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New world-class show centre in dispute with national federation

The new state-of-the-art World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Florida, USA, will not host competitions governed by US Equestrian (USEF) – as the national federation has withdrawn its competition licences following a dispute.

On 27 October the Ocala-based facility released details of the Ocala Winter Spectacular, a 12-week winter hunter/jumper show circuit featuring $9 million prize money, scheduled to take place from 6 January to 28 March 2021. The series had been due to host two weeks’ of USEF premier-rated classes, including 13 CSI3* classes, followed by 10 weeks of competition sanctioned by the National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA).

In an open letter published on 11 November, USEF chief executive William Moroney said he hoped to “eliminate any confusion” regarding the series. Mr Moroney explained the WEC had requested approval to hold 12 USEF licensed shows, and in accordance with USEF rules four weeks of competitions’ were approved demonstrating the governing body’s “good faith” in working with organisers under the criteria of the rulebook. He added that opportunities to grant lower level events were also identified.

“Additionally, USEF supported the addition of new events to the FEI calendar and the allocation of the FEI jumping Nations Cup, even though this is the first year of operation of this venue, and the organizer has never hosted an FEI event,” he said.

Mr Moroney said “unfortunately” WEC had announced plans to mix competitions sanctioned by the USEF and the NSBA. The NSBA is not an affiliate of USEF meaning it does not operate under the national federation’s rules including class specifications, field of play rules, scoring and “most importantly USEF rules protecting horse and human health and safety”.

“USEF has determined that WEC’s arrangement combining both USEF and NSBA competitions in the same 12-week series is confusing to participants and officials, and most importantly, jeopardizes horse and human safety and welfare,” he said.

“Due to these concerns USEF has no choice but to withdraw all WEC hunter/jumper competition licenses it previously granted in connection with the Ocala Winter Spectacular.”

Mr Moroney added any competitions that proceed as part of the series will have no affiliation with USEF or its rules.

“Due to the same health and safety concerns mentioned, and in furtherance of the best interests of the sport, USEF will not be granting a license to WEC for the jumping Nations Cup qualifier and we have informed the FEI accordingly. The FEI will make the final decision on this event.

“We have notified the FEI these events are unauthorized. Presumably, the FEI will also decide whether it will apply its unsanctioned event rule which states any FEI official, registered athlete or horse that participates in an unsanctioned event faces up to six months of ineligibility to participate in FEI competitions and thereby national competitions. In accordance with the ‘unsanctioned event’ rule FEI officials, registered athletes, and owners of registered horses will be notified no later than seven days prior to the start of any unsanctioned event.”

Mr Moroney added USEF rules and regulations, including the drugs and medication rules and Safe Sport Code, exist to ensure the safety and welfare of participants, as well as a “fair and level playing field” in the best interests of the sport and Olympic teams.

“USEF stands firmly behind these rules and regulations,” he said.

In an open letter published on the same day, Roby Roberts of WEC said during subsequent conversations with the USEF after announcing the 12-week series, the governing body informed the centre it was “unwilling” to work with the WEC should organisers decide to move forward with NSBA sanctioned shows. It is unclear which letter was published first and H&H has contacted both organisations for clarification.

“In a show of good faith and in an effort to work with the federation, we will release an updated schedule and prize list offering $4 million in prizes and prize money during the 12-week competition,” said Mr Roberts .

Mr Roberts said in lieu of the additional prize money, and in an effort to support and promote the entire equestrian community, it will provide free stabling to horses for competing horses for the entire circuit, valued at more than $6 million.

“We feel the free stall [stable] offering will aid in promoting the financial offerings to all exhibitors regardless of their competition level or experience versus focusing prize money on only specific classes. The free stalls will also help promote an atmosphere where trainers and riders can more easily promote young horses and sales,” he said.

Mr Roberts said with the additions, the centre is now offering more than $10 million of prize money, prizes and stabling.

“For exhibitors concerned with the repercussions of participating in an event unsanctioned by the federation, know that the federation does not have a rule that would prevent you from competing with us this winter,” he said.

“We are aware of the FEI rule that states any athlete, horse, or official that participates in an unsanctioned event may be ineligible to participate in sanctioned events for a specific period of time. This rule pertains strictly to FEI officials, athletes, and horses competing at an international or national level.”

Mr Roberts added this is a “difficult time” with Covid and the current economy of the United States.

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“WEC is an organization committed to supporting the equestrian community and safeguarding the welfare of equine and human athletes,” he said.

“We will do our very best to welcome exhibitors of all levels to Ocala this winter for safe, fun, and affordable horse showing.”

An FEI spokesman told H&H the organisation has “taken note” of the USEF position on WEC and will discuss it at the FEI board meeting next week.

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