By L.A. Sokolowski
Those familiar with Ocala, Florida’s World Equestrian Center (WEC) have no doubt seen this greeting, affixed in black lettering large enough not to be missed, on the white wall of the entrance to one of its indoor arenas.
Welcome. Home. Yet even the best of event management teams could not have forecast how accurately those words were about to apply.
WEC’s organizational radar for its Fall 2022 calendar included the second annual Ocala Food & Wine Festival, November 4-6, presented by Lugano® Diamonds, and led by seven celebrity chefs, with more than 50 food and beverage presenters for a Tasting Notes Welcome Party presented by Ethel M Chocolates®, an all-day Taste of Ocala with sommelier and cooking breakout sessions, and an anticipated 800-900 general and VIP admission guests before Saturday night’s celebrity chef dinners and Sunday champagne jazz brunch were over.
The count down to the food festival was on track when Hurricane Ian muscled its Category 4 way on to weather forecast radar on September 28-29 and, for all too many southwestern Florida horse and animal owners, up-ended life as they knew it.
The WEC team pivoted with the alacrity of a cutting horse and transformed an equestrian center preparing for a food festival into nothing short of an ark.
“I have an incredible team that worked with me to make it happen,” said WEC Director of Operations, Vince ‘Vinnie’ Card, a trained electrical engineer who grew up on a dairy farm and understood, in time of crisis, that family comes first and family includes your animals.
“It’s hard to put into words what a privilege it was to be helpful and relied upon. To do what we could to help the people and animals in our care,” he said. “No one was turned away.”
Everyone was assured a safe place to stay with no time limit attached. Vinnie and Greg Wheat can laugh about that now, but “putting together the stabling chart was tougher than planning tables for three wedding receptions at once.”
That’s no exaggeration, says WEC online content specialist, Brianna Miller: This impromptu ark had 3,000 reservations.
“Vinnie,” she said, “was fantastic. I don’t think he and his team ever worked so hard in their life.” Thursday through Monday, after Hurricane Ian struck, Vinnie, horse show office manager Brett Waters, and the jump crew never stopped working.
“When the storm shifted,” Vinnie said, “it shifted numbers for us, too.” On average, WEC stalls measure 14’ x 14’ and as the number (and variety) of animals arriving grew, that spaciousness was put to the test. At one point WEC sheltered more than 40 miniature horses from The Peeps Foundation, founded by farrier and hunter/jumper rider Josh Dolan to help miniature horses in need; plus donkeys, goats, mules, Turbo the tortoise, and Spanky the kangaroo.
“Spanky,” he grinned, “learned to share his 12×14 stall with five or six minis.”
“It was just second nature for all of us to step up,” Brianna said. “Who wouldn’t want to help? Everyone who came could stay – and eat – including EMT’s and County Sheriff’s Department.” All in all, the facility housed more than 300 first responders, as well as line workers from local power company, Duke Energy.
“The hospitality team did an amazing job,” said Vinnie. “They met weekly to plan how everyone, including emergency, fire, and first responders were ‘fed and watered.’ The Roberts family (Larry, Mary and son, Roby, owners of WEC) wanted that to be one less thing anyone had to worry about.”
Efforts by WEC in-house hospitality to help horse people were particularly selfless given that Director of Hotel and Hospitality Operations, Justin Garner, will candidly admit: “I’m honestly terrified of horses.”
But he still had a game plan. “We knew that even if we had a catastrophic event, we had the infrastructure in place to support the community. We ordered plenty of food and supplies. We were ready for the worst.”
If Justin’s expertise was more epicurean than equestrian, it nonetheless led a transition as smooth as any equitation class lead swap back from an ark to a banquet in time for the Ocala Food & Wine Festival, while living up to the region’s claim as the Horse Capital of the World.
The food festival hosted at least one celebrity chef with a riding background, Lorena Garcia, whose five-course dinner at Mark’s Prime Steakhouse & Seafood was a Saturday night sell-out. One of the nation’s top Latina chefs, and known for TV roles on Top Chef Masters, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and as a guest on The Talk, The Chew, Today, and GMA, Lorena said her experiences in the hunter/jumper ring had indeed made her a better competitive chef.
“Yes,” she said at the Tasting Notes Welcome Party, “I have found things in common between cooking and riding! When I competed on Top Chef, etc., what helped me keep my cool, stay in control, and pace myself was everything I learned from competing in the show ring.
“But at some point I had to choose where to devote my time professionally, to horses or cooking. Now my son, who is seven, has started riding. It’s one of the reasons I loved being here this weekend,” she grinned, “Maybe he’ll show here someday.”
Proceeds from the Ocala Food & Wine Festival benefit charitable foundations supporting youth development in the culinary and hospitality industries and, thanks to chefs (and moms) like Lorena, inspired riders, too.
Top chef Elizabeth Falkner probably didn’t realize an Olympic Three-Day Eventing Gold medalist was judging her during Saturday’s Mystery Basket Cook-Off, but horseman (and former USEF president) David O’Connor appreciated good food as much as the next guy, and this Cook-Off winner delivered. A Top Chef alum and judge who has competed on The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, Chopped All-Stars, and Food Network Challenge, Elizabeth has also received the Charles M. Holmes Award for her work outside the kitchen with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
What was an Olympic rider doing at an Ocala food festival in the first place? The media tour of the WEC grounds Friday morning offered a tantalizing appetizer: Plans for a three-day course to launch before 2025.
Vinnie didn’t want to give too much away so let’s just say U.S. Three-Day veterans like O’Connor, and five-time Olympic chef d’ mission, Jim Wolf (who began as USET/USEF Director of Eventing in 1993), are on his speed dial.
As plates, glasses and tables were packed up from the food festival, those who had found safety at this impromptu ark also started returning to their lives.
“The stress was evident on their faces, the worry in their brows. So many [animals] were spared the wrath of Ian thanks to the efforts and wonderful people of WEC,” said horse owner Laura Wood, whose Thoroughbred and Anglo-Arabian horse farm is 40 miles north of Tampa.
She brought four stallions, three show horses, and five foals with their dams: “I was so worried about my foals surviving this storm. WEC was absolutely vital in saving them. I want to extend my deepest gratitude for their generosity during this storm. I will never be able to make it up to WEC for all they have done. It means the world to me. Safe refuge from the hurricane, for my foals especially, was priceless.”
WEC helped its local community and, Laura noted, horse owners well outside of Florida, as three foals were destined for new homes in Colorado, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Their buyers were also “watching and fearing the storm.”
“WEC did not charge a dime for stalls and served us three meals a day,” she added. “They had a big screen broadcast of hurricane news running the entire time, which helped me make the decision to stay put. That may have saved me from harm.” The same screen that, during the food festival Tasting Notes Welcome Party, projected the evening’s live performance by 2022 Country Music Awards™ Duo of the Year nominees, LOCASH.
The generosity exhibited by the largest (378 acres) equestrian complex in America restored a little of everyone’s faith in humanity. “Saying ‘thank-you’,” Laura said, “doesn’t seem like enough.”
“South Florida saw a lot of damage. It felt nice to help and be involved,” concluded a pair of WEC security guards who had worked through the response and convention center’s transformation from horsemen’s haven into culinary celebration.
Considering the facility and world-class hotel’s carefully thought-out, climate-controlled concrete construction (and multiple massive backup generators), Vinnie feels WEC can “probably handle” pretty much anything Mother Nature might want to throw at them.
“But,” he grins, “We’d prefer trying to stay on her good side, first.”
Cheers to that.
The Ocala Food & Wine Festival five-course Chef Dinner with Chef Elizabeth Falkner. (Full disclosure) I had the privilege of enjoying each course as she rocked the Morevino kitchen of owner and sommelier, Brian Morey, in Ocala.
- Snapper Ceviche
- (Avocado, lime leaf puree, lime, habanero, cilantro, Peruvian corn, caviar)
- Gran Moriane Sparkling Rose’
- Golden Beet Salad
- (Mixed local greens, Windmill Acres goat cheese, purple carrots, dried cherries & cranberries, tarragon vinaigrette)
- Diatom Chardonnay
- Cajun Seafood Strudel
- (Shrimp, scallops & crab sautéed with garlic, celery, sweet peppers encased in phyllo dough, sharp cheddar, Meyer lemon butter sauce)
- Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir
- Grilled Strip Steak
- (Blackout Bernaise, Chinese broccoli, horseradish crunch)
- Freemark Abbey Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
- FIFTH COURSE
- Apple Pie Lines, Rum Raisin Ice Cream
- Broadbent 10 Year Madiera
- L.A. Sokolowski is an award-winning multi-platform journalist and podcaster in New York covering lifestyle and news in the equestrian, mineralogical and numismatic worlds. Connect on IG or LinkedIn @LA_Sokolowski, FB @latheequinista.
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