Phelps Sports - Thomas Struzzieri Talks
Thomas Struzzieri, President and Chief Executive Officer of HITS, Inc., started out as a rider and small-time show manager in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. He never anticipated founding one of the largest and oldest horse show series in the nation. Now, after forty years of experience working as a self-proclaimed “vagabond,” Struzzieri may have settled on one winter circuit, but has no plans of slowing down his business. He not only runs and produces top circuits across the country that offer some of the largest purses in the sport but has also recently branched out into managing marathons and other long-distance races. His success as an entrepreneur was founded on three key pillars he still vehemently believes in today: integrity, observation, and fidelity. From the inception of his small winter circuit based out of Gainesville, Florida, Struzzieri has been an innovator in the industry relentlessly chasing down perfection for his clients and the million-dollar question: where is the industry heading next?
Forty years ago, the Florida winter circuit looked vastly different than it does today. Shows were not fixed in one place and instead traveled around the state of Florida. Struzzieri tested his traveling horse show series in small towns surrounding Saugerties, NY, and brought it down to the horse capital of the world. Instead of focusing on the one percent of elite international riders, Struzzieri made the decision to target the other ninety-nine percent of riders that were looking for a more inclusive winter circuit as opposed to the FEI driven Winter Equestrian Festival.
“The choice for me was to offer an alternative circuit in Florida. After looking at what were then the mileage restrictions to apply for horse show dates, I worked out that schedule. In the first year, which was around ’82, I did a six-week circuit, which was two weeks in Gainesville, two weeks then in Miami, and then two weeks in Fort Lauderdale. The idea of the six-week schedule for those three towns was to work around the mileage for the existing circuit, the Winter Equestrian Festival,” stated Struzzieri on his compliance with USEF rules and regulations.
“As the climate changed for people’s wants and needs and as clients and exhibitors started to show an interest in having homes and really making it a lifestyle for the shows in the winters then that is what drove both of those Florida circuits to stay in one place rather than go from location to location.”
With the establishment of his first permanent horse show series in Ocala and its subsequent success with his vast target market, Struzzieri started to seek out other locations to develop to fill the need for that same clientele in the spring and summer seasons. His focus on the everyday rider and the introduction of new classes to promote inclusivity at his horse shows allowed HITS to expand offering series in Ocala, Saugerties, Culpeper, and Chicago.
“Each of the horse shows developed for different reasons. All have developed into multiple weeks at different locations that we have either built, rebuilt, or developed,” noted Struzzieri on his response to client requests and subsequent projects. “It is a pretty eclectic group that we try to attract at HITS. We are in different markets, so we do different things.
“Look at Florida, for example. South Florida did a beautiful job offering every possible type of FEI event you might want to have. There would be a bit of redundancy if we did that in Ocala. So, we do not offer FEI there. But, then you go to Saugerties where we are FEI every week, and offer a 5-star class with one of the biggest grand prix classes in the country because that is what the clients tell us they are looking for. Culpeper is looking for a different product as well, so it really depends. There is no set answer to what we are going to offer. We react to what our clients tell us they want. They might not come out and say they want it, but they decide with their feet. If they don’t like it, they just go someplace else.”
The 2020 winter circuit marked a turning point for Struzzieri and the HITS winter series. With the sale of their winter west coast shows in California and Arizona, the HITS team was able to direct their undivided attention to Ocala, making it the first season since 1985 that Struzzieri was not bi-coastal for the season.
“It enabled me to be able to concentrate on the one circuit, which allowed me to use my top team in one place where we weren’t spread out concentrating on one project. It was as good a winter as I have had in a long time. Except for the end of it which I think the whole world is experiencing. But, up until then, it was a pretty special time.”
With only one show on his mind for the winter and with direction on how to improve the Florida winter circuit from his client base, Struzzieri devoted the influx of funds from the sale to Post Time Farm, the home of the Ocala series. Even with the premature end to the winter season caused by concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, the HITS Ocala series had one of it’s best seasons to date.
“You can see that the numbers were bigger. Certainly, in the high-performance classes. We increased our prize money down there, and I think that the product was an improved product, and the class responded to it that way,” indicated Struzzieri on the preliminary 2020 winter season breakdown.
“We had more stalls rented than we have had in many many years there. More entries in all of our high-performance classes than we have ever had there. Despite the fact that we had to cancel our last week and did not have our Million Dollar class we still gave away more money than we have had in a long time. The HITS change was well received by the clients.”
Even though HITS Ocala was cut short by a week and the world’s top riders missed out on the finale of the series, Struzzieri and his top team members are currently brainstorming ways to intersperse the million dollars that were not given away in the Great American Million. A scrupulous advocate for the rules, Struzzieri and his team are working remotely from their homes during this time and are laying out the groundwork for their plans on how to proceed through the upcoming tumultuous times.
“No one really knows what is going to happen this summer. For sure, we are using our downtime. When we come out of it, we want to be that much better than we were before. So, we are trying to think how we can entice customers back, how we can offer them something that they really need in this time of great needs for all of our clients. We are trying to be smart about how we come out of this a stronger company than we went into it.”
In a survey given to those top riders that missed out on their share of the highly coveted million-dollar purse, Struzzieri asked what they best thought the use of the money would be.
“I asked them: would you like to see us split up the million-dollar class into two $500,000 classes this summer, perhaps one in Chicago and one in Saugerties? Would you like to see the $500,000 class in Saugerties on Labor Day Weekend become a million-dollar class?’ We gave them six or seven different choices, and are still looking at some of the classes in Spring in Saugerties, but those may not happen at this point. We are still trying to determine how best to spread that money out.”
With the 2020 winter series officially over and the implausibility of a spring or summer season due to the halt of all sporting events, Struzzieri is already looking to the 2021 winter series. But even a year from now, there is uncertainty as to what to expect in the horse hotbed of the world. With construction occurring a mere dozen miles away from HITS Ocala, The World Equestrian Center Ocala is expected to open for the upcoming winter season. Before competition and non-essential business were brought to a halt, WEC submitted a request to USEF to run sanctioned events as it conflicted with the “mileage rule” that states that two rated shows cannot operate within a certain distance of each other at the same time. It is anticipated that in the next 60 days, the federation will make their decision as to whether or not WEC will be able to run sanctioned events at the same time as HITS.
“When we first set up our schedule in 1982, it was based on the mileage rule. The Winter Equestrian Festival and our circuit moved around based on staying so far apart from each other to offer clients these events in different parts of the country or in that case in different parts of the state of Florida. That is the rule that we built our business plan on and still build our business plan on. I am a believer in those rules and follow those rules and that has been the basis for all of our planning and investing for us throughout the entire country. So, we stand behind that and support the federation in their rules and look forward to continuing to do so. When another facility decides to build eight or nine miles away, knowing there are rules that exist that won’t allow them to have horse shows, that is a situation that is blatantly ignoring the existing rules.”
As a leader in his profession for over forty years, Struzzieri has been a driving force behind the modern-day horse show. Today, equestrians have the luxury of the all-inclusive horse show. There are towns that are devoted to the pleasure of the equestrian. Most shows today include every amenity and luxury one could ever desire. Having founded his own business off of a similar idea, Struzzieri is now rethinking the idea of what equestrians truly desire from a horse show, and what it is that they truly seek when planning out their travel schedule.
“I wonder if we are all going in the right direction. I am not sure I know the answer. For example, we bought the golf course next to the horse show grounds in Balmoral and if you were showing at the horse show the golf was free for the whole week, and you could count on one hand how many people took advantage of that. So, you wonder when it comes right down to it if they are looking for that. I do believe that the clients are looking for a place where they can do other things. Not necessarily attached to the horse show or things involving the horse show, but for example when they come to Ocala for the winter some of the benefits there are that it is very horse friendly, you can wear you breeches to dinner and no one looks at you funny, it is a very friendly environment to be in, especially when you are not at the horse show grounds. You are very comfortable there. I think that that is a big part of the lifestyle experience. So, it is not necessarily what the horse show offers, but that the horse show is a part of.”
As one of the most accomplished show series founders in the history of the industry, Struzzieri not only looks at how to continuously improve his own business but at the bigger picture: how to strengthen the sport as a whole. Struzzieri’s series has grown vastly and continues to attract a greater number of people each year because of his ability to not only listen to clients’ desires but also to predict them. As he does with his own business, Struzzieri also foresees greater risks and hurdles to tackle that he believes other industry leaders are overlooking.
“How do we invigorate the business to get more people involved? That is the million-dollar question. How do we keep the longevity in our business? How do we entice people to come into it? Many people feel that the reason why our sport is challenged in the growth pattern is because of the expense of the sport. Yet, every business, the trainer’s business, the horse show managers business, the feed store’s business all of their expenses are growing. The challenge is to keep those expenses as close to the same as we can. Those are the challenges that are out there for the whole sport: how we grow the sport and get new people into the sport when there are so many options in America for young people to do. These challenges that I speak of are the same challenges of every sport in America right now. How do we get people to a horse show when they can jump courses at home and enjoy their horses at home? We should, as an industry, be aware that a lot of our attention should be focused on [these] particular issues. Maybe a little less on if we are jogging pre-green horses, but more so on where the pre-green horses are going to come from ten years from now.”