Another successful Winter Equestrian Festival has concluded its run in Wellington. Once again, past and future Olympians from numerous countries — along with riders from many different skill levels — competed for 12 weeks in front of tens of thousands of spectators.
On the other side of the grounds from the International Arena, where the world’s best show jumpers and hunter riders competed for almost $10 million in prize money, is Michael Stone’s office, located at the end of the hall in the administration building.
Stone joined Mark Bellissimo’s Equestrian Sport Productions 11 years ago. He is the man behind the scenes who makes it all happen. Prize money has quadrupled over that time, and so has the number of horses competing in the largest and longest running horse show in the world.
Bellissimo knows how important Stone is to the continued success of WEF. As president, Stone is involved in every aspect of the business, from operations to scheduling and special events. Stone deals with many additional topics, including licensing and planning while monitoring and handling issues with international entries. He also has meetings with the different managers and regular phone conferences, talking to foreign federations, and organizing visits from their presidents. Every day is different, and that appeals to the 61-year-old Stone, who was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland.
“We have very different styles, but they are extremely complementary,” said Bellissimo, who is CEO and the public face of the company. “He is very disciplined in managing within very complicated environments. He has been critical to the vision, but in many ways, he prefers to be behind the scenes and just make things happen — a great team player who is respected by all. I get a tremendous amount of credit, but it wouldn’t have happened without Michael’s leadership and management. There is no ego there, if the team wins, we all win, and I think that attitude pervades our organization.”
Olympian Shane Sweetnam has known fellow Irishman Stone for more than a decade.
“He’s done a great job; he’s made a big difference in the structure,” Sweetnam said. “He’s got a relaxed attitude. I think that helps the people around him so they don’t feel flustered. They have a lot of projects going on, not just in Wellington, and he seems to handle it with ease.”
Bellissimo and Stone work very closely together. As with most relationships, there were a few bumps that had to be smoothed out.
“Whenever Mark gets an idea, he calls; it could be five o’clock in the morning or 10 at night,” Stone said. “Over the years, he realized I don’t like being called early in the morning or late at night. So now, he generally waits or sends an e-mail. He knows I’m open to try anything, and I’ll try to find a way to make it happen. Being together for 10 years, I think he values my opinions.”
Bellissimo called Stone the consummate team player.
“He is calm and steady in a storm and is able to distill complex strategies into ‘feet on the ground’ operating plans whose elements are effectively communicated to and executed by the team,” Bellissimo said. “He is extremely well-respected within our organization, locally, nationally and internationally. Another great attribute is that he will roll up his sleeves to get the job done, whatever it takes. I still remember he and I unloading a truck at 2 a.m. in the morning before opening day of WEF in 2008. Together with Vaneli Bojkova, Paul Regal and David Burton Jr., there is no better team to have your back.”
However, their relationship almost didn’t get off the ground.
Bellissimo didn’t know Stone before he hired him to help turn around WEF, which was losing money at the time. While looking for strong candidates, Stone’s name came up from several respected sources. Stone had been working in high-profile equestrian jobs throughout his adult life. He had just left as secretary general of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), which is the sport’s world governing body.
Stone left the FEI on a Wednesday, and Bellissimo called on Friday. Stone didn’t want to take the call but was talked into it by his girlfriend. It changed his life.
“I hired him on the call,” Bellissimo said. “Everything I heard about him was that he was humble, intelligent, principled, hard-working, respected by his peers, and he knew the industry better than anyone… Katherine [Bellissimo] and I wanted the best person for the job. He was it. It was the best decision we ever made, as together we charted a course that reshaped Wellington, and even equestrian sport in this country, as the largest show organizers in the world in terms of overall revenues, number of international competitions and horses competing.”
Under Stone’s leadership, Equestrian Sport Productions’ business has quadrupled over the last decade as a result of Bellissimo and his partnership investing more than $300 million in acquiring and developing land, licenses, building and upgrading what is now more than 900 acres of property that directly employs nearly 1,000 employees during the season. Its economic impact on Palm Beach County exceeds $200 million per year, Bellissimo noted.
In addition to the world-famous WEF, the firm now operates the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, the International Polo Club Palm Beach and the Wanderers Club. At WEF, they have added innovative special events, such as the Great Charity Challenge, Saturday Night Lights, an Under 25 series for rising stars and the popular Battle of the Sexes, as well as family entertainment and vendors to create a world-renowned equestrian wonderland.
Stone said one of the biggest changes in the last 10 years is the scale and size of the show.
“Revenue-wise, we have grown over 400 percent, and it’s a much more intense show now because of the amount of effort to make it an entertainment value,” Stone said. “Saturday nights have grown to such an extent it’s unbelievable the crowds we’re getting.”
Creating the successful Saturday Night Lights series is one of his proudest accomplishments so far during his tenure.
“Mark and I looked at it,” Stone said. “The former management of WEF used to charge people to come here. It was a customer prevention strategy. The major jumping event was on Sunday afternoon, competing against polo and general family activities.”
Their solution was to make general admission to spectators free, charge a nominal fee for parking, and market the event to families and schools.
“The first year, we got a lot of grief from people, such as riders asking why we’re doing it at night,” said Stone, who admitted that there were more empty seats than spectators at the beginning of the changeover. “But we proved them wrong. We’re one of the very few shows in the U.S. that get massive crowds that watch Grand Prix events. And that’s at all our venues, not just WEF.”
That would include the affiliated Equestrian Sport Productions shows in Parker, Colorado and Tryon, North Carolina, the site of this year’s prestigious World Equestrian Games. It is expected to be the largest attended sporting event in the United States in 2018, attracting more than 500,000 attendees, according to Bellissimo.
Stone and his team are in Tryon to oversee final preparations for the games, which are held every four years, halfway between the Summer Olympics. This year’s competition will be held Sept. 11 through Sept. 23, and will include eight equestrian disciplines. More than 55 countries are expected to participate.
Stone spent much of this time this winter working on WEG, organizing the event, including accommodations, transportation and the food operation.
He has produced intricate timelines for each discipline, while also working with the numerous world and national federations, as well as the USDA regarding the quarantine of horses coming into the country.
“There are so many extra layers,” Stone said. “Usually there are five FEI stewards for 200 horses. For WEG, there are 11 stewards for each discipline. And we have to build a veterinarian hospital. We will have 60 or 70 vets. Each team comes with a manager, a vet, a farrier, grooms and physios. And every country comes with a president and a secretary general.”
But the massive undertaking doesn’t faze Stone. “I like the challenge of organizing, and the WEG is a huge challenge,” he said.
Stone believes that the games this fall will be one of Equestrian Sport Productions’ greatest achievements, but won’t make that pronouncement until it’s over. There are plenty of other high points, including putting together the first horse show at Central Park in New York City. There were logistical issues and a small time frame to get everything in place and ready for live TV.
“Everyone said it was impossible, but that’s never a good word to use with Mark,” Stone said. “Impossible only takes a little bit longer.”
That’s the attitude that has allowed WEF to flourish. In Stone’s office, he shows off a framed golf tee flag from the Masters in Augusta, a trip which he said should be on everyone’s bucket list. On Stone’s bucket list is to watch his favorite tennis player, Roger Federer, play in a major championship, like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. His walls are covered with equestrian photos, but it’s a photo from a local rugby team that energizes Stone.
“My favorite sport is rugby,” said Stone, who has traveled to watch some of the premier teams compete. “I used to play. We helped the Wellington Wizards when they started up.”
When Stone joined Equestrian Sport Productions, he was simply coordinating a horse show.
“It has evolved into doing a lot of different things — dealing with village issues, organizing permits for special events, planning and zoning, building codes,” he said. “Every morning is different. There were a lot of things that I had no idea about. But the best thing about my job is that I work with a fantastic group of people. There isn’t a day that we don’t have a laugh about something. It’s an enjoyable environment to work in. Mark is very big on family. We’re all part of the family.”