The “Horse Capital of the World,” Ocala, Florida, has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend as the city gains a new competitive edge in horse eventing, an equestrian competition with three parts: dressage, cross country and show jumping.
The Ocala Jockey Club International Three-Day Event is the first three-star green course competition in Florida. From Nov. 24-27, horses and riders representing countries from all over the world will compete on a green-grass course with obstacles and timed runs.
The OJC International will be set up like a triathlon, said Richard Trayford, CEO of Equiventures and event organizer. Competitors will compete in the three disciplines of eventing to ultimately win a $100,000 grand prize.
Four stars is the highest award a course can receive from the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, said Trayford. The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington is currently the only four-star event in America. Trayford wants to make the eventing competition in Ocala a four-star by next year.
The stars are awarded based off of the difficulty of the jumps and the course.
With the help of Ocala’s natural resources, Trayford’s confident the course will achieve the honor.
“This is some of the best terrain in the world,” Trayford said. “You can’t build this kind of terrain.”
The $1 million course spans about 2.3 miles with 34 hand-built obstacles, new fencing and lakes.
The jumping fences have been upgraded to collapse if the horse misses the jump, which saves the horse and rider from injury.
“The public do not like seeing people hurt,” said Trayford, “And everyone hates seeing animals hurt.”
The competition is free for everyone to watch, but there is a $10 parking fee.
According to Corry Locke, sports marketing specialist at the Ocala Visitors and Convention Bureau, the event will bring an estimated $2 million to Ocala.
November is usually an offseason for economic progress. But with the event happening Thanksgiving weekend, it stimulates Marion County’s economy during a non-peak season, Locke said.
Marion County is home to every breed of horse known to man across 900 horse farms. Locke said about 30 percent of Marion County’s economy is based on the horse industry.
Hotels and restaurants in the surrounding area will feel most of the positive economic effects. The event will also host about 40 vendors ranging from the arts, food and agricultural supplies.
Riders will be flying in to the event from countries like France and Ireland. A French Olympic gold medalist will be competing as well as members of the United States Equestrian Team, he said.
Long time competitor, Ronald Zabala-Goetschel will be riding for Ecuador on his four-star horse.
“This will do a lot for Ocala,” Zabala-Goetschel said. “They are growing in the sport. This helps promote the area.”
Zabala-Goetschel usually lives in Ocala during winter months, so his drive won’t take very long. Although he is in town, Zabala-Goetschel cannot step foot onto the course yet unless he wants to be disqualified.
He competes to qualify for the four-star Rolex Event in Lexington, Kentucky. He needs qualifying scores from two three-star events in order to be allowed to compete in Kentucky.
Trayford aims for a four-star event in years to come, hoping that in five years, the Ocala Jockey Club International Three-Day Event will become a hot spot in Florida.
“Sixty-five million people go to Orlando, but not many people make Marion County a destination,” he said.
Trayford said he expects thousands of spectators to come from all over the world to see the event.