Photo courtesy of ESI.
Rising Up in the Equine Industry with Tom Struzzieri, President and CEO of HITS, Inc.
A native of Long Island, New York, Tom Struzzieri, President and CEO of HITS, Inc. is an icon in the Equine Industry where he is well-known for his unparalleled Horse Show Circuits. From hosting local shows at his barn in Poughkeepsie, New York in the 1970’s to celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the USEF National- and Premier-Rated HITS Ocala Winter Circuit, Struzzieri has built HITS into one of the largest Hunter/Jumper horse show management and production companies in the United States. This is due in large part to Struzzieri’s effort to cater to the whole pyramid, bottom to top, rather than top-down. When you combine that focus of highlighting a level of competition for every rider, from beginner to Olympic caliber, with world-class facilities, you have a recipe for success.
Struzzieri has been an active member of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), the national federation which recognizes competition in the United States, since 1977, serving on its Board of Directors, Competition Management Committee, and Planning and Executive Committees. Struzzieri was also President of the National Hunter Jumper Council (NHJC), the forerunner of the United States Hunter/Jumper Association (USHJA) and has served as Chairman of the USHJA Show Management Committee.
Struzzieri is also recognized as a skilled horse show facility architect, designing and building state-of-the-art venues from the ground up, such as those in Ellenville and Saugerties, New York and in Thermal, California. Along with starting from scratch, Struzzieri has converted former race horse training and racing tracks into show jumping facilities, like HITS Post Time Farm in Ocala, Florida and HITS Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois. Struzzieri has also purchased previously existing show facilities, such as the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, Virginia, and Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois. At each of these already existing locations, Struzzieri added his personal touch, changing, expanding and tinkering with everything from the property layout, to updating barns and stalls, to installing his personal mix of sand and fiber footing with an eye toward creating the very best venues to accommodate his customers.
Home is Where the Horse Shows Are
Struzzieri made his break into the equine industry in 1977 when he purchased Rose View Stables in Poughkeepsie, New York. Here, Struzzieri found his passion as he trained hunters and jumpers and began producing local horse shows. “I always wanted to be a professional horseman,” Struzzieri recalls. “At 18, I acquired a little horse farm [Rose View]. I held a few one-day horse shows at the farm and found myself really enjoying those. Around the same time, I realized that my career as a rider was not going to get me as far as I hoped, so I started concentrating more on running horse shows.”
The one-day shows soon became multiple-day shows, and Struzzieri developed a five-week series of USEF-Rated shows at Rose View that ran spring through fall. As the shows grew and Struzzieri expanded his interests to Florida and California, he needed more support staff. He found that support when he hired his first full-time employee in 1990, Donna Vale, who soon became his ‘right-hand’ in running HITS. Together they developed some of the most successful show circuits in the country, and trained some of the industry’s top organizers, managers and secretaries, many of whom are still with HITS today. Vale’s daughter, Kristen Vale-Mosack, joined the HITS team in 1996 and continues to carry on her mother’s legacy as Tom’s ‘right-hand’ in the horse show office.
“Horse Shows in the Sun”-shine State
It was in 1982 when Struzzieri decided he wanted to take his show management career to the next level, making the decision to launch a Horse Show Circuit in Florida, cultivating the name Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS). In his first year, Struzzieri hosted a six week Circuit that consisted of two weeks in Gainesville, two weeks in Miami, and two weeks in Fort Lauderdale to abide by mileage restrictions. He then added a few weeks in Venice and Ocala until 1985 when he settled roots at Golden Hills at Castro Farm on US Highway 27 in Ocala. “The exhibitors’ wants and needs were changing. Clients were showing an interest in having homes and making a lifestyle of the Winter Circuit,” said Struzzieri. “I knew instantly that Ocala would be my winter home and a great place to run horse shows. After all, it is the ‘Horse Capital of the World,’” he continued. “All of Ocala is really spacious making it extremely horse friendly and I think that has always been one of the biggest draws for our customers.”
In 1995, Struzzieri purchased the Golden Hills property from the Castro Family, cementing HITS commitment and dedication to the Florida Equestrian Community. “We ran the shows at Castro Farm for over a decade. It was a great spot, and certainly served its purpose for me,” Struzzieri commented. When he first found Post Time Farm, however, he knew the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit would thrive at the new location. “I wasn’t really looking for a new place, but when I drove past Post Time Farm in July of 2001, I knew it was the place I wanted to run horse shows.”
Struzzieri fell in love with the horse-friendly property, a former thoroughbred training track, but it wasn’t for sale – yet. A few weeks later, Struzzieri got a call from a real estate agent – Post Time was coming on the market. It was an opportunity he couldn’t miss out on, and Struzzieri purchased the 500+ acre farm in time for the 2002 HITS Ocala Winter Circuit. “There is such a great feel to this property. It’s a great place for horses to be. I remember how I felt the first time I stepped onto the grounds – and I still feel that way today,” Struzzieri expressed. After forty years in the Sunshine State, the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit has become a mainstay of the winter show calendar, hosting the two week HITS Ocala Holiday Series in December, followed by ten consecutive weeks of competition from January through March. HITS Post Time Farm has hosted to some of the sport’s most elite riders, having been the location for the FEI Nations Cup in 2016 and 2017, and hosting the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix since 2014. The tradition of the Great American Million continues to this day as the ‘Richest Class in Show Jumping’!
Photo courtesy of HITS.
Taking the West Coast by Storm
In 1991, Struzzieri made the leap to expand to the West Coast with the acquisition of the six-week HITS Arizona Winter Circuit, held at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona. Also in the fall of 1991, Struzzieri ran a world-class indoor show at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles.
The following year, the inaugural HITS Desert Circuit began at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, and featured three weeks of USEF-rated shows. After just one year, the circuit expanded to six weeks of competition, and then to eight weeks in 2009. Featured classes such as the $200,000 Grand Prix of Indio put the HITS Desert Circuit on the map as the jewel of West Coast show jumping.
After 15 years in Indio, the shows had outgrown the current location, and Struzzieri was on the hunt for a new facility. “I really wanted to be able to build something from the ground up that would have all the amenities our customers were looking for, and that would have the layout and flow to accommodate the size of the shows,” Struzzieri said. Just a few miles away, in Thermal, California, Struzzieri found a property that allowed him to put those ideas into motion. “I am really proud of the Thermal Desert Horse Park. I think we hit it out of the park there, with the barns, rings, footing, and VIP,” he continued. “The new owners (who acquired the Desert Circuit shows in 2019) have put their own stamp on the property too, and it’s been interesting to watch what they’re doing out there.”
The HITS Desert Circuit has attracted record entries during its existence, with as many as 3,000 stalls in a given week, along with setting new standards for prize money, including the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix. By the end of HITS’ reign of the West Coast Circuits, any entry records previously set had been shattered with unmatched numbers seen during the two week National Sunshine Series and the eight weeks of the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit.
“My team and I successfully shepherded this circuit from just an idea to one of the largest horse show franchises in the world,” said Struzzieri. “Three ingredients made this the perfect recipe for a sale. One, it allows me to travel a bit less and spend more time with my fantastic family. Two, this allows me to concentrate fully on the winter in HITS Ocala.”
The third reason for the sale, said Struzzieri, was his certainty that the shows in Thermal would be in good hands. “My only regret is no longer having the opportunity spend time with my long-supportive West Coast customers and friends,” Struzzieri commented.
A Jewel in HITS Hometown
With HITS Ocala and HITS Desert Circuit growing in popularity, the HITS New York Series wasn’t far behind. The shows had outgrown their home at Rose View Stables and in 1996, Struzzieri built his first facility from scratch at Kelly Farm in Ellenville, New York. In a quaint town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, the now six-week HITS Catskills circuit was born, at a facility that boasted eight competition rings, room for 14 stabling tents, and featured a very workable layout. It was not uncommon for the shows to attract over 1,000 horses in a week. Once again, interest in the Circuit would continue and increase, and eight years later, Struzzieri was on the hunt for another location, this time for good.
In 2004, the Circuit moved to the current property, HITS-on-the-Hudson in the Village of Saugerties, New York. Struzzieri and the non-profit agency Family of Woodstock, Inc. reached an agreement for HITS to lease the property on a long-term basis, and the home-town jewel was added to HITS crown. “It has always been important to me to have one of our Circuits in my home town,” said Struzzieri, who has made the Hudson river-front village his home since 1999. “The property here has such charm and is so unique with the creek that runs through it, the mature trees, the mountain backdrop – I’m not sure I could imagine a prettier place for these shows.”
As an added incentive for Struzzieri, HITS and Family of Woodstock partner on a number of philanthropic ventures, including meals for those in need during holidays and during the recent pandemic crisis. Family is also the recipient of all spectator gate proceeds during the HITS Saugerties Series.
Since opening in 2004, HITS-on-the-Hudson has hosted numerous USEF, USHJA and FEI Championships including the Rolex/US Show Jumping Championship in 2004, the USEF Junior Hunter National Championship nine times between 2005 and 2018, and the FEI North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in 2017. Since 2010, HITS-on-the-Hudson has hosted the HITS Championship, the ‘Richest Weekend in Show Jumping’ with some of the largest prize money purses it the world for hunter and jumper competition in the country. The HITS Saugerties Summer Series comes to a close each year with the Saugerties $500,000 FEI CSI5* Grand Prix.
A Homecoming in Virginia
Commonwealth Park was a mainstay of the summer show jumping tour in the 1980’s under the ownership of Charlie Ziff. After a few ownership changes to the property in the 1990’s, Struzzieri added HITS Commonwealth Park to his portfolio in 1998, purchasing the historic show grounds along with six hunter/jumper shows in the ‘Heart of Virginia’s Horse Country’.
The history of horse shows at HITS Commonwealth Park spans decades; ask a horseman in almost any state in the country, and they will tell you they showed in Culpeper at some point in time. Ask current HITS staff, and they’ll tell you the same thing; Vale-Mosack and her brother both showed at Commonwealth Park in the 1980’s, and Donna had worked for Ziff at the shows in 1986 and 1987. “I couldn’t believe we were going back,” said Vale-Mosack. “I had shown there as a kid, and it was like summer camp for me! When I pulled into the grounds for the first HITS show in 1998, it was like homecoming – a flood of memories came back to me. It’s one of my favorite places we have shows.”
In 2014, Struzzieri renovated the grounds and built five brand new barns with 500 permanent 12 x 12 stalls. Since then, Struzzieri has continued to make updates to footing in six competition rings, introduce new jumps, and add landscaping to ensure the charm and integrity of this quaint show grounds continues into the future.
HITS Culpeper features six weeks of USEF-Rated competition and while in many ways the circuit has changed, the ‘Heart of Virginia’s Horse Country’ stays strong in historic roots.
Making Hay in the Midwest
Struzzieri was ready to expand business further and found the opportunity to ‘make hay,’ as he often says, in the Midwest. In 2016, Struzzieri purchased Balmoral Park, a historic flat and harness racing track just outside of Chicago. According to Balmoral town and public records, the track had previously been owned by such high profile individuals as the late shopping mall magnate Edward DeBartolo Sr., and the family of late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Originally, the park was opened under the name of Lincoln Fields (1926), changing its name to Balmoral Park under the new ownership in 1955.
No stranger to transforming former race horse facilities, Struzzieri began to remodel the property to accommodate Hunter/Jumper shows, including new permanent stabling and six competition rings. Memorabilia was salvaged throughout the grounds to maintain the historic integrity of the track, such as incorporating the original tote board and finish line into the walls of the Grand Prix Stadium. HITS Balmoral Park hosted the HITS Chicago Series of USEF-Rated Hunter/Jumper competition from 2017 through 2019, and featured such special evets as the HITS Chicago $500,000 FEI CSI5* Grand Prix, USHJA Hunter and Jumper Team Championships and USHJA Zone 5 Horse of the Year Championships.
In spring of 2020, Struzzieri announced that the HITS Chicago Series would be setting roots at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois. The show grounds, previously owned by Nina Moore, has long been a favorite of horsemen, and that fit perfectly with Struzzieri’s goal of delivering the top product for his customers. In addition to the stately Grand Prix Arena, four more lovely competition rings and 300 permanent stalls anchor the property. Tree-lined paths, perennial gardens that bloom throughout the spring and summer, and ringside pavilions enhance the experience.
Beginning in May and running through September are 13 weeks of Hunter/Jumper Competition, which run alongside four Dressage Shows, including the USEF Festival of Champions which will again be held at HITS Lamplight in 2021.
Revolutionizing the Industry
As an industry innovator, Struzzieri has developed and offered new classes, leagues and opportunities to compete that have revolutionized the Hunter/Jumper horse show industry. In 1991, he founded the Marshall & Sterling Insurance League to encourage and enhance the competition level of Children’s and Adult Hunter and Jumper riders. Today, the League recognizes 1,300 horse shows nationwide and holds its annual week-long National Finals at HITS Saugerties as well as the Midwest Finals at HITS Chicago and the Indoor Finals at the Great New York State Expo Center in Syracuse, New York.
In 2010, Struzzieri introduced the richest purse in show jumping with the Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix in Saugerties, New York. In 2012, Struzzieri took the $1 million prize money classes bicoastal offering the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix in Thermal, California. He then added the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix in Ocala, Florida in 2014, creating the HITS Triple Crown of Show Jumping.
At the international level, Struzzieri has been selected to run the highest level of internationally-recognized FEI show jumping competitions in the United States including FEI World CupTM Qualifiers and the U.S. FEI Nations CupTM team competition, along with the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.
In 2021, HITS will add several new Championships to their resume including the USHJA Pony Hunter Derby Regional Championships – East at HITS Chicago, and the USHJA National Hunter Derby Regional Championships at HITS Saugerties.
With years of experience and world-class facilities comes the opportunity to host some of the most prestigious Finals, Championships and Qualifying Classes. From the USEF Pony Finals to the FEI Nations CupTM and everything in between, HITS has made an indelible mark on the equine industry by hosting dozens of USEF, FEI and HITS Championship and Finals classes including:
FEI Nations Cup CSIO4*, HITS Ocala, 2016
FEI Nations Cup CSIO5*, HITS Ocala, 2017
FEI CSI5* Grand Prix, HITS Saugerties, 2015-2019
FEI CSI5* Grand Prix, HITS Chicago, 2018
FEI World Cup Qualifiers – CSI3*-W, HITS Indio, 1993-2005
FEI World Cup Qualifiers – CSI3*-W and CSI4*-W, HITS Thermal, 2006-2019
FEI North American Junior and Young Riders Championship, HITS Saugerties, 2017
USEF Junior Hunter National Championship, 2005-2011, 2013, 2017, 2018
USEF Pony Hunter National Championship, HITS Culpeper, 1999
USEF Festival of Champions Dressage, HITS Chicago, 2020
USDF Region 2 Championship, HITS Chicago, 2020
USDF Region 8 Championship, HITS Saugerties, 2020
US/Rolex Show Jumping Championship, HITS Saugerties, 2004
USHJA Child/Adult Hunter Championship, Zones 1 & 2, HITS Saugerties, 2018, 2019
USHJA Child/Adult Hunter Championship, Zones 5 & 6, HITS Chicago, 2017-2019
USHJA Child/Adult Hunter Championship, Zones 9 & 10, HITS Thermal Sunshine Series, 2018
USHJA Team Jumper Championship, Zones 1 & 2, HITS Saugerties, 2016, 2018, 2019
USHJA Team Jumper Championship, Zones 3 & 4, HITS Culpeper, 2015, 2017
USHJA Team Jumper Championship, Zones 5 & 6, HITS Chicago, 2017-2019
USHJA Team Jumper Championship, Zones 9 & 10, HITS Thermal Sunshine Series, 2018
USHJA Zone 2 HOTY Championship, Harrisburg, PA, 2010-2012
USHJA Zone 3 HOTY Championship, HITS Culpeper, 1998
USHJA Zone 5 HOTY Championship, HITS Chicago, 2017-2020
USHJA Zone 10 HOTY Jumper Championship, HITS Thermal, Sunshine Series, 2017, 2018
USHJA Zone 3 Equitation Championship, HITS Culpeper, 2009-2018
HITS Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix, HITS Saugerties, 2010-2017
HITS Ocala $1 Million Grand Prix, HITS Ocala, 2014-2019
HITS Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix, HITS Thermal, 2013-2019
HITS Saugerties $500,000 Grand Prix, HITS Saugerties, 2018-2020
Diamond Mills Hunter Prix Final, HITS Saugerties, 2011-2020
Platinum Performance Hunter Prix Final, HITS Saugerties, 2012-2020
Black Barn Jr/A-O/Am Jumper Prix Final, HITS Saugerties, 2014-2020
Stal Hendrix Green Hunter Futurity, HITS Saugerties, 2015-2020
East Meets West Hunter Challenge, HITS Ocala & HITS Thermal, 1999, 2000, 2013, 2014, 2015
See you There!
The HITS Ocala Winter Circuit (January 19 – March 28, 2021) is right around the corner and we can’t wait to see you there! If you have any questions as you make you plans or just want to chat about the upcoming circuit, we’d love to hear from you! We are available by phone at +1 (845) 246-8833, Monday through Friday 9am – 5pm, via email, or send us a message on social media!
Words by Erin Webb / HITS.