Charlie Jacobs rode through the in-gate and onto the expansive grass jumping field at the Palm Beach Masters and blocked out the dozens of items spinning around in his mind. Aboard his 11-year-old Dutch Sport Horse mare, Cassinja S, he was about to tackle a challenging course of five-foot tall fences and had an important task ahead: to qualify for the $216,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping—Wellington, a qualifier in itself for the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Finals in Omaha, Neb., in two months time.
“Sometimes, you just have to block it out and go ride, but it’s a challenge some days,” Jacobs said.
While Jacobs, 45, is the 11th-ranked rider in the North American Eastern sub-league of the World Cup standings and a participant in two of the last three World Cup Finals, a career in show jumping is a far cry from the Boston native’s only job. Jacobs and his brother, Louis, are the masterminds behind Palm Beach Masters event, a four-day boutique competition in Wellington, Fla. In fact, it’s even held in their family’s own backyard.
“When the [United States Equestrian Federation] issued the request for proposal three years ago to host the World Cup Qualifier, we raised our hand and said we would love to do that,” Charlie said.
Wellington is the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World, and thousands of horses and riders alike migrate to the village to compete in international competitions between the months of December and April. The main competition grounds have been the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, but a sponsorship conflict prevented championship-caliber competitions from being held in the area. Rolex is the sponsor of the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival at the PBIEC, but competitor Longines sponsors the International Federation for Equestrian Sports’ World Cup and all of its qualifying events. The Jacobs family, who has owned its 300-acre Deeridge Farms in Wellington since 1980, did not want their area to lose such competitions after they had been held in the area for the previous 10 years, and after submitting a bid, they were granted three years of hosting a World Cup qualifier in Wellington.
“We were losing things such as the Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and they’re important classes with championship-level jumping that we really felt belonged here,” Charlie said. “As longtime residents, we really felt that we were missing this.”
The Jacobs brothers partnered with Michael and Matt Morrissey of Morrissey Management, who have run horse shows for decades, to bring to reality a championship-caliber competition on their family’s private farm, which rarely opens to the public, and make it a must-attend destination event.
“The Morrisseys and myself, my mom and dad, and my brother have a long, long relationship,” Charlie said. “[Michael Morrisey’s] uncle Gene Mische was one of the founders of Stadium Jumping and what was the first iteration of the Winter Equestrian Festival back in the 80s. I can remember jumping with the Morrisseys at the South Florida Fair and the polo grounds before. We go far, far back, especially with Gene before he passed it on to Michael and Matt. It was a natural progression Louis and myself to make that connection much like Gene had with my father.”
Called the Wellington Masters in 2016, the Palm Beach Masters is now in its second year of what management hopes will be a long-term existence. While there are also select events for junior and amateur riders, the feature class is the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping—Wellington, which boasts a $216,000 purse and valuable qualifying points toward the World Cup Finals. This year, the class was won by 25-year-old Nayel Nassar of Egypt and his 13-year-old Hanoverian mount, Lordan.
“When we first discussed it, I was excited, one, because I live here in Wellington, and the winter is the slowest part of my schedule, and I enjoy organizing year-round events like this,” Matt Morrissey said. “This is what I like to do is put on events like this at the top of the sport, and I think this is one of the great events of this country, even now in its second year.”
“The Jacobs did [this] to keep the World Cup qualifier here in Wellington due to the sponsor conflict, and I think they’re in it for the long term,” he added. “The bids for the World Cup qualifier were a three-year bid, and the bids are out again, and they will be putting another bid in for another series of World Cups to be held here.”
A Unique Event
The Palm Beach Masters is not an ordinary show jumping competition, and Deeridge Farms is not an ordinary venue. Tucked away behind a forest of mature greenery on Pierson Road, less than a mile from the PBIEC, the facility boasts an enormous sand arena equipped with the most superior equestrian surface and an unbelievably grander grass field comparable to historic venues in Europe, where equestrian competitions are as revered as football is in America.
“This horse show is at my mother and father’s property—my brother Louis and I as well as my sister Katie are longtime equestrians—but we arranged it, of course, with our parents’ support, and they gave us the free rein to make what we could out of this,” Charlie said. “So, it’s been a pleasure to do. It’s been a lot of fun to roll up our sleeves and think about what we could create in terms of an all-weather format and a wonderful grass venue on the other side, which, really, is our showcase theater.”
To best showcase that theater, the management went to great lengths to add unique touches to the facility. A month before the event, construction began on a two-story VIP hospitality tent that overlooks both the sand and grass arenas. Called the Taylor Harris Club and sponsored by Taylor Harris Insurance Services, the double-decker construction was decorated with exquisite artwork, luxurious chandeliers, and decadent dishes prepared by Iron Chef star Masharu Morimoto as well as NFL football chefs such as John Morey of the Carolina Panthers, John Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, and the Green Bay Packers’ Heath Barbato.
The mainstream sport connection runs deeper. A part of the senior leadership team for his family’s global food service and hospitality company Delaware North, Charlie Jacobs is also the CEO of the Boston Bruins, owns TD Garden, and jointly operates the New England Sports Network with the Boston Red Sox, among other career endeavors. To pay tribute to some of the show’s sponsors, Jacobs flew in a Fenway Park groundskeeper to paint the companies’ names and mow the name of title sponsor Longines into the turf.
“That’s a special kind of talent that’s unique,” Jacobs said. “They stenciled and painted the different sponsors, but with Longines, they just worked with the grass. They didn’t use any paint there.”
Course designer Alan Wade of Ireland also incorporated Boston Bruins-themed jumps into his courses. The fences featured renderings of the Bruins mascot, the team’s current and original logos, and even actual hockey gloves.
“When we learned we were awarded the World Cup qualifier, we really wanted to have something unique,” Jacobs said. “When you go to horse shows, you see the same jumps every week, and it’s just kind of blah. We wanted things that reflected the uniqueness of the property, and we wanted some things like the Boston Bruins.”
Putting the Horse First
Jacobs and Morrissey have a unique perspective when it comes to organizing horse shows. Jacobs is a rider himself, as is Morrissey’s wife Tiffany, who operates a training facility called East Wind Farms in Fort Lauderdale. Therefore, they understand that the key to running a successful show jumping event is making sure that the equine athletes are not only showcased, but also served and protected. This year, management increased the size of the sand arena and practice area by nearly 30 percent, added a ring for longing, and, after four inches of rain limited the use of the grass field last year, brought in specialists to install a drainage system so that the venue could be used even in the case of heavy rainfall.
“The feedback I’ve gotten from the riders has been all positive, and that makes me feel good, because [my brother and I] would like to think of ourselves as horsemen,” Charlie said. “We’re not necessarily event producers, but we design and engineer this horse show around what is in the best interest of the horse. Yes, it’s pretty; yes it should look spectacular, but everything needs to be designed around what’s in the best interest of the horse. I would expect that if you walked back to the FEI pavilion and asked people if this was handled properly in terms of safety and the welfare of the horse, I would hope every horseman would share with you a yes. That’s a responsibility and a fabric of where we begin from, and we just build off that from there.”
The results not only attracted more than 100 internationally ranked riders, but also numerous high profile sponsors. The Palm Beach Masters received support from Longines, Canadian Pacific, SAVARO, Hollow Brook Wealth Management, and FIJI water, among other companies, and was broadcast across more than 20 countries through IMG media distribution. Event coverage will also air on the NBC Sports Network.
“It’s definitely a year-round effort,” Morrissey said. “There are so many different parts of our team working. Delaware North’s main office is in Buffalo. We work with a lot of team members from there, and their IT team is here; they’re the ones who put up the Internet, and we have Wi-Fi throughout the grounds and the stabling area. We get that organized through them, and we do a lot of sponsorship through the Boston Bruins Group. For the last three months, every week we’ve had a sponsorship call with a certain group. Every week, we have an operations call, so we stay pretty organized. We have a pretty detailed strike and schedule of everything getting put in and installed. We’re juggling a dozen events a year, so it’s a year-round work here for this event, but at the same time, I’m doing work for [other competitions].”
They are also adding an additional horse show at the facility, which will offer hunter derby classes in addition to its show jumping slate. Called Deeridge Derby Weekend, the event will take place March 3-5.
“We’re excited for the hunter week,” Morrissey said. “We have a hunter derby coming up and some exhibition hunter classes and some jumper derbies. All the infrastructure will stay up for the next month until the next show comes. We don’t have the high-level FEI classes, but we still have some jumper classes for some young horses or amateur and junior riders, and hopefully we get a nice little crowd for that, too.”