KENT FARRINGTON AND HIS STABLES IN WELLINGTON, FLORIDA.
Unless you are part of the equestrian set, Wellington, Florida might not be a familiar destination, but every winter the world’s best riders descend upon this sport mecca for the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF). Hosted at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the main attraction is the show jumping and its numerous Grand Prix events — along with the perfect climate for rider and horse alike.
Next door to Palm Beach, Wellington was originally created in 1972 as a 7000-acre equestrian preserve. The Winter Equestrian Festival has been going on since 1979, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Wellington began to evolve into the equestrian lifestyle destination it is today. In 2006, about 1000 acres that included the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, were purchased for $135 million by Mark Bellissimo, a former tech entrepreneur, who envisioned the economic impact developing this community could have.
After selling his software company in 2004, Bellissimo took some time off and brought his family down to the area to live. With a wife and daughters who rode, Bellissimo was already a regular winter Wellington migrant, but living there full time, saw the opportunity to develop a small equestrian community into a major winter lifestyle destination. He brought in partners in 2008, and a broader group of investors in 2010, to form Wellington Equestrian Partners, who have since invested about $350 million in the area, and turned the festival into the world’s largest and longest-running horse competition. According to Bellissimo, WEF generates about $250 million of economic impact on Palm Beach County during its 12-week run.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: SHOW GROUNDS OF THE PALM BEACH INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN CENTER; RIDER HEADING IN TO ONE OF THE 12 COMPETITION ARENAS; KATHERINE AND MARK BELLISSIMO
With such high-end sponsors as Rolex, who came on board in 2014, WEF has increased the prize money and FEI ranking classes, that along with the number of five-star Grand Prix events, attracts the sport’s best riders, and transforms Wellington into an international equestrian playground every winter. Rolex is celebrating its 60th anniversary in equestrian sport. The pinnacle event is the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI 5* which takes place on the penultimate Saturday night of the season, with the world’s best show jumpers competing for the circuit’s largest single-class prize money.
With $9.5 million in prize money up for grabs and a climate that can’t be beat, it’s no wonder so many equestrians make Wellington their home for the winter. Says Kent Farrington, currently #2 in the FEI Rankings, “When I first started coming to Wellington there was only one 5-star Grand Prix and now you have four. The lifestyle here is amazing. You get to spend three to four months in the sun, training and competing horses in an ideal climate. You can rest your good horses in a place where they can go outside and have some time off, and build up young horses in a place where they can compete on a big stage.”
Turns out the horses like the beautiful weather as much as the riders.
Show jumping is considered the sport of the rich, requiring a stable of horses worth millions of dollars to compete on the Grand Prix level. Not surprisingly, bold face names like Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City mayor and billionaire magnate, Michael Bloomberg; Jennifer Gates, daughter of Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates; and Jessica Springsteen, daughter of legendary rock star Bruce Springsteen, are just a few of the top competitors on the equestrian circuit that spend the winter in Wellington.
But there are also those riders and residents, like Kent Farrington, whose rise to the top has been based on sheer talent and determination. Farrington started riding when he was 8 years old, after seeing a picture of his mother on a horse. It’s been all he has wanted to do ever since. Growing up in Chicago, his first lessons were at a carriage horse stable. “Back then I didn’t know about the high level of the sport”, he says. “I originally wanted to be a jockey. I wanted to race.”
Farrington graduated to a barn outside the city, an hour and a half commute each way. Six days a week (the barn made him take Mondays off), his mother would either drive him or he’d take the train. Moving quickly up the ranks, he progressed to better trainers who took him under their wings, along with many of the sport’s top competitors for whom he rode. It gave him great versatility, which he says is one of his strengths. “As a kid, I competed a record 26 horses in a single day. They saw how eager I was… or they thought that I had some talent. The industry brought me up to where I am now”.
And where he is now, living his dream come true as a professional rider and one of the best show jumpers on the circuit, in one of the world’s wealthiest playgrounds. His sprawling stables in Wellington, where he makes his home, house up to 20 horses, and include what he refers to as his “starting line-up” of about five different Grand Prix jumpers, which he competes depending on the different competition venues. Indoor, outdoor, grass ring, sand… each horse has its specialty. Farrington’s year is spent traveling the globe, from Shanghai to Aachen to Paris, adding to an already impressive list of international victories, including a Team Silver Medal at the Río 2016 Olympic Games.
Meanwhile Bellissimo’s stables are expanding. In addition to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Wellington Equestrian Partners has recently added to its portfolio the competition venues and surrounding properties of the International Polo Club and the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival, which houses the Global Arena and Global Pavillion at Equestrian Village.
With show jumping, polo, and dressage, the competition triangle is complete. Now with even more equestrian attractions, when it comes to riding, like Farrington, Wellington is hard to beat.