Trouble in Paradise
For a quarter-century, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs ruled the clubby equestrian scene in Wellington, Florida. From his palatial estate, he fought to keep the exclusive community exactly the way he and his family wanted it. Then a brash Boston entrepreneur named Mark Bellissimo appeared on the scene. Now the two men have declared war on each other—and the fate of the town hangs in the balance.
Today, the Bellissimo-Jacobs feud is tied up in the courts. The Jacobses have sued for the right to have the equestrian village torn down, and Bellissimo has sued for the right to operate it. The village council, meanwhile, seems content to wait and let all of the litigation play out. Attempts at mediation, predictably, have failed. Whether the whole thing will be resolved by next January, when the next dressage season begins—or doesn’t begin—is anyone’s guess.
Last August, Lou Jacobs wrote an open letter to Bellissimo detailing the conditions under which he would accept a dressage-only facility. There could be no “concerts, laser- and strobe-light shows, special effects, fireworks, live entertainment or other disruptive, non-equestrian entertainment,” he wrote. All dressage events would have to end before 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends, and “the use of amplification devices or loudspeakers, or the amplified projection of announcements or music” would have to be banned between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“Pretty much, I didn’t have to respond,” Bellissimo said when I asked about the letter. “Who are you guys to determine what people do here, and who can use their property? At the end of the day, this property was bought for $37 million.”
As the two sides wage their war, the rest of Wellington is paying the price. The village, still cash-strapped in the wake of the recession, has had to set aside an extra $600,000 for the coming fiscal year to deal with legal fees related to the feud. “That’s just what we pay the lawyers,” Schofield, the village manager, told me. “That doesn’t include the staff time.” Margolis has estimated that village staffers spend more than half their hours working on equestrian issues. It’s frustrating, he said, because those outside the equestrian district are much more concerned with schools, policing, and finances.
Shuttering the dressage facility would cost the village about 50 jobs, Bellissimo said, and would send top-quality horses and riders elsewhere. Then there’s the local residents—from veterinarians to stable workers to photographers—who depend on the competitions. “I find it very sad,” said Anja Plönzke, a champion dressage competitor from Germany who was in Wellington for the season. “The facility is great.” Her husband, Roland Bauer, was confused by the state of affairs. A few days earlier, Charles Jacobs had ridden in an event held at the dressage complex. (“Charlie Jacobs Competes at Show Grounds He Wants Torn Down,” blared the headline on Dressage-news.com, a website that’s sympathetic to Bellissimo.)
“Mr. Jacobs is even riding there,” Bauer said. “How can it be?”
On my final night in town, I visited the International Equestrian Center to take in Bellissimo’s Saturday-night show. Walking the grounds, I saw kids careening around in a bouncy house, riding the carousel, and sitting still just long enough to get their faces painted. The Tiki Hut was packed. While the riders—looking prim in their black dress uniforms and helmets—warmed up their horses, a cover band wheezed out the Eagles’ greatest hits. The Jumbotron showed a kiss cam. I was surprised, though, at how much chatter I heard about the actual competition. Michael Stone, the president of Bellissimo’s operation, told me that he thinks about half the crowd comes for the spectacle and fun, and about half are real fans. In any case, kids were being introduced to the sport, and the bustle seemed a dramatic improvement from when Bellissimo took over and all his new, blue plastic seats were empty. “The local public are starting to understand it,” Stone said. “You can hear how quiet they are when the horses are jumping, and then they cheer.”
Making my way into the International Club, I ran into Lou Jacobs and his wife, Joan, who were sitting at a friend’s table. They’d been unable to reserve an International Club table of their own this season. According to Bellissimo, they missed the application deadline.
While most of the VIP crowd mingled, Lou was focused on the jumping action. “This is what Mark does really well,” he conceded, waving an arm at Bellissimo’s lit-up turf in front of him. From there, he broke down each competitor’s strengths for me. When one of his daughter’s friends entered the ring, he leaned through every turn and jump with her. By evening’s end, he was in high spirits. But when I asked one last question about the equestrian-village dispute, his voice turned thin. What I couldn’t get over, I said, was how the area where Bellissimo wanted to build was just a grubby lot across from a strip mall. What principle of preservation was at risk? “I’m not totally about, you know, preserving a dirt field,” he replied. “It’s just about what does this look like, conceptually, 15 years from now.”
In other words, it’s not about any one development—it’s about competing visions for the future of Wellington and, in a sense, equestrianism itself. Bellissimo believes that treating the sport as a business is the only way for it to grow and flourish. The Jacobses, on the other hand, long for the clubbier old days, when earning money and attracting crowds was secondary to protecting a certain lifestyle. It’s a bizarre position in which to find the NHL’s most notorious fiscal hardliners. But then, nothing in Wellington makes much sense.
While the lawsuits crawl along, there’s another village-council election in less than a year. Anne Gerwig, one of the remaining pro-Bellissimo councilors, told me that she’ll run again, despite the migraines she’s been getting since the beginning of the controversy. She’s sure, though, that the Jacobses will target her, and that she’ll lose.
Lou Jacobs confirmed that his family will be active again come election time. “We’re certainly going to advocate,” he said. For his part, Bellissimo promised that he won’t get caught off-guard this time by a last-minute Jacobs blitz. “We will do what it takes,” he told me, “to educate the people in what the facts are.”
In other words, the two opposing sides are only getting warmed up. It makes you wonder: If all this goes on much longer, just how much lifestyle—equestrian or otherwise—will Wellington have left to preserve?