Equestrian show organizers and others discuss this year’s event, next’s year slate and the fact that a new venue is set to open just east of the HITS Post Time Farm.
Each year when Horse Shows in the Sun — or HITS — comes to town, it is as if a temporary city has sprung to life in northwest Marion County. The series of world class equestrian events has grown to 12 weeks between December and March and culminates with the Great American $1 million Grand Prix. The circuit, officially made up of 10 weeks starting in January, has an estimated annual $94 million economic impact locally. That does not take into account the two additional weeks of jumping competitions each December.
Now that HITS is over, executives with the organization are looking back to evaluate this year’s circuit, talking about facility needs at their expansive Post Time Farm on U.S. 27 west of Ocala, outlining their plans for the future, and discussing the new equestrian showplace just east of their complex.
In short, they are happy with their seasonal Marion County home, spent about $1 million getting ready for this year’s events, will spend more than that getting ready for next year and do not fear competition. Kristen Vale, HITS’ manager in Marion County during the winter circuit, said the money the organization spends here is an investment in the sport and is in response to what the thousands of competitors and their families want when they arrive at the 450-acre farm.
Before this year’s event, for example, HITS invested more than $1 million by building a new barn, adding stalls and improving drainage and foundations in more than half of the 12 competition rings. Before the 2018 circuit, HITS will invest more than $1 million to build another two commercial barns that will house 48 permanent stalls. They also plan to add landscaping, including trees and flowers, to give the temporary community a better aesthetic quality. Vale said the two additional barns are in response to competitors’ requests for more permanent spaces to house their horses.
The farm has 40 barns and 52 miles of fencing, more than 100 electrical outlets and WiFi. There are typically 100 HITS employees at the farm during the annual events. This year, fewer people arrived during the earlier weeks of the circuit, but more arrived during the latter portion of the show than last year. Vale said the HITS team will be studying when competitors came, how long they stayed, what worked well and where they can improve.
“That’s what we’ll spend the next six months trying to figure out,” she said. She said HITS is not worried about pouring money into the winter circuit as the investment will pan out. “Ocala always makes money for us,” she said.
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HITS, Inc., based in upstate New York, produced its first horse show circuit in Gainesville in 1982. Now, the company organizes world-class hunter/jumper circuits in Florida, California, Arizona, New York, Virginia and Illinois. HITS produces three of the richest grand prix events in the world, including the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix in Marion County on the last day of the circuit. There were also two International Hunter Derbies and a Nations Cup in this year’s circuit.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 competitors, along with family members and friends, come to HITS in Marion County each year. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 horses at the farm on any given day. About half of the competitors stay throughout the full circuit. And while that proportion has not changed much over the years, the length of the circuit has. Fifteen years ago, it operated between Feb. 10 and March 15. With the extended weeks, Vale said, there are more riders, who are staying longer, and they want more permanent structures.
Post Time Farm offers about 1,700 temporary stalls, and has room for more. People renting permanent stalls typically rent them for about six months a year and commit for about five years at a time, Vale said. As much as competitors like the new stalls and barns, Vale said, it is what they and the public don’t see that gets financial priority.
Before this year’s circuit, for example, that included workers pushing aside 400 tons of dirt in eight show rings to replace the base dirt and make improvements to drainage systems, then put the top layer of surface back into place. Regardless of the amount of rain, competitors don’t “want to see water sitting on the ring or on the road. They are not glamorous improvements, but its infrastructure (that has to be maintained),” she said. “One of the most important things is footing in the ring,” she said. “It’s not just dirt.” That’s in addition to regular maintenance of roads and utilities, she said. The farm basically has to provide many of the same amenities needed in a small city. In addition, competitors and visitors want nice landscaping and vegetation, Vale said.
Much of HITS revenue comes from stall and barn rentals. And that means competition because just outside Post Time’s boundary are plenty of small farms willing to rent to HITS’ customers. The organization’s goal is to entice riders to board horses on their property and buy supplies from them, Vale said. The goal is to make the riders and their families happy and satisfied.
To help, HITS built five homes adjacent to the farm for people who want to live close to their horses stalled at the farm. Vale said they have room to expand that housing. HITS also rents out seven homes at other locations. About 5 percent of the riders and their families live in travel trailers on the grounds, she said. About 30 vendors are on site selling food, clothing and riding equipment during the 12 weeks.
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Larry Roberts, founder and owner of Ohio-based R + L Carriers interstate trucking company, has bought up more than 1,500 acres of mostly agricultural land south of his Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, which is east of Post Time Farm. Roberts is planning to use at least a few hundred of those acres to build an upscale equestrian community with indoor riding arena, barns, stalls and outdoor riding rings. He owns The World Equestrian Center in Ohio and the facility here will be similar.
Vale said the new equestrian center will attract more riders and attention from the equestrian community. “We think it will be just fine,” she said. “(Roberts) is going to run shows in the summer so I don’t think it will be a bad thing for us. It will keep horse people longer in Marion County.” “(But) we are watching it closely,” she added. “We’re aware of what he’s doing.”
The U.S. Equestrian Federation regulates the number of sanctioned shows and limits their location and calendar days based, in part, on proximity to other equestrian events.
As for the next 20 years, Vale said, it is hard to say what changes HITS will make. For now, she does not see them extending its winter circuit and will work to rent out the farm for other events.
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Loretta Shaffer, executive director of the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau, said HITS helps make Marion County a tourist destination. “Ocala/Marion County is acknowledged globally as the ’Horse Capital of the World,’” she said in an email. “We have been able to leverage that strong reputation, coupled with the county’s natural assets, such as its springs and forests, into a relevant and desirable authentic Florida tourist destination for the 21st century. Our community rejoices at the related growth that’s coming from equestrians, visitors and business owners investing money in all levels of the local economy.”
Louisa Barton is the director of equine engagement for the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership. She said there is no single event in Marion County that compares to HITS. “We see it as a huge benefit to Ocala and Marion County as a whole,” she said. “It’s worth at least $94 million a year. The economic impact is enormous. The CEP is extremely grateful that HITS chose Marion County as its winter home.” Barton said there is an additional impact that cannot be measured when HITS competitors buy second homes here or move here to stay. “It’s very hard to measure the true impact; and the publicity for the area is huge,” she said. But there’s always room for improvement, Barton added.
One endeavor is to get more people not necessarily knowledgeable or connected to the show jumping sport to get more involved, for example, she said. Her hope is that the CEP can help market the event and increase the number of spectators at HITS. She also wants to see other equestrian disciplines, such as western and thoroughbred racing, play a larger role in interacting with HITS. To that end, the CEP helped host a formal HITS welcoming event this year at the Ocala downtown square, where local horse breeds were on display. “And I think we want (HITS) to come here earlier and stay longer,” she said.
As for the new World Equestrian Center, Barton does not think it will put a damper on HITS either. “When you think of the number of different breeds and disciplines we have, there is an endless possibility of shows,” she said. “All year long would be fantastic.”