Non-thoroughbred enthusiasts in the Horse Capital of the World don’t have to feel like they’re overshadowed anymore. Perhaps they never did. But with the World Equestrian Center opening its massive campus just west of Ocala’s downtown, jumpers and show horses of all breeds now have a centerpiece on a scale befitting Churchill Downs or Saratoga. “That is one of the things that is so amazing about WEC — we bring them together,” said Roby Roberts, the driving force behind the sprawling complex.
The 300-acre campus, nearly four years in the making, features 17 competition arenas both indoors and out. Four primary indoor arenas flank the larger, outdoor Grand Arena in the center of the plaza.
At the complex’s south side is a 7,000-seat stadium with lighting for nighttime events. Not only does it serve as the primary venue for show jumping, it can host such non-equine events as concerts or high school graduation.
The five-star Equestrian Hotel, opening June 1, overlooks the Grand Arena where patrons can view competition from a dining/drinking terrace. A second hotel is scheduled to break ground in the fall.
The WEC features 2,160 horse stalls spread across 23 barns. Seventeen of those are air-conditioned, with indoor walkways to most of the competition venues. Horses are monitored around the clock by security cameras placed throughout the barns.
Big events already
In April, the WEC hosted an Olympic qualifying event in dressage that attracted more than 70 entries. Arabians were competing on campus earlier this month, along with feathered horses. In all, some 80 equestrian events are in the works for Year 1.
“We can accommodate all of the breeds and disciplines here,” said Roberts, “and we welcome them.”
Already the largest indoor/outdoor equestrian facility in the world, an additional 2,000 acres are set aside for future expansion. A hospital for both large and small animals is currently under construction.
Villages residents, too, might find interest in the two polo fields that are on the board. “There is so much space in Ocala,” said Roberts, chief executive of shipping and logistics giant R+L Carriers.
Little wonder, then, that even the thoroughbred world is taking notice.
“The World Equestrian Center is big for this area,” said Ocala Stud manager David O’Farrell. “Back in the day it was mostly the thoroughbred industry, but now it’s become a place for any horse enthusiast.”
In recent years, Marion County has become home to the largest population of Paso Finos in the United States. Arabians, quarter horses and warmbloods also are well represented in Central Florida.
“Although the thoroughbreds probably have the longest history, Ocala is now home to a hugely diverse equestrian population,”
Bigger than the first
The Ocala campus actually is the second under the WEC umbrella. The original is in Ohio, where the former Roberts Arena has welcomed quarter horses for decades and has shifted its focus to hunter/jumpers following a 2015 upgrade and rebrand.
The Roberts family, which launched R+L Carriers five decades ago, has been coming to Ocala for 25 years and eventually built the Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club. The new WEC is just south of Golden Ocala.
“After the World Equestrian Center Ohio was so well received,” Roberts said, “it made sense for us to purchase the land adjacent to the club and build a horse show facility in Ocala. That way we could offer a great horse show
experience combined with country club living.”
Even when equestrian events aren’t on the calendar, Roberts hopes the WEC can serve as a social hub. Two exposition centers can be set up for basketball, volleyball or other tournaments; outdoor venues can accommodate soccer or lacrosse. There’s been some talk about turning one of the expo centers into an ice rink at holiday time.
Four eateries are currently open, including Mexican and Italian options. The Equestrian Hotel will offer both fine dining and an Irish pub featuring a 33-seat horseshoe-shaped bar and custom saddle barstools.
Senior Writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or firstname.lastname@example.org.