Haute Buzz: Why Big Names Turn out for the Rolex Central Park Horse Show

Rolex Central Park Horse ShowPhoto Credit: Rolex Central Park Horse Show

Where are you likely to find the richest man in the world, the second-richest man in New York and one of the most influential musicians of all time gathered for an evening? At one of those think-tank summits like Davos or the Allen & Co. mogul-fest in Sun Valley? If it’s January or July, quite likely. Come early fall you’re more likely to find them in New York, but not at some think-tank summit or power powwow, but rather in the middle of Central Park.

In recent years three incomparable one-percenters—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Bruce Springsteen—have been making their way to the Wollman Rink the last week in September for the now-annual Rolex Central Park Horse Show (RCPHS). They come to support their daughters—Jennifer Gates, Georgina Bloomberg and Jessica Springsteen, all avid equestriennes—as they compete in the show’s top jumping and dressage events.

The RCPHS is a relative newcomer to the New York sports and social scenes, which is why the presence of names likes Gates and Springsteen may surprise anyone who doesn’t follow equestrianism. When the five-day event debuted in Central Park in 2014, it was the first time a major horse show had been held in Central Park in more than 30 years, and over a decade since one had taken place in the city. The National Horse Show, a New York event from 1883 until 2002, was traditionally staged at Madison Square Garden; it is now headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky.

The absence of a horse show for more than three decades in such a sports-centric city might seem like an unfortunate oversight, but the logistics for holding an equestrian event—anywhere in Manhattan—had become far more daunting than they were in 1981, the last year horses came to jump and prance in the middle of town. There’s more traffic, more people, more regulations and more Park restrictions to contend with. “Central Park is difficult real estate,” Donald Trump, whose organization manages the Wollman Rink, once cautioned Mark Bellissimo, the head of Wellington Equestrian Partners, who thought up the idea for the show.

Added to the complicated logistics was the challenge of getting on the radar of the city’s movers and shakers and media outlets. Bellissimo chose to hold the event in September, a month with almost guaranteed balmy weather, but also a time of year when the city swings back into action from its summer semi-hiatus with events and galas scheduled every night of the week.

Rolex Central Park Horse ShowPhoto Credit: Rolex Central Park Horse Show

Last year, the horse show also had to hold its own against some extraordinary and unusual competition. There were concerns that people wouldn’t want to travel to the rink on the night the Pope arrived in town because security would be limiting access to the Park, or that New Yorkers might be distracted by Beyoncé performing for the Global Citizen Festival a few days later on the Great Lawn, a short distance away. But the big names came anyway—during evening events you could spot Bill Gates chatting in the VIP section and his wife, Melinda, browsing equestrian magazines at a sponsor’s display table. Donald Trump, wife Melania and son Barron mixed and mingled, too. Even in its debut year, celebrities flocked to the show—photographers caught Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa standing up from their table (a dining area is set up on the rink’s edge) to watch their daughter ride, the Boss tightening his hands on a guard rail as she navigated the course. Michael Bloomberg was also on hand to see his daughter take home top prize.

Despite the long-shot odds of bringing a horse show back to the city, Bellissimo, a former New Yorker (and financier at Credit Suisse) always thought he could pull it off. And that it would be worth it, despite the guaranteed and uniquely New York hassles. He says one motivation for taking the show on was the chance to “open the sport to a wider audience.” And where better to do that than in the media capital of the world—even if you risk being upstaged by one city happening (the Pope!) or another? “I don’t think there is any city setting that rivals this,” says Bellissimo. “You can really feel the energy of the community. We aren’t tucked away behind tents and trees; we are here overlooking the Manhattan skyline.”

When Bellissimo finally got the green light to do the show in 2014, he had only six weeks to get it together. That meant “figuring out a way to build two outdoor arenas (1,500 tons of synthetic dirt had to be trucked in), including the warm-up area with custom horse footing and a drainage system, as well as on-site stabling for the 48 horses that would be rotated in each day from Gladstone, New Jersey,” he said.

Regardless of the obstacles, Bellissimo and his team, the International Equestrian Group, with the help of city organizations like the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Central Park Conservancy and the Trump organization, got it together—and then some. Before the first horses cantered into the rink, ticket sales exceeded estimates, and the NBC Sports Network agreed to broadcast the Grand Prix. Based on the strength of the first show, RCPHS was able to host the inaugural U.S. Open competition the following year for a number of equestrian disciplines and drew the sport’s top riders like Kent Farrington, Todd Minikus, Conor Swail and McLain Ward to compete.

The U.S. Open will be back this year featuring show jumping, dressage, hunter and Arabian competitions, with more riders, more events and the promise of an even greater audience, both at the Rink and on television. Georgina Bloomberg, who won the show’s first Grand Prix, will return as well. Having competed throughout the U.S. and abroad, Bloomberg says she found the New York show provided a particularly special experience. “I remember the feeling of walking into the rink for the first Central Park Horse Show and looking up at the buildings and at the scenery and just taking a moment to appreciate the opportunity I was given. To bring the sport I love right into the middle of the city, to have friends and family who don’t usually get to see me compete come and root me on—which makes it a little bit nerve-racking but no matter—is a highlight of the year for me and my horses.”