by Nancy Jaffer
The sale this month of 16 HITS shows in California and Arizona means an upgrade for the company’s offerings in Ocala, Fla., according to CEO Tom Struzzieri, who now will be able to direct his focus toward only one circuit in the winter.
“I think it’s going to be a renewed commitment, and a little extra cash to be able to do it,” he said. While declining to give an exact figure, he said “millions more” will be invested.
HITS’ West Coast shows were purchased by a partnership headed by Steve Hankin, president and CEO of the Desert International Horse Park, home of the Thermal series. Steve said he and Tom had been talking about the sale since mid-2017.
Tom, who has been dealing with more than one winter circuit since 1985, no longer will have to fly west twice a week.
He calls it “a win for my East Coast customers, that’s for sure. I hate to say it, but I think just having me there the whole time will make the event that much better,” he continued, adding with a disarming chuckle, “Many will probably disagree with that.”
A big advantage will be having one winter location for key HITS personnel, including Kristen Vale, who operated the show office on the West Coast.
Tom and his “A-team” are looking not only at what they want to do at the 600-acre Post Time Farm Ocala facility but also at its offerings, as work continues on a prizelist that will be out in a few weeks.
“We’re reaching out to lots of athletes to decide how we’re going to redirect. We’re deciding what level we’re prepared to go to try to reach the high- performance athletes. We have more to offer than we did,” Tom said.
“We’re getting calls from the sponsors that want to jump on board now. I think it’s fair to say we’re going to try to attract more elite athletes via our prize money,” commented Tom, but noted he can’t give specifics at the moment.
As far as the facility goes, “I’m not starting from scratch,” he pointed out.
“We had 1,800 horses a week last year. We’ve constantly put money into that facility.”
So what’s going to be new? “The answer is more creature comforts there,” he replied, listing improvements that run from wi-fi to food service and landscaping. Tweaking will be ongoing for Ocala’s rings. “We’re going to continue to improve the footing,” he said.
The World Equestrian Center’s plans for an Ocala venue a few miles from his show doesn’t faze the impresario at all. WEC, where facilities will include a hotel, chapel and other amenities, isn’t slated to start having shows until 2021.
“I have less and less concerns about that. I’m like the horse with blinders, I’m just marching on and doing my thing,” Tom stated.
“I have not heard what they are going to do. Who knows, maybe it will be other breeds (at WEC). All I can do is continue to offer the best product I can at a reasonable price and do the things that are in my control,” said Tom.
Looking at South Florida, where the Jacobs Family’s Deeridge farm shows in Wellington are just a few miles from the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Tom pointed out it’s possible for two major show entities to coexist.
Speaking about the U.S. Equestrian Federation, he said, “I think they’ve supported the mileage rule in Palm Beach with the changes they’ve made. I’m privy to what the Jacobs have gotten at their facility against Palm Beach (WEF). It’s a pretty narrow offering when they (Deeridge) go to offer championships. They can offer a couple of classes and they have to stick to that. I think that’s key to what might happen down the road from us. Using the Palm Beach model, I don’t see that it affects us at all.”
At the same time, he believes the Roberts family’s commitment to WEC “is good for Ocala. They’re investing a great deal of money in that community. That’s been a positive.”
He likes seeing fans come in for the big events at his venue.
“If we were to change the overall prize money to attract more high performance riders, just that alone, in that market, attracts spectators. It’s such a horse-savvy community. The $1 million grand prix on Monday night fills the place.” He noted the advantage over the busy South Florida entertainment scene is the fact that there aren’t a lot of sporting events in the area, and no beach as options. The Ocala region is home to a lot of retired horse people who also like to come out to his showgrounds.
Tom doesn’t plan to bid again for the Longines Nations Cup qualifier that Ocala hosted for three years and is now being held at Deeridge. While he described bringing it north from its longtime home in Wellington as a “real coup,” Tom believes it was “always destined to go to South Florida.”
Ocala won’t be offering any FEI events, which he observed have done well in South Florida. “They give great prize money, it’s a great venue, great sport. They’re doing the right thing. For us to offer FEI, it’s going to be a little watered-down,” he commented, so he’s not going to do it.
Some weeks, he pointed out, HITS Ocala will get exhibitors who want a break from FEI, along with people who “FEI never appeals to.”
His operation doesn’t attract many exhibitors from South Florida anyway, as much as it brings customers in from other areas.
“There’s still plenty of them out there. They just haven’t explored Florida or come in a few years,” he said, elaborating on the group that is targeted by HITS.
“If we add 200 horses a week, we’re full. We don’t need to reinvent ourselves completely in order to do that. We want to run the better event, always, because I take pride in my work and every year want to make it better,” Tom said. Determined to “deliver a lot of value,” he noted, “I hope the customers perceive that. The happier the customers are, the easier the event is to do.