When former tech entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo sets out to tackle a project, he doesn’t horse around. In the fall of 2013, the managing partner and largest shareholder of Wellington Equestrian Partners LLC (which operates the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida) stood on a hilltop in rural Mill Spring, North Carolina, and unbridled his imagination. He envisioned a grand equestrian complex spreading across the land below. On the plane ride home to Florida, he sketched his concept out on a series of napkins. “The goal,” says Bellissimo, “was to create an equestrian lifestyle destination centered around a resort that would serve a broad range of demographics and equestrian interests.”
Funded by a group of six families, the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) offially opened in June 2015. Sitting on 1,400 acres in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the center currently comprises a 6,000-seat arena, eight show rings, lodging, restaurants, and shops, with more on the way.
One of the most noteworthy features of the $100 million complex is that all of the horse shows are open to the public free of charge. “Our vision is to expose more people to equestrian sport and hopefully increase the interest and the access for both competitors and spectators,” Bellissimo explains. “It’s ultimately centered around the love of the horse.
JOCKEY LOT // The Tryon International Equestrian Center is unique not only for its expansive equestrian facilities, but also for its family-friendly resort atmosphere, with luxurious dining, lodging, and shopping opportunities.
Equine Facilities >>
Show season starts in early April and continues into November. From Wednesday through Friday, spectators can watch from elevated viewing decks as the horses strut their stuff in the smaller show rings. On Saturday, the action moves to the centerpiece George Morris Stadium—named for the father of modern show jumping—where the Grand Prix hunter/jumper and dressage competitions take place. Sunday afternoon shows are often accompanied by a free ice cream social.
When they’re not in the ring, horses from around the globe relax in the 850 permanent stables (a total of 1,200 is planned). Soon to be completed is a new cross-country course designed by Captain Mark Phillips, an Olympic gold-medal-winning horseman and a member of the British Royal Family.
Frustrated by the lack of good food available at horse shows when his daughters were competing, Bellissimo made sure TIEC hit its stride in terms of dining options. At Legends Grill, Chef Carl Schultz fashions farm-to-table fare using organic produce and free-range meat from area farms. Next door, Blue Ginger pleases sushi fans with handcrafted rolls and noodle dishes. Gleaming 1950s-style Roger’s Diner, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is named for partner Roger Smith, who introduced Mark Bellissimo to Polk County, North Carolina.
Rounding out the choices are a coffee shop and eateries serving pizza, sub sandwiches, candy, and ice cream. A Mexican taco stand and a full-service Italian restaurant will join the group this summer.
Places to stay on the property range from 100 RV spots to luxurious three- and ve-bedroom cottages set beside the rushing water of White Oak Creek. In between are the 50- room, motel-style Stable House Inn (rooms have two queen beds plus a microwave and mini-refrigerator) and 40 one-bedroom log cabins. Future plans call for a 150-room luxury hotel and spa, as well as upscale condominiums and apartments, making Tryon Resort a destination in itself.
More than 20 retail vendors at the center open during show season. The only permanent shop is Tryon Tack, which welcomes customers year-round. Shops cater to the horse- centric set with offerings such as Equis Boutique, Horse and Home, Fabbri Boots, and Voltaire Design for custom saddlery.
Bellissimo likes to maximize the entertainment factor at TIEC by piggybacking beer festivals, classic car exhibitions, and other events on show weekends. During the Saturday Night Lights events on certain Grand Prix dates, jugglers, street performers, aerial artists, live bands, and a Venetian carousel for kids kick up a carnival atmosphere.