September has been an interesting month. I took the time to head up to Saugerties to watch both the Diamond Mills $500,000 3’3” Hunter Prix Final and the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix. The money given out at both these events is unheard of and as a result you had some amazing hunter and jumper riders competing.
The event is the brainchild of Tom Struzzieri, who many years ago founded HITS (Horse Shows In The Sun), a company that produces high-quality, international-level hunter/jumper horse shows. In order to compete or become eligible for the Pfizer $1 Million and Diamond Mills $500,000 Hunter Prix Final riders have to qualify by competing at a certain number of HITS events throughout the year.
It’s an incredible opportunity for these riders, especially those who compete in the hunter divisions since money is rarely given out in the hunters. In fact, the jumpers attracted riders from across the world and when the final winner was named it was André Thieme who came all the way from Germany with his horse Aragon Rouet. His first place finish earned him a check worth $350,000.
Only two riders made it to the jump-off after negotiating the Steve Stephens designed course. That second rider was Duncan McFarland, from New Zealand, aboard Mr. Whoopy.
In the Diamond Mills Hunter Prix it was Samantha Schaefer of Westminster, MD who earned top honors riding Lyn Pedersen’s Mahalo. Her check was for $150,000 and while Schaefer said she really hadn’t paid much attention to the money while she was competing when she saw the check the first thought that came to mind was, “Wow, that’s a lot of money!”
The Birth of the Million Dollar Weekend
When Tom adds something new to his line-up of classes, you know it will be something outside the box of what horse people normally do. Tom doesn’t follow the crowd. He looks at what is happening in the horse show world, finds a need and then fills it.
Money was one of those “needs,” and a tough economy another. The athletes in other major sports (football, baseball, basketball) make big bucks and while many equestrians in the horse world do well by the time you subtract the expenses (travel, upkeep of horses, staffing, competition, vet, farrier, etc.) sometimes the winnings don’t outweigh the costs.
We all have felt the economic downturn and those in the horse world continue to feel it as well and so Tom put on his thinking cap and decided on a way to bring back the competitors that weren’t showing anymore.
“Business was a little funky and for a company like ours that doesn’t necessarily depend on the high performance riders, the ones we count on (the grassroots competitors) weren’t showing,”explained Tom. “So, we decided to go in a different direction.”
What Tom was noticing was that the professionals were still competing but the lower level riders were cutting back. So, two years ago Tom created the Pfizer Million, a show jumping class that riders have to qualify for that gives them the chance of winning more money than they’ve ever won before.
“Our thought was that we would attract the professionals in the hopes that they would bring their clients with them.” And so Tom added the Pfizer Million to HITS line up of some 50 grand prix a year.
While Tom took a wait-and-see attitude about whether this would work, he’d already had another idea percolating which was unveiled after the first Pfizer Million. And so this year the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix was added into the mix, again the likes of this kind of money has never been seen in a hunter competition.
“We couldn’t afford to do both right away,”Tom explained when we chatted one afternoon. “It was on our mind though because we thought the hunter class would embrace a broader audience.”
Part of the reason the Hunter Prix would expand the audience was the even greater twist in that he lowered the height for what you might expect for a Hunter Prix. With the height set at 3’3” that opened the door for more people to qualify for this unprecedented event.
A $250,000 Hunter Prix Gets Is Unveiled
You might think that was enough but Tom’s done it again, with yet another unique twist. Just shy of two weeks after this year’s Million-and-a-half-dollar weekend ended (and touted as the richest weekend in the sport of show jumping) HITS came out with yet another announcement. This time added to the list will be a $250,000 HITS 3’ Hunter Prix, which will take place September 8-9, 2012 on the Saugerties facility (one of those true treasures of a show place). Riders must qualify for all three events.
You’ll note this last class doesn’t have a sponsor yet but that’s because Tom has a belief that if we build it they will come.
“It is a little bit of HITS odd style,”explained Tom. “We are endeavoring to sell it. We’ve got a list of people who have shown an interest and our hope is that we can get someone to accept it as something they can get behind.”
Our conversation deviated for a moment because it’s important to clarify that the name does not dictate the amount of money the sponsor actually gives. “These corporate sponsors don’t pay for the whole class but if they can give you a good chunk of it, if they get close to 50% of the prize money we are very pleased,” explained Tom.
We went on to talk about the fact that these sponsorships go beyond being just the title sponsor of the class.“These sponsorships are expensive to service,” said Tom, “because it’s not just about the prize money but also about the exposure they expect to get out of advertising and their onsite presence.”
We turned our attention back to the classes again and I asked Tom about the fact that there is only a three inch difference between the two Hunter Prix.
“I thought that the 3’3” Diamond Mills was going to attract more 3’ horses,” noted Tom. “However, it attracted more horses that jump 3’6”.”
As a former teacher Tom understood the importance of just three inches. “There is a difference between that one hole,” he remarked. For the Diamond Mills they got a good mixture of sale horses, pre-greens and so on “but what we didn’t get a lot of were the Children’s and Adult hunters.”
When setting up the criteria for this new class they decided to set rules so that it will attract the level of riders Tom wants to see compete in this class. “Our restrictions will be quite strict and the 3’ will not be open to professionals and you can’t show in anything 3’6” or higher at the same show. If the horse or rider were to show in 3’3” classes during the year neither that horse nor rider would be eligible,” he continued.
Tom has a knack for being a successful businessman and he doesn’t do it by following the crowd. Matter-of-fact, Tom often does just the opposite. What he’s done is given riders a huge incentive to want to qualify for his events, which takes some effort. HITS will offer 33 qualifying events for this $250,000 Hunter Prix, with prize money ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 in each qualifying class. These qualifiers will take place at all of his series of shows, including HITS Ocala Winter Circuit, HITS Desert Circuit, HITS Arizona Winter Circuit, HITS Culpeper and HITS Saugerties.
Tom also feels this is the beginning of a future National Finals weekend. He is moving around some of the other classes, including HITS Junior Medal 3’6” Equitation class. He’s also transporting the indoor arena from Thermal, CA to HITS Saugerties so these equitation riders are showcased in a new way and he’s opening up the series for other shows to pick up.
“When we started the Junior Medal in the Marshall & Sterling League I was hoping it would appeal to a more 3’6” equitation riders. It really hasn’t,” he explained.
Tom is hoping that with some innovative changes this can be a series that will one day match the prestige of other equitation series like the Maclay and WIHS Equitation Finals.
I don’t compete anymore but I must admit if I had the horse I’d try my hand at this new $250,000 Hunter Prix. Tom has put the height at one that attracts those of us who don’t feel we can compete against the professionals and has given some of us a reason to get back in the saddle again.
To see additional photos go to this link: http://www.presslinkpr.com/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=256379