THE MANE EVENT
With a comprehensive lineup of events and beyond-the-barn amenities encompassing everything from fine dining to fashion, Ocala's Equestrian Hotel isn't just for the horsey set.
Written by Bridget Williams
For quite some time, Lexington, Kentucky, and Ocala, Florida, have been engaged in a chess-like series of legal and PR maneuvers to lay claim to the title of being the "Horse Capital of the World." Ocala declared a definitive "checkmate" two years ago with the World Equestrian Center (WEC) opening. A move punctuated when the luxurious Equestrian Hotel (equestrianhotel.com) opened its door at the WEC last May. Ocala's foray into the equine industry dates back to World War II, when Carl Rose established Rosemere Farm, the area's first Thoroughbred farm. Rosemere's soil has a similar limestone composition famous in the Bluegrass for producing nutrient-rich grasses and fast, healthy racehorses. Success for Sunshine State-bred horses came quickly, with Needles winning the Kentucky Derby in 1956, the first horse from Florida to do so. This was followed by Carry Back in 1961; Triple Crown winners Affirmed and American Pharoah in 1978 and 2015, respectively; and. most recently, Derby winner Nyquist in 2016. Today, there are nearly 1,000 racehorse farms in Ocala/Marion County, giving it the statistical designation of being home to more horses than anywhere else in the United States. Providing the brains and budget for the WEC and the Equestrian Hotel is the Roberts family, who self-made their fortune in the trucking industry before diversifying their portfolio with several real estate, equine, and hospitality ventures, among others. Mary Roberts led the family's foray into horses four decades ago, beginning with 4-H and progressing to the All American Quarter Horse Congress. Mary and Larry Roberts built an arena on their family farm in Wilmington, Ohio, thirty-five years ago that hosted many futurities and circuits. However, when the next generation of the Roberts family took an interest in horses, their efforts went from a trot to a full-on gallop. Roby Roberts and his wife Jennie rebranded the Wilmington arena as the World Equestrian Center in 2016. They made numerous improvements to the 200-acre site, previewing the ample amenities for spectators, visitors, and competitors at their next project: World Equestrian Center Ocala.
The Ocala WEC sits on 378 acres next to the Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, which the Roberts Family has owned for 17 years. WEC Ocala is best described as a state-of-the-art, resortstyle equestrian sports venue, a Disneyland for equestrians if you will. Horses are just as pampered as people with 2,200 12x14 rubber-matted stalls spread throughout a network of permanent climate-controlled barns linked to one another and the arenas via covered walkways. In full disclosure, I was never a "horsey" girl, preferring team sports to the saddle. But, with that said, you can't help but admire the scale of the operation and the equestrians themselves. Young girls accessorized their pigtails with petite bows and their riding britches with a shiny and iconic "H" buckle. At the same time, more mature women with light makeup and casually tousled ponytails were every bit the epitome of the French je ne sais quois. Coincidentally, that "certain something" style also permeates the hotel's interior design. The hotel sits at the terminus of a long drive that winds past barns and outdoor arenas and into a grove of Southern live oaks, creating a postcard-perfect scene of riders ambling along under branches festooned with Spanish moss. As the five-story, 248-room hotel reveals itself, the clean lines of its bright white exterior topped with a mansard roof belie the gilded opulence inside. One of Mary Roberts' passions is design. She and Ric Owens, principal designer at Roberts Design, are responsible for the European and equestrian-inspired interiors that are simultaneously elegant and approachable, whimsical but not kitschy. Leaving the bright Florida sunshine to step into the expansive lobby is a transportive experience. My eyes darted around the space, taking in the soaring ceilings, polished black marble floors, multiple seating areas with comfy custom furnishings, and the greatest assemblage of canine portraits I've ever seen in one space. Near the check-in desk, bunches of blooms, artfully arranged in tall vases, adorned a marble-topped gilded table under a substantial crystal chandelier. The scene is part Ralph Lauren Home, part Palace of Versailles, and totally unique. During our long weekend visit, the $140,000 Lugano Diamonds FEI CSI3* Grand Prix was taking place in the Grand Arena, which is situated directly behind the hotel.
This positioning grants all rooms on the backside a front-row seat to the action. Passing through our room's vestibule, I was immediately drawn to a large picture window that framed the view of colorful and well-landscaped oxers and verticals already in place for that evening's competition under the lights. A pair of 30' x 60' LED walls at the far end of the arena brought the action even closer. Equestrian inspiration is everywhere, from the bold custom carpet leading to guest rooms to the stirrup detail on a decorative bed pillow and polished bit-style pulls on the nightstands. Calm colors, subtle shimmer, and patterns, such as a herringbone carpet that calls to mind vintage tweeds, create a serene scene. There are several distinct dining destinations on the property. In the hallway that leads to Emma's Patisserie, oil portraits of dogs, displayed in the same gilded frames as those in the lobby, take on a more playful bent and are joined by anthropomorphic images of wildlife as nobility. We made far too many trips here, unable to resist the stunningly beautiful and exceedingly delicious confections created by Executive Pastry Chef Yohann Le Bescond. A native of Treffiagat, France, Le Bescond began his formal training at age 15. And, we weren't alone in heeding sugar's siren song as there was regularly a line out the door at any given time of day. The sweet surprises continue next door to Emma's at Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe. Just inside the main entrance, the original Geoffrey from the Toys R Us flagship in New York City peers above a menagerie of stuffed animals, some as animated as the wide-eyed children ogling the toys. Everything in the shop was hand-picked by Mary Roberts, including one of the most comprehensive selections of Breyer horses and accessories I've seen in one place. Painted Kelly Green with gilded trim, the entrance to the Yellow Pony is easily discernable from the lobby's predominantly black and white palette. The sole outlet on the property with a bar open in the evening, it's the place to be during happy hour and after, as the hearty, well-executed, and elevated bar food is as much a draw as the extensive cocktail menu.
Several fast-casual outlets on the property cater to event participants with good eats. These include Filo's Mexican Cantina; design your own salad, pasta, and pizza at Viola & Dot's; sweets at Miss Tilly's Lollipops; the Horse to Water poolside bar and grill; and classic diner fare at Ralph's. Stirrups Restaurant sits at the pinnacle of the dining experiences in terms of its interior design and offerings. On Saturday nights when competition occurs in the Grand Arena, the restaurant offers dinner and a show: a three-course VIP dining experience on its covered terrace. At just 7,000-square-foot, the Equestrian Hotel's Calluna spa offers a comprehensive lineup of body and face treatments and salon services. While a signature massage would have been apropos following an afternoon of trekking from arena to arena and checking out more than two dozen independent retailers, I opted for a decadent 80-minute HydraFacial that left me absolutely glowing. In addition, the coolness of the serums applied during the treatment refreshed my skin, which was still warm from soaking up the sun at the pool. Service at every level was exceptional, something that Director of Hospitality Justin Garner attributes to opening during the height of the pandemic. "I had been furloughed like many others in the travel industry. With so much talent sitting on the bench and looking for an opportunity, it was an ideal time for the hotel to recruit and secure great people." While equestrian events are the backbone of the operation, there are plenty of other ways to horse around at the World Equestrian Center. Before the end of the year, for instance, there's a Festival of Speed car show, Ocala Comic Con, breed-specific dog shows, and the Ocala Wine & Food Festival. For more information, visit https://worldequestriancenter.com/ocala-fl.