The Virginia Horse Center sprawls across almost 600 acres near Lexington. Courtesy of the Virginia Horse Center.
The Virginia Horse Center sprawls across almost 600 acres near Lexington. Courtesy of the Virginia Horse Center.

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Glenn T. Petty, horseman, made a legitimate effort at retiring. Twice.

First time was in 1999 when Petty turned in notice on his public career as the North Carolina Extension equestrian specialist and director of the Gov. James B. Hunt Horse Complex at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh.

Glenn T. Petty. Courtesy of Virginia Horse Center.

The second time he decided to clock out dated spring 2020, when he was in his 70s and ready to say goodbye to a decade-long, 1,450-mile weekly commute from Raleigh to Denver and his senior executive duties with the 16,600-member Arabian Horse Association.

Time to go back East, and to a slower pace.

That plan ended early in 2020 with a call from old friend Ernest Oare of Warrenton. There and beyond in equine circles, Oare is bigger than oats. In this case, he was calling on behalf of the Virginia Horse Center just outside Lexington.

A lifelong equestrian, Oare has likely saddled up and piloted everything save a camel or a nag. His many business interests and board memberships all seem to lead back to the show barn. Oare had been a horse center backer before the first speck of gravel fell on the road. Since then, he had served as a charter board member and was in a second term as board president.

After the pleasantries between these Southern gentlemen of the old school, Oare got right to the point: The horse center needed a new executive director, and would Petty do it?

John Nicholson, a mutual friend, was retiring for good as the horse center’s executive director, Oare related. Nicholson in 2014 had agreed to a brief stint as the struggling center’s consultant. That plan, like many the facility would know over the years, had a short shelf life.

Ernest and Betty Oare. Courtesy of the Oares.

Nicholson before long had been forced by circumstances to abandon the consultant role and take command as CEO.

So commenced a stirring but intensely nerve-wracking turnaround that continues until this very hour.

Successor Petty would come into a much healthier situation. What had been a toxic relationship with the county and city had been saved with deft diplomacy. Formerly closed books and murky accounting were open to the public scrutiny required of a nonprofit. Sound marketing and salesmanship were bringing exhibitors and audiences back. Threadbare facilities had been upgraded or replaced. Big-money patrons, perhaps spooked by reports of disorder in management, were coming back strong.

None of this had not come easily, and much work remained. The collective sentiment was that the horse center was finally going in the right direction. 

What a frightful mess it had been, an ever-growing tangle decades in the making.

The once-lavish and state-of-the art horse center — “Believe me,” Oare says, “that place was built to last” — had been hanging financially by a frayed bridle strap that had dry-rotted in the barn prior to the complete overhaul of the management structure in 2014.

Sandra Thomas. Courtesy of Sandra Thomas.

Chief financial officer Sandra Thomas of Charlottesville, who had joined the fight the same year Nicholson did, had worried week to week whether they could meet payroll.

“I had several board members who knew that I might call on Monday and tell them I don’t have money for payroll on Friday,” she said, “and I needed them to write a check.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that had accompanied the facility’s transition to nonprofit ownership of the grounds and facilities in 2007 was in default.

As bad as that was, here was a prominent local business whose economic and employment impact was tremendous, yet whose name had been all but anathema among officials and elected representatives in the very same locality where the center should have been considered a priceless asset.

The first executive director had perished at his post in his office.

How had things gone so utterly sideways for the Virginia Horse Center before it returned to sound footing at the edge of a precipice? 

* * *

A brighter future continues to unfold.

“This is a classic comeback story,” said Nicholson, who for 17 years previously had been executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park, a world-class equestrian facility.

The horse center was in such dire condition before the management overhaul that had it been a prized and beloved show horse, they’d have been talking gravely about putting it down.

Petty nevertheless saw the possibilities for the $21.9 million facility.

Challenges aplenty remained. So did a to-do list as long as one of the eight show barns.

It’s been a bumpy track and shifting footing for this enterprise born in 1985 amid great hurrah. As things turned out, even Ben-Hur would have been nervous at the reins. Smooth it never was.

The evolution from public-private partnership with the Commonwealth of Virginia to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation was a tedious grinder at every hoof beat. Sort of like it must have been back in the old days praying for a September crop and to get there slogging at the south end of a mule plowing through ragged chunks of blue Rockbridge County limestone.

Petty is not to be confused with the late Glenn D. Petty, who by coincidence had been one of the horse center’s previous consultants. 

The current horse center boss was under no illusions. He knew a rough ride when he saw one.

Teenage tough, he and his high school and N.C. State crowd had been barnstorming rodeo men along home territory on the North Carolina-South Carolina line west of Charlotte.

Mainly the only safe move Petty made in those days was to stay clear of the bulls.

“Rode one once. Stayed up. That was it.”

One publicity wag had dubbed the horse center the “crown jewel of the $1.2 billion Virginia equestrian industry.” To save it required an all-star turnaround team.

The task involved patching up relationships that never should have been broken, soothing big-dollar patrons who dearly wanted to believe in eternal hoofbeats on Virginia 39 and not some million-dollar pig in a poke, separating swiftly from COVID-19 and finding imaginative new markets.

There was luck, too. That came from unexpected sources such as federal pandemic largesse and broad-minded contributions from the racing industry through flagship Churchill Downs.

Said Petty this winter: “We are currently in the best financial shape the horse center has ever been in. If you have a product to sell, you need a good product. We have a good product in the Virginia Horse Center.”

* * *

So back to the core question: How does a can’t-miss clang off target?

Consider the many advantages the horse center continues to enjoy. For openers, it is at a commanding intersection of interstate highways 64 and 81.

Throw in almost 600 pastoral acres; all the barn, training and competition facilities any show would ever need; expansive blue-sky mountain-valley panoramas; miles of riding trails; the academic, historic and cultural might of Lexington and beyond; and 2 miles of Maury River banks.

West on Interstate 64 is a stretch run to bluegrass pastures and white-washed plank fences of Kentucky and its long tradition of fine horse breeding.

East from Lexington, I-64 connects to the rich horse country centered on Charlottesville and Albemarle County and then whizzes down to New Kent and rejuvenated Colonial Downs, now a wing of the Churchill Downs on- and off-track racing empire.

The Interstate 81-66 junction marks the nexus of the fabulously wealthy horse farms of Loudoun, Fauquier, Clarke and Warren counties.

Middleburg and Warrenton are hubs for Loudoun and Fauquier, the two most heavily horse populated counties in the state, according to the 2012 USDA Equine Survey.

Loudoun is home to Leesburg’s Morven Park International Equestrian Center, another nonprofit training and competition complex with an international reach. Fauquier hosts the Upperville Colt & Horse Show, staged continuously since 1853.

The Interstate 81 corridor contains the majority of the commonwealth’s estimated 41,000 equestrian operations. Host counties include Augusta (No. 3-ranked in the survey), Bedford (No. 6), Washington (No. 7), Clarke (No. 8), Rockingham (No. 9), Wythe (No. 11), Carroll (No. 12), Montgomery (No. 14), Russell (No. 16), Smyth (No. 17), Scott (No. 18), Tazewell (No. 19), Grayson (No. 20) and Frederick (No. 23).

As for Rockbridge County, a 2011 report by University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service that was funded by the Virginia Horse Industry Board found that Rockbridge, along with Lexington and Buena Vista, enjoyed the highest employment connection to state equine interests, with 1,300 jobs.

Current figures say the horse center brings Lexington-Rockbridge $55 million in annual impact.

Count it up. Hotels. Wait staff. Pizza. Tack. Horseshoes. Gas. People who wear mink when they vacation in Switzerland.


* * *

Otis Mead III (left) watches as Gov. Chuck Robb signs the bill to launch the horse center in 1984. Courtesy of Virginia Horse Center.

Had the original decision about where to place the horse center been a stakes race, winner Rockbridge County was late out of the gate and far back in the pack before taking the rail to streak to the front of the field.

Nobody knows that better than G. Otis Mead III, who in 1984 chaired the freshly hatched Rockbridge Area Committee for the Virginia Horse Center. A Lexington real estate broker and developer, Mead, now 88, had little interest in the equestrian sports but plenty of enthusiasm for economic development.

There were eight reported contenders, with Augusta and Rockingham counties to the immediate north touted as frontrunners.

Augusta offered a 120-acre site next to Augusta Expoland in Fishersville off I-64; Rockingham had 110 acres at the county fairgrounds hard by I-81 near Harrisonburg. Roanoke was a late entry, basing its hopes on a site straddling the Botetourt County line near Hollins University, once known as a college, then and now an intercollegiate equestrian power. 

Roanoke’s late entry was spearheaded by backers including Mayor Noel C. Taylor, city councilman Bev Fitzpatrick and developer Lucian Grove. Along with the city’s airport, Roanoke had a haymaker promotional punch.

The Rockbridge committee of 77 members first met in January 1984 at Southern Seminary, then a two-year Buena Vista college for women that had a strong equestrian program.

With Mead and the late lobbyist Ernest Howard “Judge” Williams, a Virginia Military Institute man and lawyer who for 30 years had represented state trucking interests in the halls of power — Mead liked to call him “the crusty dean of the Richmond lobbying corps” — they were well prepared to work General Assembly committees for support.

The turning point came when the legislative delegation toured the proposed sites. Rockbridge was one of the last stops.

“We only had an hour and a half,” Mead said.

Mead had friends at Roanoke construction business Lanford Brothers and arranged to borrow a company helicopter to show committee members the proposed site.

With the chopper, four Wagoneers and a clockwork shuttle system, the entire delegation had time to see the whole property by land and air as well as view a professionally produced 7½-minute slideshow.

Current Rockbridge County administrator Spencer Suter wasn’t there but believes that presentation clinched the deal.  

“I think it just blew everybody else out of the water.”

* * *

From left: U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pennsylvania; Glenn T. Petty, CEO of the Virginia Horse Center; Lexington City Councilman Chuck Smith; Patty Williams, regional tourism and marketing director; and Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, at a breakfast at the horse center during an agricultural tour. Courtesy of Virginia Horse Center.

When the news broke that the horse center was coming to Lexington, Williams gave Mead the idea to put together a crowd at VMI’s Cameron Hall in hopes of persuading then-Gov. Chuck Robb to make a rare, if not unprecedented, trip to sign a bill outside Richmond.

Mead agreed to give it a shot, then had misgivings.

“Next thing I thought was, well, there you go putting your foot in your mouth again.”

More like putting his money where his mouth was.

Mead arranged with the superintendent of schools to have primary school pupils and high school students from Parry McCluer in Buena Vista and old Rockbridge, Lexington and Natural Bridge to be bused to VMI for the ceremony. Robb came to sign the bill.

Roanoke Times reporter Mary Bishop wrote that the Rockbridge County triumph was an “impressive political coup.”

 “We call Otis the Godfather of the Horse Center,” Oare said.

* * *

Governed by two boards, one appointed by the governor and the other essentially a fundraising arm, operations were as smooth as a ride aboard an American saddlebred at first.

Then stuff started to break.

The horse center, a state agency, was operating under an original understanding that the commonwealth would manage the debt service on the $4.5 million construction bond while private fundraising would handle operations. That worked until it didn’t.

Through the late ’80s and into the next decade, routine maintenance expenses mounted that private fundraising could not cover.

“When it started to get in trouble was when we were unable to do the major updates on the facility,” Oare said.

It was a slow bleed, the kind you might not notice until you end up in the emergency room.

“There was no problem for operations to work there as long as the debt service was covered and the facility was still relatively new,” Oare said. “When the expensive things started to fall apart — you know, when you start talking about roofs and plumbing and those kinds of things — now you’re not talking thousands of dollars but hundreds of thousands.”

In many a catastrophe, the death spiral wasn’t spotted or was ignored early when something could have been done.

When paint begins to peel, when the water in some of the rusty sinks ceases to flow, when the stalls become pockmarked and the earthen floor degrades to the point it is as hard as the concrete walls, owners sigh, close their pocketbooks and take their beloved and expensive horses elsewhere.

Among the only answers for the increasingly threadbare Virginia Horse Center was to find a whole lot more folks who were quick draws on their checkbooks.

Another was to strike a deal to borrow more.

Oare: “They had to raise a lot of money to even stay alive.”

* * *

By the turn of the 21st century, lawmakers in Richmond smelled a loser. Not one dime was voted for the horse center during the 2000 session. Up until then, all debt service — $1 million a year —  had been covered by the state according to the original management agreement. 

Unable to meet the debt, horse center management, headed by first executive director Bob Reel, refinanced the loan and assumed additional debt for land purchases and new construction.

Business manager John Scott explained it to The Roanoke Times at the time: “Bob’s vision was, either you’re growing or you’re dying.”

Two years later a joint legislative committee approving revisions to the two-year state budget balked at $1.26 million for horse center debt service. House of Delegates negotiators argued that the state was obligated to cover the debt. Senate counterparts disagreed.

Sen. John Chichester, R-Stafford County, looked at the numbers and thundered: “It’s choking us to death,” according to Roanoke Times reports. Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, led the dissenters.

One Saturday that March, the 57-year-old Reel, who routinely worked six-day weeks and 12- to 14-hour days, stepped off the treadmill in his office and into eternity before he could reach his desk.

Matt Chittum, writing for the newspaper a year later, penned what could have passed for a fine epitaph.

“Reel, more than any other single person, built the horse center into what it is today.”

* * *

A year later, the construction bonds were at junk status and default loomed. A balloon payment of $2.5 million would be due in 2005.

Despite bipartisan efforts from Putney and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, other lawmakers were unsympathetic.

Del. Bob Brink, D-Arlington, opined that the time had come to “wean it off the commonwealth’s feed bag and make it stand on its own four hooves.”

Chichester suggested the state should fund nothing more than the original bond with a sliding scale that would take payments from $1 million annually to zero by 2008.

David Kleppinger, director of the Rockbridge Area Economic Development Commission, warned darkly that should the horse center go under, one-third of local hotels and restaurants would perish with it.

* * *

At that fraught hour, a new plan was hatched for the horse center foundation to take out a subsidized loan from the USDA Rural Development program and assume ownership of the land and facilities — including eight barns, 18 show rings and roughly 600 acres — from the state.

Legislators agreed to pay $4.5 million to discharge for good the state’s long-held practice — never codified, almost a gentleman’s agreement — of funding the original bond. The loan was granted and the nonprofit was born.

Local, state and federal representatives joined at the horse center in late April 2007 to celebrate the deal. The happy-faced picture may have seemed a little out of plumb given that one of the worst recessions in generations was having a devastating impact on the equestrian world.

Oare gave major credit for freeing the center from state supervision to then-foundation board president Steve McBroom, a Floyd County breeder and trainer of champion Morgans who came from an influential old Roanoke family. McBroom, who died in 2016, had worked closely with banks and the USDA to make the loan and subsequent nonprofit possible.

“Steve did a great job with that,” Oare said.

Such arrangements have advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to skip the nosiness of state officials and other busybodies. Not so advantageous is confronting snags alone.

Still, for the time being public officials were again speaking of the Virginia Horse Center without a grimace.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Roanoke County, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee said: “This is long-term financing at a low interest rate that will assure that the horse center survives for a long time.”

The long time: seven more grueling years.

* * *

Cowering in the shadow of $11.4 million in debt, horse center officials in early 2014 again petitioned for public help.

One way the center dodged an executioner’s ax over the years was by leveraging local occupancy tax revenue to pay the mortgage. That business-saving bounty was reaped from city and county hotel patrons.

Local legislators led by the late Republican Ronnie Campbell had successfully wrangled an increase in the tax from 4% to 6%, predicted to fuel debt service by an added $350,000 to $400,000 annually.

And it still wasn’t enough.

A joint session of the Rockbridge supervisors and Lexington council greeted horse center CEO Katherine Truitt and finance director Vince Ruggierri coldly.

The scene was described in mortifying detail by the Rockbridge Report.

“They … wanted to take a line of ‘We’re private, but by the way, we want more money,’” Councilwoman Camille Miller snarled after chastising the supplicant pair for being unprepared.

Truitt asked for a 1 cent on the dollar increase in the occupancy tax from the 2 to which the horse center was currently the beneficiary. Otherwise, she said, they would be unable to pay the bills.

Ruggierri could not present a five-year financial plan. The identity of board members, the questioning went? The pair refused to answer.

Two weeks, elected officials said in dismissal, to get back to us with some answers.

Oare was in Ocala, Florida, when McBroom called to say he’d tried his best. Time for somebody else to take over.

Suter recalled meeting with McBroom and Truitt soon after going to work as county administrator in 2012.

“Steve was very much dedicated to that horse center, very much so in every indication he gave me,” Suter said. “My recollection was Steve had guaranteed the loan. I don’t know what became of that.”

Following the disastrous meeting with local officials, Truitt told somebody she was retiring as soon as they could find a new CEO. That was announced at the follow-up meeting of the city-county group. Neither she nor McBroom was present.

The Rockbridge Report headline read:

“Horse center leaders depart; budget shortfall remains … “

Truitt didn’t answer reporters’ questions back then, and she couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

* * *

Oare was unprepared for McBroom’s resignation. All Oare knew about the horse center at that stage was “it was going down the tubes.”

Oare reassumed leadership of the foundation board in 2014. New board members with equestrian backgrounds prepared to support the center financially and otherwise were  identified and recruited.

Next was to persuade Nicholson out of retirement and into emergency consulting.  Thoroughbred specialist Glenn D. Petty was tapped for interim CEO duties.

Oare then met with city and county elected officials to request an increase in occupancy tax assistance.

The officials rejected the entreaty out of hand.

“I didn’t say much of anything,” Oare said, “just sat there with my jaw dropped thinking, what in the world? Here we are going down the toilet and this horse center means so much to this community — it blew my mind. How can they possibly not like the horse center?”

As he pointed out later, like many volunteer board members for all sorts of concerns, he hadn’t exactly been paying close attention while he was away.

* * *

Oare was blunt to Nicholson, yet the Kentuckian thought Oare may have been exaggerating about the state of relations with the localities. That view changed shortly after Nicholson took over and attended his first unfriendly chamber of commerce meeting.

“These people, one after another, came up to me and were utterly hostile. It was painful. It wasn’t a pretty picture. From the standpoint of the horse center it was embarrassing.

“I realized then this was really serious.”

Nicholson had one word for the tattered relationship,


So too for dealings with a fast-evaporating pool of donors skittish about throwing dollars at a concern that might have padlocks and chains on the doors and a legal notice nailed thereon at the start of business the following week.

Current and prospective horse show managers were less and less interested in discussing future bookings.

Then there was that delinquent USDA loan. Part of the initial agreement was to hold a year’s debt service payment in reserve. Horse center management had not done so as it struggled to cover expenses. 

“We had a credibility problem,” Nicholson said. “I’m not saying there was anything fraudulent happening, but people needed to know how their money was being spent. That is not unreasonable.”

* * *

Superlative with Chris Wynne in the saddle clears a fence in an outdoor ring. Courtesy of Virginia Horse Center.

One of the major figures in the turnaround was Sandra Thomas.

“I have absolute confidence in Sandra,” Petty said.

Thomas arrived in 2014 with the new management team of Nicholson, Glenn D. Petty, chief operating officer Leigh Anne Claywell, controller and human resources manager Bonnie Keene, and board president Oare. What Thomas found was an accounting forensics nightmare.

At length, “we changed accounting systems that allowed us to look at the profitability of each show,” Thomas said. “They had never done that before. We put a budget in place. There was none in place and there hadn’t been in several years.”

Several years? How do you run a business with no budget and explain it to interested parties?

Straight answer, you don’t.

“We were in default on the loan and the management team that was replaced did not keep the city and county updated on activities,” Thomas said. “They appeared not to believe that the city and county should have any input, that this was not a partnership.”

* * *

With Nicholson, Petty and Oare braving public fury, Thomas was the deal closer. Ever so deliberately, the dread public relations tide ebbed and folks were communicating in civil tongue again.

“There was a visible change in my board,” Suter said, adding that a big reason was Thomas.

“After she finished digging through it all, when she spoke on numbers, she spoke with authority. The board believed that and rightfully so.”

Suter and Lexington city manager Jim Halasz had a job persuading skeptical locals that letting the mighty economic engine of the horse center turn to cinders was folly akin to civic malpractice.

Continuing education was the approach. It can be a hard sell to convince those who believe local tax money should be used for other purposes than paying for a semi-country club where a rich man from out of town can ride his horse.

That’s not how it works, Suter said.

“It’s a transient occupancy tax from people who are coming here to stay. It’s not just people coming to visit the horse center. They may be coming here to visit their kids at one of the universities or just to visit. That’s the source of money that goes to the horse center.”

Tourism promotion is the purpose of the tax. Hotels and eateries arose up and down U.S. 11 between the river and the horse center — most all of them contributed letters of support for the horse center that Suter keeps on file — and all those jobs are the manifestation of that strategy.

There is no way to ignore basic upkeep. Shoddy facilities speak for themselves.

“It reflects on all of us,” Halasz said. “That kind of stuff you never want to hear said about your community.”

* * *

Once Thomas understood the figures, a strategy and path to solvency opened. Open-book clarity encouraged the municipalities to be more helpful.

Transparency brought financial credibility to the requested increase of occupancy tax by 1 percentage point from the 2% that had been covering USDA debt. The 2015 increase would enable a $1.5 million loan from Cornerstone Bank in Lexington to refinance a previous $700,000 bank loan for maintenance and building needs, with the excess going to deferred maintenance projects such as a stormwater management system overhaul for the entire complex.

The municipalities agreed to the increase in the horse center’s share of the levy and have renewed it several times since.

A balloon payment comes due in 2025. Talks are underway to extend that now in order to head off an uptick in interest rates.

As for the $11.5 million in USDA debt that was in arrears, a separate chat with those folks from the office in Richmond resulted in a paydown plan. The loan was back on schedule in roughly a year. Notes payable and long-term debt are listed at $10.4 million in the foundation’s 2021-22 financial report.

“I can’t say enough about the city and the county,” Thomas said. “They stepped up. Once they understood the 2% would not be sufficient for debt service, they put the additional 1% in place for a period of two years so we could take care of the delinquency.

“That was more than sufficient to cover the delinquent USDA debt service that is $604,555 per year. The 2% we had been getting was not as much as that, but 3% is significantly more than that.”

“The city and county extended the additional 1% for another three years for a total of five. They then extended it for another five years and we are currently discussing another five years.”

* * *

Thomas marvels at how the operation roared back to life in spite of COVID. In March 2020 after news of the virus broke, they sent almost everybody, 33 people, home on furlough. Executives went without paychecks.

By that June, employees were all back on the payroll and then some. The extra help was needed to execute safety measures in order to reopen to the public.

Every protocol  — temperature-taking at the gate, distancing, screening, testing, masking — was followed to the letter. Exhibitors returned.

“It was one of the best years we ever had in our lives,” she said. “The horse center was made for COVID.”

* * *

Elite-level diplomacy is not limited to the public forum.

“My philosophy is that we’re not just the Virginia Horse Center, we’re the community horse center,” Petty said.

Suter contrasted that stance to the once-nagging feeling around town that locals just weren’t welcome at the facility. The sense was that unless you were a major donor, or politician, or high pocket moneybags dude with a horse, dual-wheeled truck and trailer to match, you weren’t welcome to walk your dog down by the river.

That sentiment had to be banished, and not with a minute to spare.

“For instance,” Petty went on, “the mezzanine seats about 350 and we have a full catering kitchen. For a lot of the local government things, the balloon rally, the oyster festival that benefit local charities, we don’t charge.

“The Christmas basket program is huge. They put together all these boxes of Christmas stuff, food and other things, to give to needy families. I’m going to estimate that they had 400 volunteers in the coliseum free of charge to get all that organized.”

In another symbolic gesture of goodwill, Petty needed a place to put all the furniture he had stored in Colorado so he bought a nice place to live here during the business week. His typical schedule involves shutting down for the weekend midday Friday and heading for Raleigh to take his wife out to dinner. After breakfast with her Monday, he drives north to Lexington.

Also included are monthly meetings with elective bodies, nonstop conversations with locals, and Thursday suppers downtown with Otis Mead III.

* * *

Breathing room at last, the operation was finally poised to make some positive moves.

From 2014 through 2016 the focus was on keeping shows already under contract rather than prospecting new business.

Because the new team was so much more nimble than some of its predecessors, it was positioned to recognize and react when an unexpected windfall or two showed up.

For instance, good shows in other states were forced to shut down because of local COVID regulations. The competition’s loss was the horse center’s gain. In some cases there was a daily double of luck because some of the shuttered shows were close enough to Lexington as to be otherwise protected under the industry’s noncompete distancing regulations.

Federal COVID relief was critical. The quick employee furlough-recall cycle meant “we reopened so quickly I had big employee retention tax credits that I was able to apply for and receive,” Thomas said.

Regulations had prohibited businesses from applying for both Small Business Administration employee retention credit and paycheck protection programs loans at the same time. When that changed in 2021, the horse center was eligible for an additional loan.

“Working capital has always been a challenge for the horse center,” Thomas said. “We never had any. Because of the strength of our 2020-21 show season and our ability to benefit from the COVID relief the government offered.”

Another big boost was the $88,000 monthly payment from Churchill Downs, a share of collections resulting from the proliferation of historic racing machine technology in Virginia. Payments are part of Colonial Downs Group’s $300 million “Rosie’s Gives Back” program.

Extrapolated the contribution to horse center coffers is $1.2 million annually with expectations for it to grow to $2.5 million as new betting emporiums come on line.  The horse center will get its share for two years with the hope of future extensions.

In the latest foundation financials, $5.3 million operating revenues are balanced against $4.9 million expenses.

Thomas says nobody should get carried away.

“From an operational standpoint, we still have challenges.”

Even so, long term-optimism continues. A $12 million, 10-year wish list of improvements is in place with the clear expectation donors will continue to help.

* * *

Karen Waldron of Shawsville’s Bent Tree Farm underwrote $700,000 of renovations on one of the horse center’s barns. Courtesy of Virginia Horse Center.

Fundraiser Jennifer Donovan, who has Nature Conservancy experience, was a big part of the turnaround in private contributions, as was Donavan’s successor Cinda Ayers as chief development officer.

The 2021-22 annual financial report for the foundation lists four single-space pages of the horse center’s friends.

Topping the list is $100,000-plus giver Stefanie Gordinier and the Virginia Equine Alliance. Ernest and Betty Oare are in the Champion’s Patrons group, good for just short of $50 grand per annum. The Pettys pony up $10,000, same as do the Hon. and Mrs. Glenn A. Youngkin. Sandra Thomas chips in generously.

An alliance of dressage enthusiasts paid $650,000 to renovate that discipline’s outdoor DeeDee Ring. The Isabel de Szinay family underwrote a recently completed outdoor competition ring and spectator pavilion billed in the annual report as one of the horse center’smost ambitious upgrades to date.”

The Sterba Family Fund and Famesgate Stables of Charlottesville completely overhauled one of the barns, adding among other things LED lighting, soft rubber floor mats and new stall gates for the safety and comfort of the horses, cooling from gigantic Big Ass Fans (that’s the brand name), new paint and bird-proofing for the indoor arena, and tons of costly footing material, a must for discriminating exhibitors, not to mention their mounts.

Karen Waldron and Shawsville’s Bent Tree Farm put up $700,000 to do the same for another barn, which had gone up in the first place years ago through the generosity of her father.

* * *

New business and events came in multiple forms.

BMX racing, monster trucks hurling mud to the ceiling, athletic canines and AKC Agility Drills all are now on the 12-month schedule, along with sundry multibreed equestrian events.

Community relations include Balloons Over Rockbridge Fourth of July aerial extravaganza and an agreement that allows Lexington police to barn and pasture municipal mounts there.

Volunteer Suter claims he must have shucked oysters for six hours straight not long ago when hungry and lemon juice-splattered bivalve enthusiasts thronged the property.

* * *

Many proved they’d rather be unhorsed in the midst of a stampede than see the Virginia Horse Center trampled underfoot.

“The most important work of the Board of the VHCF now is ensuring the sustainability of the VHC for future generations of horsemen,” reigning board president Roxanne Booth wrote as introduction to the financial report.

John Nicholson put it in personal terms.

“I just ended up loving the Shenandoah Valley, that whole region. The uniqueness of this place is like no other.

“Let me put it this way. I was seduced.”

After all these years Ernie Oare remains a romantic, too.

“That place is a labor of love.”

Cox has written for pay since the 1970s on topics from trains to trout fishing. A University of Virginia...