How one of the nation’s finest equestrian facilities landed in the North Carolina foothills
By Rebecca Carr
Photographs by Jay Vaughan
Just two years ago, Mark Bellissimo liked to stand on top of Pea Ridge, gaze down on unfolding North Carolina hillside covered thick with trees and dream about building a horse park that would rival all others. Local Polk County residents and international equestrians alike would stop by to offer their two-cents worth, warning about area golf course developments that had gone belly up and that a horse park would never cut it in the uneven terrain and economy of Western North Carolina. The folks around here would rather drink and hunt than work, they said. And international equestrians offered an equally pessimistic view — no one will go to a mountainous pocket of North Carolina to ride when they have Palm Beach.
Bellissimo would just nod and quietly keep staring, conjuring up what would become the Tryon International Equestrian Center, a luxury resort on some 1,600 acres just off of U.S. Highway 74 in rural Mill Spring. Bellissimo drew his plan up on slips of paper on his way back to Florida, where he is managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners LLC and CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions LLC, which operate the prestigious Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla. The event attracts more than 6,000 horses from 49 states and 30 countries with more than $8 million in prize money to their Palm Beach International Equestrian Center each winter.
And these days, no one is second-guessing what Bellissimo is doing in this pocket of Western North Carolina. In two short years, he has turned this hillside into arguably one of the premier riding facilities in the world.
Below the same ridge where Bellissimo once stood, bulldozers paw into red clay earth to make way for a 150-room hotel that will be run by Sheila Johnson’s high-end Salamander Hotels and Resorts. Directly opposite the hotel, the now completed equestrian center is running more than 30 weeks of shows and events. Built in log cabin style, the main building feels more like an Aspen ski lodge than the entrance of a horse arena with its soaring 25-foot stone fireplace, wide plank floors and antler chandeliers.
So far, more than 3 million cubic yards of earth have been moved to build the center and its adjoining shops, restaurants and lodging. Millions more are anticipated when Bellissimo and his partners start building additional condo buildings, smaller farmettes and single-family homes adjacent to the horse center as part of the Tryon Resort.
On the morning of June 11, workers water freshly planted impatiens flown in from Florida to maximize their bloom, and set tables ringside at the members-only Legends Club for the biggest event of the park’s season — a $380,000 Horseware Ireland Grand Prix CSI 5* for the Governor’s Cup. During the high-stakes competition, riders from across the United States as well as Australia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Ireland, New Zealand and Venezuela cantered around a course of 5-foot fences in the George Morris Arena, their rounds immediately displayed on a massive Jumbotron that rivals those found at NBA games. The logos of corporate sponsors such as Ariat and Land Rover line the walls and jumps while Rolex crowns a clock tower. Some 10,000 spectators attended the Grand Prix event for free — to watch American Kristen Vanderveen clinch the hard-fought victory.
As Grammy-winning country music artist Lee Greenwood belted “God Bless the U.S.A.,” former military pilots flew over the arena in vintage post-World War II planes. Face-painters and smiling women on stilts welcomed the public as if they were entering Disney World, not the inner sanctum of the horse world. Some families sat on a grassy knoll and watched the event over a picnic. Others preferred the on-site restaurants — Blue Ginger Sushi, the farm-to-table Legends Grille, the ‘50s-inspired Roger’s Diner, Clear Rounds Pub and the Siesta Cantina. Children stood in line to ride a hand-painted Venetian carousel shipped in pieces from Italy. The carousel, which is also at the entrance of the Wellington horse park, embodies the message that Bellissimo and his partners want to deliver: Come enjoy magic and majesty of horses at no cost.
“The greater the exposure to the sport, the better,” said Bellissimo, during a recent interview at the horse park’s newly built Visitor Center overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. “The horse is sort of a mainstay within American history and culture. There is a lot of great energy around horses. Unfortunately, horses have been positioned as just for the elite — the sport of kings and the whole deal. The fact is there are not many 8-year-old girls who don’t want a pony at their birthday party. From our perspective, that is an important component to what we are doing here — open the horse world up and make it accessible to all.”
During the season, hunter/jumper competitions run simultaneously in eight arenas adjacent to the Morris arena. Boutiques line the arena, making it possible to watch the action while browsing or sipping a cup of coffee from the Mane Street Coffee. Seven permanent barns provide stalls for 1,200 horses — a far cry from the temporary stalls found at other high level shows. In addition, Bellissimo and his partners are in the process of building one of the nation’s largest covered riding arenas where they plan to host dressage and hunter/jumper clinics and other exhibitions year-round. They have imported some of the nation’s best sod experts to build a 12-acre grass Derby Field for jumper competitions. A 7,000-meter cross country track with all-weather footing spans the facility.
And that is just the equestrian center. Part of what makes Tryon so different is Bellissimo’s vision is to expand activities outside of the horse arena to capture the interest of the non-equestrian family members. A state-of-the art sporting complex is planned for a flat area just below Pea Ridge within walking distance from the hotel and main building. Over the past year, Tryon Equestrian Partners has purchased the 17-room Lodge on Lake Lure to provide swimming and boating. They have purchased the Cleghorn Golf & Country Club, which boasts an 18-hole course, designed by George Cobb, the mastermind behind the Par 3 course at Augusta National, a swimming pool and a historic pre-Civil War manor that will be restored as a gourmet restaurant over the next few months. Bellissimo and his partners also purchased and opened a gun club about 10 minutes from the park that is designed by Rick Hemingway and Heyward Cunningham, two nationally renowned sporting clay course designers. A polo field is also on the horizon.
Bellissimo, the same guy who filled Trump Ice Rink in Central Park with 1,500 tons of equestrian footing in 2014 to host the first Central Park Horse Show, has transformed this hillside into an equestrian mecca that even the regulars on the Grand Prix circuit can’t believe. “It’s shocking how amazing this place is,” said Ali Nilforushan, one of the trainers for Karl Cook, a Grand Prix star, who shipped his horses from California to compete this year. “I don’t think I have been to any place, not just in America, that is as good as Tryon. I would definitely rank it as the top five venues around the world and he’s not even done building it yet.”
Build big or go home
Bellissimo, 54, grew up in a middle class suburb outside of Boston. He won a hockey scholarship to Phillips Academy Andover, went on to Middlebury for college and then earned his MBA from Harvard. He rode into the equestrian world after a successful career in corporate restructuring. The idea to transform the way horse shows are run came from watching his wife and children compete in them. Bellissimo saw the portapotties, near-miss golf cart accidents, greasy fried food and lack of shade and he knew that he could do better. He started to apply his background overhauling companies to give spectators a better experience.
“Mark saw a way to make the industry better by developing it and opening it up to everyone,” said Lisa Lourie, a horse breeder from Kentucky and one of Bellissimo’s five partners. “I love his entrepreneurial spirit. It is really exciting to see what he is doing with Tryon.”
The initial success of the park has prompted the partners to double their investment of $100 million, turning the horse park into an “equestrian destination” that the whole family can enjoy.
“Our goal is to make this accessible. Whether you have $10 or $10 million you should have an opportunity to be exposed to this,” Bellissimo said. This is a strongly held belief by all of the partners, who came from middle class roots and want to see the equestrian sport become more mainstream and open to the general public.
Bellissimo’s vision defies the common senses associated with development projects or the attributes that big bank financing requires. For one, there is a lack of infrastructure, such as hotels and restaurants that tony Palm Beach offers near Wellington. But, Bellissimo and a hand-picked group of five partners saw an opportunity to do something that is far more than just about making money. They saw an opportunity to make a lasting difference in a region that had lost its confidence following the collapse of the textile industry.
“This is a very, very passionate group of people who love horses and the people of this community,” Bellissimo said, who has had people stop him in an Ingles grocery store to thank him for giving their son a job after 2½ years of searching. “I should be the one thanking them,” he said.
Bellissimo played an instrumental role in redeveloping the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center 10 years ago, turning the Winter Equestrian Festival into a $150 to $200 million revenue machine for Palm Beach County. Local officials are betting that he can work the same magic here.
“This is the biggest economic development that this area has ever seen,” said Robert Williamson, director of economic development in Polk County. The impact is being felt in surrounding counties as well. Preliminary results for a regional economic impact study show that the horse park pumped more than $9.2 million into the local economy in 2015, the first full year of horse shows. To date, the equestrian center said it has spawned 700 construction jobs and 500-600 part-time, seasonal jobs.
“Mark is a true visionary,” Williamson said. At first, there were a lot of questions about the horse park. People had a hard time grasping Bellissimo’s vision because it was so beyond anything that had ever been proposed in Polk County. “We are not used to a $200 million investment, high-level Olympic riders coming through town and arenas filling to capacity. When you see the magnitude of the development, it eclipses anything else in the entire region.”
Horse community pedigree
The rolling hills and lush pastures of Tryon and surrounding Polk County have a century-old equestrian history, hosting the legendary Block House Steeple Chase, hunter/jumper competitions at the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center and a deeply-rooted fox hunt tradition that boasts the Tryon Hounds and Green Creek hunts.
Ann Troppmann, president of the long-established Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, sees the equestrian center as a partner to further those interests. Indeed, five annual horse shows that originated with the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club are now hosted by the Tryon International Equestrian Center, including the 88th annual Charity I horse show.
“The history and tradition of these shows is perpetuated now in a first class, international arena,” Troppmann said.
“Certainly for those of us who love horses, it is exciting to be able to watch world class riders and horses compete,” said Cynthia Boyle, a member of Tryon Hounds whose husband competes in national dressage competitions in Wellington and Tryon. “The multidisciplinary offerings of Grand Prix show jumping, hunters, dressage and eventing are equal only to Aachen, Germany in its scope. The influx of competitors, many of whom now make Tryon their home, has enriched the social fabric of our community, bringing a needed boost of youth and vitality to the community.”
The impact of the equestrian center is starting to spread outside the grounds to places like Overmountain Vineyards. The Lilly family has seen their business triple since the Tryon International Equestrian Center opened for an abbreviated season in 2014. They saw so much new interest that they started growing grapes for their own label. They are now spending $200,000 to renovate their home on the property to have private tastings and dinners on site.
“I think more than anything the Tryon International Equestrian Center gives people a sense of hope for the future,” said Sofia Lilly, who is now running the business with her parents after graduating from college. The horse center is making a lot of her peers consider moving back to the area to make their lives, she said.
“The Tryon International Equestrian Center has had a very positive impact on the community,” said Meg Atkinson, an equestrian and real estate agent with Town & Country Realtors. “TIEC is a gorgeous facility with many luxuries for horse and rider. Nestled among rolling hills, Tryon offers equestrians the opportunity to use the landscape to create larger, more private homes and farms. The gorgeous views are also an added benefit.”
Photos of local shows and fox hunts line the walls of Stone Soup restaurant in nearby Landrum, S.C. It is a favorite haunt for the local horse community. To its owner, Suzanne Strickland, The Tryon International Equestrian Center draws people to the area that might not have come here and gives great exposure to Landrum, Tryon, Columbus and Saluda. “These small towns welcome tourists and new residents alike, providing the friendly Southern experience,” Strickland said, who is also president of Our Carolina Foothills, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the region. “People who come to compete at TIEC tend to want to venture out and experience all the area has to offer — outdoor adventure, arts and entertainment, shopping and dining.”