In only its second year, a unique Indianapolis equestrian competition is gaining a following among equine enthusiasts well beyond Indiana. And organizers already are planning to expand the event into one of the nation's largest hunter/jumper competitions.
Craig Dobbs attracted nearly 400 horses to the inaugural Circle City Equestrian 500 last year, even though he began preparations only five months beforehand and had no marketing budget. This year, Dobbs said, more than 600 horses will compete at the show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds July 19-23.
"Six hundred horses is a very, very goodsize horse show, especially for the Midwest," said John Long, CEO of Lexington, Ky.-based U.S. Equestrian Federation. "In only its second year, that's absolutely fantastic."
The Equestrian 500 is an Olympic-style equestrian event where horse and rider navigate jumps and other obstacles in a timed event. The local event already has obtained a AA standing, USEF's highest designation, based on prize money and other factors.
Dobbs, a horse enthusiast and prominent Indianapolis stockbroker, plans to expand the show to 800 or more horses. He also intends to grow it from a one-week format to two weeks, with the championship finale-or Grand Prix-possibly moving to Conseco Fieldhouse. Dobbs said he already has two weeks etched into the 2007 USEF calendar; negotiations to move the Grand Prix to Conseco Fieldhouse are more tenuous.
Indiana Sports Corp. officials say the event will bring lots of positive exposure to the city-as well as lots of visitor spending. The ISC is helping organize volunteers and marketing for this year's competition.
"This is becoming an Olympic-level event," said ISC President Susan Williams. "It helps us diversify our sports offerings in this city, and we hope it becomes a signature event here."
There's good reason for the ISC's excitement over the Equestrian 500's growth. The average U.S. Equestrian Federation member has an annual household income of $142,000 and a home worth $270,000. Fifteen percent even have a second home, federation data shows.
"These are the numbers that are attracting sponsors," said Dobbs, who owns 40 horses at his Lucky Farms between 106th and 116th streets north of Indianapolis.
"We offer a very efficient way to reach a very attractive, targeted audience. We promote our sponsors in a number of unique ways from putting their names and logos on highly visible jump barriers to cross promotions with trade publications that cover our sport."
The Equestrian 500 has signed deals-most ranging from $500 to $2,000-with 27 corporate sponsors, including Citigroup, Fifth Third Bank, Conrad Hotel, Hoosier Lottery, IPALCO Enterprises Inc. and MacAllister Machinery. Dobbs is still seeking a $50,000 title sponsor for the Grand Prix.
He's grown the number of vendors from 20 to more than 40. At the event, they'll sell everything from jewelry and clothing to horse feed and equestrian equipment.
About 70 percent of participants came from outside Indiana, providing exposure to the city that ISC's Williams said is difficult to quantify.
"It's a whole new audience with which to market our city," Williams said. "And a lot of these people are corporate executives we would like to be in front of."
Last year's event, which had a $375,000 budget, lost money. Dobbs, who oversees more than $10 billion in pension money for Citigroup, covered the shortfall. He's confident sponsorships and ticket sales will cover this year's $400,000 budget. More than half of that goes toward prize money intended to draw the nation's top horses and riders.
As the event grows, Dobbs hopes to earmark $100,000 annually for charity. Next year's event, he said, will have a $900,000 budget.
Tickets for the Grand Prix are $10, with 24-seat group boxes selling for $300. Last year's Grand Prix drew about 2,500, but Dobbs is hopeful this year's will draw more than 7,500. Admittance to events other than the Grand Prix is free. Total attendance the first year was 13,000. Dobbs thinks he can double that this year.
There's reason for optimism, said Tricia Booker, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse, a Virginia-based equine industry publication.
"I've heard people in the equestrian world raving about this event," Booker said. "There seems to be a strong organization behind it, and a lot of people think it's only going to get better."
Several factors are drawing attention to it, Booker said.
"They have the only summer show that is all indoor," she said. "Three climate-controlled rings is unheard of, and it's becoming quite a draw. They have also put together a nice prize list."
A well-run show is essential to attract top horses, riders and trainers, Booker said.
"The top horse people often come with an entire staff," she said. "Not just a rider, but a trainer, groomer and other staff members-and of course the riders' family members. That all adds up to bigger economic impact for the host city."
The Equestrian 500 already has booked 800 hotel rooms-many of them at the Conrad and other high-end hotels. The American Horse Council estimates that a large U.S. equestrian event has a $5 million to $15 million economic impact. Double that for a two-week event, Booker said.
"When you have a two-week event, you have a captive audience looking for things to do on their off days," Booker said. "Since their horses are there-and it's expensive to transport them-they're not going anywhere."
The Midwest has a history of well-run events, but most are small or midsize, Booker said. Large East Coast and West Coast markets dominate the show calendar. One of the well-known Midwest shows is the Traders Point Hunt Charity Horse Show, which will stage its 28th annual event near Zionsville this August.
Dobbs said he is not interested in competing with the Traders Point show. He said he hopes his show will help the horse industry grow locally.
Booker thinks the two can coexist.
"This sport is growing by leaps and bounds," she said, "so the most important thing is that both these events continue to show they're top of the line. That will draw competitors and spectators."
Officials for the Traders Point competition were not available for comment.
Long, of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said two healthy hunter/jumper shows would have a powerful impact on Indiana's equine industry.
Dobbs is doing his part. He built his name in the field by founding Children's TherAplay in 2000, a not-for-profit that uses horseback riding to work with children with special needs.
Since he was elected Indiana Hunter/Jumpers Association president 18 months ago, membership is up 32 percent, to nearly 300.