestrian sport in a state that is already struggling to keep its significance in the sport alive. U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland, owner of Blenheim EquiSports, released a statement noting that this facility loss was unwelcome but not totally unpredictable.
“Most riders, trainers and owners are acutely aware of the costs of participation, but very few have any idea of the investment required to put on the events that keep the industry alive”, he wrote. “Having an inside perspective to the finances of a show management company, I can personally attest to the immense costs of producing the competitions that we all rely on. Unfortunately, those numbers pale in comparison to the red ink that is typically associated with many of the actual facilities that host the events. While we need to do all we can to save Del Mar Horsepark, that is only one piece of the puzzle if we are serious about preserving our sport on the West Coast.”
Ali Nilforushan, owner and manager of the Temecula Valley National Horse Show series, has looked at the problem and would like to have the equestrian community take back control of the location and ensure its long-term survival through multiple avenues, many of which mingle the non equestrian community at large interests with equestrian needs.
“Although the closure is a surprise, the Del Mar Horse Park has been having issues for years,” remarked Nilforushan. “We do have to acknowledge what the problems are, but also think creatively to fix them – which I think that we can do.”
Nilforushan proposes a radical solution of elevating the facility to be a “mini Spruce Meadows” that will highlight the grass competition field (arguably one of the best grass jumping fields in the country) but also give space for general recreational activities.
“If we invest in the property so that there is equal space for horses and the community, we can completely change how equestrian sport is viewed in Southern California and everyone will win. We need to take the property and develop playgrounds, restaurants, spaces for people to bring their dogs and exercise, and an amphitheater so that people enjoy live entertainment, safely outside”, says Nilforushan. “I would invest in the rings and footing, create a system so that local horses can use the space daily through a paid ticketing system and then upper level horse shows can happen with spectators – something we struggle with everywhere,” he continued.
Nilforushan feels strongly that if the initial investment is made in the property, between ticketed use fees, vehicle fees, event and activity fees, and an annual facility pass program, that the money to address the environmental concerns can be raised, while also keeping the venue profitable annually.
“I am not alone when I say that I took my first riding lesson at Del Mar Show Park, and I feel that losing this place for the future is simply not an option,” Nilforushan remarked. “The amount of horsemen and businesses that have been born and run around equestrian events at Del Mar is astonishing and the urgency to keep horse shows there to keep those businesses alive is very real and our community needs to work together to build the location up to a place that is sustainable and appealing.”