by Samantha Swann
For Mark Bellissimo, anything can be a symbol of defiance — even a carousel.
“I saw a great Venetian carousel in Florence and (said) I’m going to stick that in front of this property,” Bellissimo said of the opulent carousel at the heart of the Tryon International Equestrian Center that anyone can ride for free. “And every kid in this community who wants to ride a horse, if that’s the only thing they can afford, fantastic. It’s really trying to convey that this is an open platform.”
Bellissimo is CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions LLC, a group of equestrian lifestyle venues, and the mind behind the equestrian center just a few miles from the North Carolina-South Carolina state line where this year’s World Equestrian Games will be held.
Looking at the big picture, the carousel is just a small symbol of Bellissimo’s larger goal of making the equestrian world accessible to all, a journey that began in Wellington, Fla., at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. Bellissimo said the previous owners of that venue had charged a $20 fee, locally referred to as the “riff-raff tax,” to limit who could attend their events.
“After we purchased the property, we actually had a discussion about what the charges were going to be, and when I understood why they were charging, I essentially communicated, quite frankly, that as I long as I own this venue, it will be free,” Bellissimo said. “The carousel (in Tryon) is really symbolic of that whole defiance.”
The equestrian center, located in Mill Spring, N.C., and named for nearby Tryon, has benefited from coming after the Wellington venue, where Bellissimo implemented several traditions that have carried over to his latest locale, including a casual atmosphere — he eliminated the black tie dress code at Palm Beach — and free, family-oriented events like the Saturday Night Lights Grand Prix.
The latter, which features free carousel rides, pony rides, live music and street performers, along with various events from hobby horse races to mechanical bull riding, was inspired by Bellissimo’s childhood in Boston.
“I know where I came from, and I know the challenges of being a family and the things that were interesting and satisfying for me when I was young,” said Bellissimo, who described his upbringing as “very middle class.” “People have always asked, ‘Why do you have the street performers and jugglers?’ Because when I was a young kid, I didn’t know we didn’t have money. All I knew was on Saturdays my family would go on the green line to Faneuil Hall. Faneuil Hall had street performers, and that to me was unbelievably exciting. Those were some of my best memories growing up.”
Bellissimo’s efforts also extend to the sports themselves — he created his own version of polo in eight days.
“We spent $74 million buying International Polo Club, which is the most elite polo club in the world, and the first thing I did was create something called Gladiator Polo,” Bellissimo said. He said the sport is an informal variation of the popular equestrian event. Unlike traditional polo, which is played on grass in elegant uniforms, Gladiator Polo draws focus to the athleticism of the sport, borrowing visual accents from more mainstream sports like hockey. The riders wear jerseys, and the game is played in a dirt floor arena.
To Bellissimo, making the venue and the events more accessible just makes sense when one considers the level of interest people in the United States and internationally have in horses — he said about 250 million people on Facebook have equine-related interests. The problem, he said, was accessibility and the way equestrian sports are represented, with most of the focus split between racing and elite sports that most people can’t participate in.
“I think when you talk to the people that are here, they fit in because we’ve made this informal. I’ll be in jeans and a polo shirt and there’s no airs about it,” Bellissimo said.
In a way, even the act of holding the World Equestrian Games, held in Normandy in 2014, in the rural community of Mill Spring is an affront to tradition.
“It was really funny because we have a T-shirt that has all these really great world cities (that previously hosted the World Equestrian Games) and the last one is Mill Spring,” Bellissimo said. “It’s just sort of defiance and the American spirit — you just have this event that’s a world-class event and you it bring to the most unlikely of places. I’m hopeful that it will the best experience people have had at the WEG.”