The World Equestrian Games in North Carolina got off to a messy start on Tuesday and things are only going to get muddier as Hurricane Florence bears down on the region.
On Wednesday, the endurance competition, one of eight disciplines holding world championships, was canceled after, first, some riders were misdirected on the first leg of the course, and then heavy rains swept in.
A New Zealand website, Horsetalk, dubbed it “horror day.” Organizers cited dangerously high heat and humidity and deteriorating trail conditions in announcing the cancellation.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but it was done with horse and athlete welfare in mind as the conditions this afternoon after the rain resulted in extremely high levels of humidity and, combined with rising heat, it was deemed unsafe to continue the ride”, president of the veterinary commission Dr. Thomas Timmons said in the news release.
The games are being held at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, N.C., which is about two hours west of Charlotte.
The announcement also said that the false start will be investigated. According to several videos posted online, things got rather heated amongst competitors as the problem was discussed, with a plan originally announced to throw out the first leg of the race and restart. But as the restart was beginning, the weather turned and the race was called off.
Amid chants of “shame on you, shame on you,” one video appeared to show security or police officers confronting some participants at the endurance venue.
There apparently are no plans to restage the competition; many riders travel from overseas, some with multiple horses, to compete. According to a British equestrian sports site, there is a petition to restage the race later this year and the Maktoum family, the ruling family Dubai and behind the United Arab Emirates title sponsorship of endurance at WEG, is offering to foot the bill.
Tryon games organizers also said Wednesday the National Weather Service, stationed onsite for the duration of the WEG, has predicted that heavy weather and high winds are expected Sunday evening and into Monday, with winds from Hurricane Florence expected to peak Sunday night at 30 mph with gusts of up to 40 mph.
Sharon Decker, COO of the games, and Sabrina Ibanez, secretary general of the Federation Equestre International that governs them, said Tuesday in a release that they have “robust contingency plans” for sheltering people and horses. The barns have been built to withstand winds of 90 mph, “so the horses are in the safest place here on site.”
However, not all the grooms are so lucky. Some of them are being housed in RVs and in tents on bunk beds, barracks-style after their on-site housing wasn’t completed on time. Organizer Mark Bellissimo issued an apology, saying that as “a very temporary solution, air-conditioned dormitory tents with showers and bathrooms provided close by ... are available. However, this option has clearly not met our stringent standards.”
The weather also may be one factor hurting attendance, which is already lower than expected. The organizers had predicted 500,000 attendees but Decker told an Asheville TV reporter that only about 250,000 tickets had been sold before the games began.
The games are scheduled to continue through Sept. 23, with eventing and reining competition on Thursday. Medals in endurance had been scheduled to be awarded Thursday as well.
The Kentucky Horse Park, which hosted the games in 2010, has expressed interest in having the games again. Kentucky bid for the 2018 games before losing out to Bromont, Quebec. But in 2016, the FEI took the extraordinary decision to remove the games from Bromont and reopen the bidding. Kentucky was widely viewed as the leading contender as a fall-back.
But in July 2016, the state announced that Kentucky would not pursue the 2018 games because they “would put the Commonwealth and taxpayers at enormous financial risk.” That left the Tryon facility as the default host site.
Kentucky applied for the 2022 games but in January 2017, the state bowed out of bidding on those as well.
Kentucky Horse Park Commission chairwoman Tandy Patrick said they did not think it would be “economically feasible for the park to host the 2022 games.”