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Chris Jones

Horsing Around in Vegas

22 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- The Strip, figuratively speaking, was paved with the nickels, dimes and dollars left by visitors who have come to Las Vegas to enjoy a little horsing around.

Late next month, actual horses will be invited to join the festivities.

For the first time in their combined 45-year history, the Lausanne, Switzerland-based F d ration Equestre Internationale will stage in conjunction the world finals of two prestigious equestrian sports: jumping and dressage.

As a result of the unprecedented combination, this city's Thomas & Mack Center will over a five-day period in late April become the focal point of the universe for horse aficionados from around the globe.

While here, the events' well-heeled fans are expected to spend approximately $19.5 million on nongaming goods and services.

That figure has local tourism leaders champing at the bit at the prospect of developing another recurring sports-themed draw la December's National Finals Rodeo and this month's NASCAR races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"The hotels do a great job staging boxing, concerts and other entertainment events. Our job is to create neutral-site events that supplement their efforts," said Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson, whose organization helped lure the sports event to Southern Nevada. "And this is a great opportunity for us to create another niche-event weekend."

Horse jumper McLain Ward said the city's involvement is good for a sport that is often lost amid Americans' passion for baseball, football and other mainstream sports.

"It's a showcase city, like New York is for theater," said Ward, a New Yorker who earned a silver medal in team dressage competition at last year's Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. "It's a good event for Las Vegas and will hopefully be a good event for our sport."

Las Vegas initially hosted FEI's Budweiser World Cup Jumping Final in 2000, the first time in eight years the event was held in the United States. It returned to Thomas & Mack three years later, though that appearance was a financial loser, Christenson said, due in part to the economic slowdown that followed the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When evaluating how to return to profitability upon the jumping final's contractual 2005 return, Las Vegas Events approached FEI, the international body governing equestrian sport, and asked it to combine the jumping championship with the final of its World Cup Dressage series.

The latter event, which requires horses to execute a sequence of challenging steps and gaits prompted by minimal movement by the rider, enjoyed success in its lone U.S. appearance in Los Angeles a decade ago. Christenson said the prospect of putting the two together appealed to FEI, and more importantly, its fans.

"The two actually feed off of each other," Christenson said of the events. "I'd say 25 (percent) to 30 percent of the crowd for jumping has bought dressage tickets, and even more dressage fans have bought jumping tickets."

With a month remaining until the competition, Christenson said about 90 percent of the events' 85,000 tickets have been purchased. Though ticket packages cost between $150 to $600 for dressage and $150 to $1,000 for jumping, he expects a sellout.

Most fans will travel to attend. So far more than 1,200 tickets have been purchased by foreign fans from a dozen different countries. Less than 800 have been sold to Nevada residents, but tickets have been sold to residents from every state, primarily California, Texas and Washington, Las Vegas Events records show.

Las Vegas Events spent about $3 million to produce the show, including the costs of renting a plane to fly multiple horses here from Europe. Based on preliminary ticket sales, Christenson expects a slight profit for his organization as well as a windfall for local businesses selling rooms, meals and entertainment to visiting fans. His team is already working to bring the events back to Southern Nevada in 2007 after FEI completes next year's commitments outside the United States.