Editor’s Opinion: HITS Purchase of Lamplight Equestrian Center

Change is Inevitable, but Remember the Tradition

The hunter/jumper community, like most parts of the greater horse community, is a small one.  I heard through the grapevine back in December 2019 that HITS would be purchasing Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, IL — and with that purchase, all of the HITS Chicago show dates would be moving from Balmoral Park in Crete, IL to Lamplight.  The purchase and move itself wasn’t actually announced officially until April 2020.   HITS itself purchased Balmoral only in 2016.  Overall, I believe the HITS purchase of Lamplight and bringing Lamplight into the greater HITS portfolio is for the better, IF HITS maintains the flavor and spirit of Lamplight’s long standing foothold in the surrounding equestrian community.   Let’s turn to each venue, Balmoral and Lamplight, to discuss further.

Balmoral Park

Balmoral Park was formerly a harness racing track.  The facility struggled for several years.  Finally, the owners declared bankruptcy, and the venue went up for auction.  The last race was held there in December 2015.  When HITS acquired Balmoral and began construction, the concept of preserving the original spirit of the racing facility seemed brilliant at the time.  HITS preserved the finish post and grandstand, and they renovated the permanent VIP stabling near the grand hunter ring and Grand Prix ring.  They also were very clever in inserting show rings within the confines of where the track itself formerly stood.  

However, Balmoral wasn’t without its issues.  I showed there twice in 2018 (my mare abscessed badly and then injured herself in 2019, so we didn’t show that year).  I had my mare and my trainer’s pony at Showplace Summertime, and then just my trainer’s pony at Showplace Fall Classic.  I will say that HITS did take competitor feedback and added some tents by the rings, as well as made some improvements to the rings and the barns.  However, it was still HOT.  Balmoral is a racetrack. Racetracks are open and have no trees.  You can’t race horses around a forest.  So, no shade.  

Summer sun. Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography.

Also, being a gigantic racetrack, the stabling is far from the rings.  I mean, really far — not just I am lazy and don’t want to hack my horse 5 minutes to the ring.  It was far enough that if the ring ran behind, it wasn’t “safe” to go back to the barn in the shade and wait — you had to stay out by the ring in case your class suddenly got called.  The VIP stabling was closer to the rings (as it typically is, and the price reflects that), but other stabling is out in the hinterland.  There was a sand path that went out super far away to get to the furthest barns, and it was groomed so you could trot back and forth.  Other than that, to navigate the property, you were restricted to a rubber matted path that was very tight — it got slippery in rain and was risky if you had two horses in the same place at once.

Let’s turn now to Crete.  Crete, by the map, is about an hour to an hour and a half south of Chicago, but there’s no easy way to get there.  Traffic is a bear, so you need to budget double the time to safely drive down and get there in time to do what you need to do at the show.  Hotels are few and far between, and dining options are limited to mostly fast food.  Hence, most of the barns around my area (by Lamplight, actually) prefer to drive back and forth rather than going the hotel route.  The grandstand itself is quite empty and eerie, despite having a few vendors.  It’s not a vibrant, glowing place. 

The one thing I did really find quite nice at Balmoral was the show office staff.  Having formerly evented, I’ve only been in Jumper Land for maybe three years now — so, I’m still getting used to checking out properly, finding out how to get your prize money, and all of that admin stuff.  The HITS show staff has always been incredibly helpful when answering my (dumb) questions.  Short story: Once, I was in the ring, randomly fell off my pony before the first fence but before the timers (oops), and the judge was super encouraging and shouted, “You still have 40 seconds, get back on get back on go go go!”  So, I got a leg up from my trainer, and the pony did well enough to pay for my class entry fees.  

The pony who redeemed my mishaps. Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography.

As to what will become of Balmoral Park, a shroud of mystery still surrounds the venue.  I’ve heard rumors that the state may turn the facility back into a “racino” (racing…casino?) but you never know if something is really true until you see it.  For now, it will sit empty, lights off, taking the rest it needs.

Lamplight Equestrian Center

Meanwhile, I’ve really never heard anything poor about Lamplight.  We all have little tiffs with the in-gate at some point wherever we may show – and not just at Lamplight (you know what I mean…last minute adds, they’re doing a billion things at once, and then you interrupt them accidentally).  Or, maybe we’re missing a bag from our shavings order.  Nothing earth shattering. 

Lamplight’s grounds are beautiful.  The venue has been a staple in Midwest horse showing for decades.  I remember being a little eight year-old working student who could barely post the trot, and I would go to Equifest and watch in awe at my friends looking like totally different people, dressed up in braids with bows and ponies gleaming with Showsheen.  Ponies, flowers, sandwiches, life’s greatest things all in one place.  

One of the best things about Lamplight is that it’s well laid-out.  Hunters are in the rings near one end of the property, along with huge warm up areas, and jumpers are in the Grand Prix and additional smaller rings on the other end.  Each ring has its own warm up, and though of course we have plenty of traffic (it is hunter/jumper showing, after all…), having dedicated warm up areas does help with some crowd control.  The barns are also not ridiculously far from the rings.  Even if you’re not in the permanent VIP stabling by the Grand Prix ring, you can be all the way back in the tent stabling and quickly trot up to your own ring and get in there in a minute because you are running late and forgot your order of go (…me in the Adult Jumper Classic).  There are also dedicated walking paths for the horses, with appropriate sand footing.  No slipping on rubber matted paths here.

I have long wished that Lamplight would host more “A” shows — it’s gone through two owners since I lived in the area (I live 10 minutes away from the facility), and the latest owner before HITS, Nina Moore, did an amazing job improving the footing in the rings especially, and generally just making the experience better.  The food is amazing, too — and there is a taco vendor. Sold.  

The Grand Prix ring. Photo by Lynn Mueller.

Yes, there is a mileage rule for horse shows, but the only “A” show that Lamplight ever got to host in YEARS was Equifest.  Equifest runs for three weeks in late July/August every year, and it’s a huge hit.  The last time I showed at Equifest, it seemed like there were five times the competitors there than at Balmoral.  I’m guessing at the number, but it seems likely.  The thing is, if you want to go to “A” shows but can’t travel too far, there really isn’t much else in our area aside from Ledges, which is a good two hour drive north from Lamplight and maybe GLEF in Traverse City…or Split Rock in Kentucky…but OK, now we’re traveling for at least six to eight hours.  Lamplight over the years has filled its calendar with quite a few NIHJA shows and “B” shows, which are great for schooling — but if you need classes for your horse’s USEF record, and height/challenging course design corresponding to anything above the 0.95m you’re out of luck.  Meanwhile, for those who do the NIHJA and “B” shows, there are quite a few picturesque facilities all within an hour to an hour and a half drive.  

With the purchase of Lamplight, HITS is bringing Spring Spec, Showplace Summertime, Equifest, and Showplace Fall Classic (ten weeks total of “A” showing) starting June 3.  Our area is a very horsey community, and there are plenty of barns nearby that are planning on attending a fair number of these show weeks.  Best of all, we’ll be able to drive back and forth easily.  Meanwhile, Equifest itself did draw a good number of out-of-state competitors.  The advantage of Lamplight’s location is that it is only minutes away from great hotels, dining, and more — if you travel here to show, there are actually activities that you can do after showing, which was a huge “lack” of Balmoral.

Classes: Old and New

One thing that did spark my curiosity when I checked out the HITS Chicago Prize List was the lack of “special” classes that Equifest used to host.  Every year, there was a very popular speed derby, along with other TB Incentive Jumper classes.  These are now missing.  However, Take 2 TB Hunter classes are still being held — and it seems that there are more $1k prize money Ch/Ad Jumper Classics that are available.  These previously maxed out at $500 for the Classic rounds.  This is great that these levels are garnering a bit more share of the prize money, as many of us (including myself) compete in either the Child or Adult Jumpers (1.0-1.15m depending on Low or High) as a challenging stepping stone to the 1.20m or Low A/Os.  What I do hope, though, is that the spirit of Equifest and Lamplight itself doesn’t disappear as HITS, this very large company, takes control of the property and the showing in the overall Chicago area.  

In addition, Lamplight also hosted dressage shows for many years, such as Dressage Festival of Champions, a staple for the dressage community.  Lamplight is still scheduled to host the Dressage Festival of Champions in 2020.  The date this year falls during a gap in the hunter/jumper calendar: Two weeks after the final week of Equifest and before Fall Classic.  Originally, USEF’s press release regarding Dressage Festival of Champions contained information on both 2020 and 2021 dates; I hope this bit of diversity can be kept at the venue for our sister community to enjoy.

I understand that it can be difficult for management to decide what classes stay and go, as of course a business needs to make a profit.  It’s vital, though, that those choices are made with the best interest of the competitors and their horses — especially as this first show season kicks off.  If the first show planned for the calendar goes poorly, it may make or break Lamplight.  Many of us in Illinois and the surrounding states are deeply devoted to Lamplight with fond memories of our first shows: Dragging your pony around the property to stop him from devouring mountains of grass, fist pumping when you totally beasted your first “real” course at a show, and walking the course for the Grand Prix with the big name riders, pretending that your pony (who was in his stall stuffing his face on hay, incredibly glad that he was done for the day after two rounds of 18” cross-rails) would suddenly meet you at the ring and totally win the whole thing.  

Change is inevitable wherever we go.  We will have new memories to make.  Overall, I do believe that it’s for the better that HITS has purchased Lamplight, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the upcoming summer show season unfolds.  However, only time will tell if this purchase pans out as I hope.  I implore HITS to remember the tradition and significance that Lamplight holds in our community, and do its best to uphold the flavor and spirit of Lamplight while bringing its own horse show expertise to the fold.

Harness racing photo by Balmoral Park.  Hospitality photo by Emma Miller/Phelps Media.  Dressage photo by Emma Miller/Phelps Media.