Shortly after chatting with new LA Preview and LA National organizer Ali Nilforushan, word arrived that Dodgers former owner Frank McCourt, Jr., had purchased a 50 percent interest in The Global Champions Tour.
A 2000 Olympian, Ali said he was mystified and mad that the sport rarely gets the mass-market attention it deserves as a demanding and exciting event of speed, skill and very real risks to life and limb. McCourt's new stake in the Global Champions Tour indicates potential for exactly the kind of attention Ali is talking about. It's a well-worn topic that seems to be getting a fresh take with the latest developments in a swell of good news for the sport.
Local Grand Prix rider Justin Resnik,
EEM World's Anouk Blain Maillot and
CEO Christophe Ameeuw.
Photo: Getty Images for Longines Los Angeles Masters
That same day, we were lucky to meet Christophe Ameeuw, CEO of EEM World, at a launch party for their LA Masters Grand Slam coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center Sept. 25-28. "It's always been my dream to bring show jumping to the forefront of the international scene and to give our wonderful and spectacular sport the awareness and visibility it deserves," he said. The Masters Grand Slam is a series of indoor competitions, modeled after Grand Slam tennis. Its sister events in Paris and Hong Kong have fulfilled Christophe's vision for five and two years, respectively, and he's confident the Los Angeles version will follow suit (tickets are on sale now at www.mastersgrandslam.com).
Dale Harvey, LA Masters Grand Slam show manager, with EEM World's Matthieu Gheysen, and equestrian Montana Coady.
Photo: Getty Images for Longines Los Angeles Masters
I wondered if McCourt's investment in the Global Champions Tour would be viewed as unwelcome competition by the Grand Slam team. The GCT is a circuit of 14 outdoor jumping events currently staged in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with a "high priority" of hitting the U.S. and a West Coast stop "most certainly a possibility," per a McCourt Global spokesman. Described as the Formula One of show jumping and founded by four-time Dutch Olympian Jan Tops in 2006, the GCT awards $12 million annually in prize money.
The GCT and the LA Masters Grand Slam share a title sponsor in Swiss watchmaker Longines.
"The McCourt news is great for the sport!" enthused Grand Slam chief Christophe. "Any time show jumping and horses are talked about, it's great for everybody." The indoor versus outdoor setting makes them very different competitions, he noted, and excitement for one can only help the other.
The West Coast is no stranger to highest-level show jumping. We've hosted the World Cup Finals, which return to Las Vegas next spring, and Olympic selection trials. Those all blend VIP dining and schmoozing, entertainment and shopping opps to best effect. My sense is the Grand Slam and GCT models amp that up exponentially.
A Rising Tide
During the Grand Slam launch party, I loved Christophe's apparent openness to promotional ideas from all corners. He acknowledged that it will take every enthusiast's help to create an event that can be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. EEM is working with NBC-TV and international outlets to broadcast the Masters and reaching out from the grass roots level, too. Christophe is a charismatic guy to begin with and his face lit up when young professional Zazou Hoffman told him of the excitement already building for the Masters at Meadow Grove Farms, where she works.
The rising tide idea brings us back to Ali and his hopes to breathe fresh life into a pillar of the West Coast hunter/jumper circuit. As the new owner of the National Preview and the Los Angeles National, held the first two weeks of November at the LAEC, he's planning a major focus on the jumper classes and events. The Rancho Santa Fe-based rider and coach won his first major grand prix at the National and calls crowd the there "amazing."
"I feel I can really build on the foundation Larry (Langer) established and I am excited to be working with him," says Ali, who notes that his wife Francie (nee Snedegar) shares his vision for the shows and will be instrumental in their growth and success going forward. Inspired by the Los Angeles man planting cash stashes throughout the city this past spring, Ali says cash prizes, restaurant gift certificates and other giveaways are part of their plan to fill the Equidome stands.
Francie & Ali Nilforushan, the new owners and managers of the LA Preview
and LA National horse shows. Photo: Cary Pennington Photography
Speaking from experience, Ali says, "This is a very dangerous sport in which highly trained athletes risk their lives every day. They deserve to be watched and appreciated." That conviction played a big part in Ali and Francie's desire to take over the shows. They believe their vision can be particularly successful in Los Angeles. "It's a community that understands riding and in area in which almost everybody has horses."
"Fabulous" VIP experiences are to be expected, with equally good food also available for fans in the regular seats. The footing is due for a total revamp, and the general cleanliness of the facility will be "spotless" come November, thanks in large part to LAEC general manager George Chatigny. "He has really stepped forward on this and deserves a huge thank you from all of us riders," Ali states.
In short, "We would like to bring a whole new outlook to the show, driven by where we would like to see our sport go," Ali concludes. "The response so far has been tremendous from my fellow competitors and professionals." Chief among those enthusiasts are young Grand Prix star Karl Cook and his family. "They have big aspirations for the sport and that's what got me thinking about this."
"We live in one of the most elite places in the world and I think it's time for us to step forward and make us a destination," Ali asserts. Like many internationally-oriented Grand Prix riders before him, Ali has done it the "normal" way. "For all of us living and competing in California, at a certain level, we've had to leave: move to Europe to train for international competitions."
Over the years, Ali has been outspoken about footing, prize money and other factors that affect a horse and riders' ability to succeed at the highest level. He's proud to be joining the ranks of event organizers who've responded positively to those assertions. "I am super proud of what we have done on the West Coast," he says. "Between Robert Ridland and Stephanie Wheeler (Blenheim EquiSports) Tom Struzzieri (HITS), Dale Harvey (West Palm Events) and the Langers (LEG Shows), we have a lot of people who believe deeply in California. Francie and I look forward to putting our own spin on what is already becoming a very strong region for show jumping."
Ali and Francie's horses are based at Wildflower Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, where Karl Cook also keeps his string. An accomplished jumping rider, Francie is due to return from an injury soon. Ali will keep riding, but he's not sure for how long. "I'd like to give back to this sport that's given me everything," he concludes. "I have an obligation to the next generation of riders to do whatever I can to help this wonderful sport."