Wellington winter equestrian season closes out with prestigious polo tournament

Posted at 8:53 PM, Apr 25, 2017

All eyes were on Wellington on Tuesday as the U.S. Open Polo Championship helped bring the local equestrian season to a big close.

It’s one of the biggest and most popular matches in the world of polo and it's happening in our own backyard at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.

The Sunday rain showers pushed the championship to Tuesday and for the first time ever, the club offered free admission and free parking for everyone. Hundreds filled the stands.

Horses and players with defending champs Orchard Hill took on Team Valiente, featuring some of the best polo players in the world.

"The most prestigious tournament in the country for polo. The best professionals in the world competing," said Mark Bellissimo, owner of the IPC.

The 2017 Wellington winter equestrian season is drawing to a close. Tuesday's tournament is the number one polo event in the United States and the number three in the world.

"Number one and two players in the world are here," said Rob Jornayvaz, a player for Team Valiente.

Originally from Colorado, Jornayvaz and his father are taking part in their first tournament together as family. The two have been a part of Team Valiente for years and call the sport a family treasure. He and his family are among the hundreds who stay in Wellington as they practice and compete for the season.

"You really just can't beat it in terms of the fields, infrastructure, the farms. This place has really become a polo hub," he said.

It takes at least six horses to compete in a polo match. Many of them are trained for up to six or seven years to get ready for the polo field.

"It's a 24/7 endeavor to take care of these animals. They're athletes," said Jornayvaz.

This is the first season with a new owner for all three of Wellington's equestrian venues -- Wellington Equestrian Partners -- which is owned by Bellissimo. He says the industry is a big tourism generator of tax dollars for Palm Beach County.

"Estimates are north of $200 million. We generate over 150,000 bed nights, so it becomes one of the biggest engines for tourism but also we employ six or 700 people," said Bellissimo.

As a new addition this year, the season unveiled Gladiator Polo as a new sport. It proved successful and Bellissimo says they hope to expand the game by bringing it back next year with eight professional teams and ten games. The games will broadcast nationally.

"That's going to be a great new event for Wellington that will be on Thursday nights," he said.

But Bellissimo added that Wellington's growth in the equestrian world has it's challenges.

"It's becoming increasingly challenging to find lodging and we're losing a lot of customers and opportunities," he said.

So he says a major goal for next year is to transform Wellington into a resort destination.

"Create a platform that allows us to grow the number of spectators, sponsors and participants in Wellington," Bellissimo said. "Right now, it's really hard to do this because for the most part there's one hotel in town."

And while this season draws to a close, Bellissimo aims to work with village officials to plan a resort hotel in Wellington.

"A really critical factor for the future growth of the community is to get this in place," he said. "And I'm optimistic that we can articulate a vision for that."

Here's another big draw for Wellington -- next week, they are extending their equestrian season to host the World Cup qualifier next week. The U.S. will be competing with Mexico or Guatemala to see who advances to the world cup in Australia. Over 25 countries have competed for one of eight slots to compete in this highly anticipated polo match-up. 

Team USA will compete on Sunday, April 30 at 3:30 p.m. at IPC. You can get your tickets by clicking here.