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Jumping for Joy

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Jumping For Joy

 

Saugerties¡¯ HITS-on-the-Hudson, where
horses soar thrillingly over fences, is a great place to spend a summer weekend afternoon

 

By Anitra Brown

 

If you have an eye for magnificent horses and world-class horsemanship, then one of the Valley¡¯s great summer bargains awaits you in Saugerties. At HITS-on-the-Hudson, the new, state-of-the-art equestrian facility in Ulster County, you can watch Olympic-caliber horses and their riders sail over a challenging course of five-and-a-half-foot fences ¡ª all for a mere $5.

 

Grand Prix jumping is a stunning display of athleticism, even when the ride is less than perfect. (I once saw a horse stop so abruptly before a jump that the rider flew out of her saddle and into the air. She flipped her body around and somehow managed to land square on her feet, reins still in hand.) And when it is perfect, when horse and rider run a course without knocking off a single rail ¡ª and at a pace faster than any of their competitors ¡ª it can literally take your breath away.

 

HITS-on-the-Hudson was built especially for riders who show hunter/jumper, which emerged from the English tradition of fox hunting and requires clearing obstacles in a ring. Hunters jump lower fences and are judged on style and form. Jumpers have more formidable heights to clear, up to five and a half feet. They are judged solely on the time it takes to complete the course and their ability to make the jumps without knocking off boards. Grand Prix is the highest level of show jumping; it features the tallest fences and the longest, most challenging courses.

 

The $10 million center is the work of Tom Struzzieri, the 46-year-old owner and president of Saugerties-based Horse Shows in the Sun, the country¡¯s largest horse show production company. Ask him about equestrian events, and he talks faster than most people think. ¡°It¡¯s one of the few sports where women and men compete against each other, which makes it interesting,¡± he says. ¡°The horse and rider have to be in sync. And great riders have to have the horses that can make the jumps.¡±

 

Struzzieri has gone to great lengths to make HITS-on-the-Hudson a top-notch place for horses, riders, and spectators alike. ¡°This rivals any facility I¡¯ve ever been involved in,¡± he says. It¡¯s spread over 200 acres graced with a stream, woodlands, and views of the Catskills. Tan metal buildings with green tin roofs topped by cupolas and black weathervanes house 1,150 permanent stalls for horses and their gear; shops that sell boots, saddles, and jewelry; a restaurant and food court; and even a Starbucks.

There are trails for getting away from it all, paddocks for competing horses that don¡¯t like being cooped up, a special section for horses in international classes that require a greater level of supervision, and riding rings stretching into the distance ¡ª 10 for competition, four for practice.

 

The Grand Prix Jumping and Hunter show rings (and even the practice rings) are layered with a mixture of fine sand, felt, and rubber that cushions the landing, and both show rings are also surrounded by berms that prevent any distractions. In essence, it¡¯s a perfect world for jumping, so a horse can perform its best. ¡°Customers are very picky about where they want to show,¡± explains Struzzieri.

 

 

Anative of Long Island, Struzzieri grew up riding; he moved to the Hudson Valley in 1979 to open a hunter/jumper stable in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, with his father and brother. Just 18, he turned out to be a precocious businessman. In addition to teaching and training, he started putting on one-day shows for recreational riders, like the people who boarded at his stables. His first big multi-day HITS show took place in 1982 at Gainesville, Florida. At the time, equestrian events catered either to elite or recreational riders. (Struzzieri was firmly in the latter category.) But he began to realize that you could put on a horse show that would draw both groups. It turned out to be a big innovation, and the key to his success.

 

¡°At a HITS show you¡¯ll see Olympic riders, but you¡¯ll also find children who are competing for the first time,¡± he says. It¡¯s a symbiotic relationship. Entry fees from the mass of ordinary riders create fat purses that help attract the very best riders. In turn, the presence of Olympians like Chris Kappler and McLain Ward make the shows more attractive to weekend riders. ¡°If you like to play recreational basketball, and a few courts away Michael Jordan was throwing baskets, wouldn¡¯t that be great?¡± suggests Struzzieri.

 

¡°Everyone aspires to be a better rider, and to have those people around is inspirational.¡± The formula has propelled HITS to its number-one position among horse show presenters. It produces 37 weeklong events each year, which in the past have taken place in New York, Florida, California, Arizona, Virginia, Nevada, and Massachusetts.

HITS has earned a reputation for its efficiency, big purses, and running rings simultaneously (so competitors can get in and out quickly, instead of sitting around). It¡¯s also known for taking care of the ¡°footing,¡± or condition, of the grounds ¡ª a critical factor when your horse is worth anywhere from $50,000 to $2 million.

 

Take a look at the riders and their expensive mounts, however, and they¡¯re more Connecticut than Ulster County. So why did Struzzieri build here? The short answer is, Connecticut was already spoken for. ¡°As a horse show promoter, I¡¯m allocated certain dates and restricted to a certain area by the United States Equestrian Federation,¡± he explains. His license enables him to put on shows in Ulster and northern Dutchess counties. From 1999 to 2003, he ran HITS-on-the-Hudson at Kelly Farm in Ellenville, a 63-acre spread with beautiful views of the Shawangunk Mountains. But it was always a temporary home because the site was too small and Ellenville lacked sufficient restaurants and hotels. When it came to finding a permanent home, Struzzieri narrowed his focus to Ulster County because of the availability of lodging. ¡°Have you ever tried getting a room in Dutchess County in June?¡± he asks. ¡°It can¡¯t be done.¡±

 

Still, it wasn¡¯t easy to find the right location. It had to be sufficiently large for the ambitious scale of the project and relatively flat ¡ª not easy in a county known for its mountains. Eventually, Struzzieri leased a 100-acre parcel in Saugerties that belongs to Family of Woodstock, a not-for-profit organization that deals with domestic violence, homelessness, runaways, and mental health problems in Ulster County.

 

Struzzieri bought an additional 100 acres around the leased land to complete the site. While town management was excited about the potential economic impact, not everything went smoothly. A major problem arose when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that wetlands on the property had been improperly filled in during construction. Work screeched to a halt, and the scheduled 2003 opening had to be delayed. Finally, Congressman Maurice Hinchey helped broker a deal. To compensate for the loss of the wetlands, Struzzieri put up $250,000 to create a 150-acre preserve on the Esopus Creek. HITS-on-the-Hudson welcomed its first riders last summer.

 

At first, there were also community concerns about traffic. Struzzieri says these have largely abated now that people have actually lived through a summer of horse shows. ¡°I understand their concerns, because I live here, too. But it¡¯s not an event that starts at eight o¡¯clock and ends at five, with a great push of traffic at those times,¡± he says. ¡°People stream in and out all the time, so the effect was inconsequential.¡±

 

In terms of business, it¡¯s been a boon to Saugerties and surrounding communities. HITS-on-the-Hudson produces seven major shows over the summer, with each attracting 3,500 riders and their families. Collectively, they spend $37 million on lodging, food, and entertainment. ¡°We have restaurant and lodging, so it¡¯s a double whammy for my business,¡± says Rickie Tamayo, who (together with her husband, James) owns Caf¨¦ Tamayo and the Inn at Caf¨¦ Tamayo in downtown Saugerties. ¡°It¡¯s obvious that we would do well, but it also helps other businesses you wouldn¡¯t necessarily think of, like laundromats and gas stations and pharmacies.¡±

 

It¡¯s also been a huge benefit to Family of Woodstock, according to Michael Berg, the organization¡¯s executive director. Income from the leased land helps fund its domestic violence program. In addition, Family of Woodstock collects the $5 weekend admission fee and keeps all of the money, which totaled $31,000 in 2004.  ¡°Since last year was hard for us in terms of other sources of funding, it helped save the agency,¡± says Berg.

 

There¡¯s just one element missing from the HITS-on-the-Hudson facility ¡ª big crowds of spectators. Struzzieri wants to persuade more locals to come watch the show. To that end, he¡¯s made it an inexpensive day out. Parking is free, children 12 and under are admitted free, and everyone else pays a paltry $5 on Saturdays and Sundays. To up the fun quotient, there are special events on Saturdays (see sidebar). ¡°It¡¯s a great outing for families,¡± says Berg. ¡°You¡¯re very close to these wonderful animals, and it¡¯s a nice way to spend the afternoon.¡±

 

Struzzieri is hoping to get the crowds up to 3,500 a day on the weekends. As usual, he has the entertainment interests of the spectators ¡ª as well as his business ¡ª at heart.

¡°Riders like to ride in front of an audience,¡± he says. ¡°The corporate sponsors like it, too.¡± ¡ö

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