For the first time in 28 years, the Norris-Penrose Event Center will lie dormant in late June. No show horses, no $25,000 prize, no money for charity. The horses will not jump as some 200 to 300 riders will not descend upon Colorado Springs. The Colorado Summer Classic Horse Shows, set for June 16-27, have been canceled.
Economic concerns are only partly to blame, as those involved tell it. In a sport where horses cost upwards of $500,000 and as much attention is paid to dirt as aerial feats, the small things truly matter.
The quick explanation lies in the numbers: "I had 300 horses in 2008," says show manager Carole O'Brien, who claims to be out $25,000 personally. "Last year, with the bad economy, I had 200. This year, we only had 30 entries at closing ... we just couldn't do it."
To anyone thinking "too bad the horse show people didn't get to have their show," in O'Brien's words, she estimates the event brings upwards of $3 million to the area annually.
Cheryl McCullough, sales manager of sports and special events for Experience Colorado Springs, says she only figures $200,000 in economic impact, but calls that figure conservative and based only on booked hotel rooms. That doesn't include the many guests who stay in their trailers, and everyone who eats three meals a day and shops locally for everything from feed to veterinary services.
Leigh Anne Claywell, director of competition licensing, evaluation and safety for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, confirms numbers are down industry-wide this year, though several shows have defied trends and performed well.
"A lot of people are being picky about which shows to go to," Claywell says. "They might go where they had a good experience or to a place where they liked the facility or management."
Which brings us to Norris-Penrose, whose "overriding consideration" ironically "has always been the benefit to the community in terms of jobs created by money drawn into the community," according to its website. But the underlying issue, literally, that may have contributed to this year's poor enrollment, is footing, as in the surface on which the pricey horses perform.
O'Brien says folks might have been "a little suspicious about the facility this year" based on last year, when rain produced poor footing that forced events to be modified indoors. She also questions the facility's continued scheduling of a motocross event directly before hers, which they feel leaves the turf in desperate shape, even after resetting. This concern speaks to the sport's tight-knit clientele, who might scale back their schedules by cutting a show for which they lose full confidence — warranted or not.
"We've got excellent footing," maintains Norris-Penrose general manager Bill Miller, citing barrel racers who came close to world-record times last fall. He calls operations foreman Jay Turner "probably the best in the state." Miller gauges that losing the show cost Norris-Penrose upwards of $30,000.
Claywell has heard no other major grievances against Norris-Penrose and says others "seem to have pretty good luck with it." She notes that O'Brien has canceled other events in recent years, perhaps making exhibitors "trepidatious" as to whether O'Brien's shows will take place: "It can have a snowballing effect."