HITS kicks off its nine-week season today. The action culminates on September 11, with the biggest pay-day ($1.5 million in prize money) and a performance by the legendary Motown group The Temptations. It will be the richest day ever in the history of show-jumping, topping last year’s previous best of $1 million grand finale.
All this week, the horse crowd will be moving into town, with owners, trainers, riders and caretakers — not to mention aficionados — descending on the Washington Avenue grounds, as well as local hotels, eateries and shops. And though HITS is the biggest thing going right now in horse-shows, and Saugerties is its headquarters, most Saugertesians know more about Star Trek’s 23rd century United Federation of Planets than they do about hunter-jumper-style horse-shows, the type HITS features. (By the way, it’s just HITS now: it no longer stands for “Horseshows In The Sun.”)
Although the HITS crowd does have a distinctly different feel to it than the locals, every year it wins a few more converts. But aside from winning new fans through the grace and poise of these fine equines and their slight but determined riders, HITS has more concrete impacts on the local culture and economy.
For example, some Saugertesians fund fantastic vacations for themselves, or simply earn heating oil money, by renting out their furnished homes and guest rooms to the thousands of horse-people who descend upon the hamlet and inject the local economy with $50 million, according to official estimates. (For a palpable sign of its impact, check out the hotel on Partition Street.)
Perhaps 7,000 ribbons in total will be awarded during the coming weeks, each ultra-precious to its winner. But on September 11, one fortunate contestant will also take home a check for $350k.
While that’s a lot of cash, and adds much to the overall excitement of the season-closing Grand Prix events, the big money made from hunter-jumper competitions actually comes from breeding winning horses.
But the purse money barely covers the myriad associated fees and expenses of performance show-jumping. Costs include room and board for the people and animals, transportation costs, entrance fees, insurance, and finally, the salaries of an array of equine industry professionals, from grooms to veterinarians.
But the rampant pinning of all those cherished ribbon rosettes leaves many participants with warm feelings toward Saugerties. People closely associated with HITS have bought homes in the area. Local Realtors and HITS organizers report others are actively looking to buy.
“HITS has been a tremendous boon to tourism,” said Ulster County Tourism Director Rick Remsnyder.
The affection is finally being reciprocated, too, and not solely for the revenues HITS generates. Longtime Saugertesians now recognize that HITS is here to stay and adds a whole new flavor of highbrow entertainment to the local mix. It’s a bit like adding arugula – allegedly President Obama’s favorite lettuce – to the endemic tossed salad of cultural opportunity.
It’s not just the restaurants, retailers and hotels who report brisk business during the HITS season. Other small businesses, such as Flanigan’s Cleaners, report surprising gains as well.
“Before they came to town July and August were slow months,” said Flanigan’s owner Mike Flanigan, a former police officer who bought the dry-cleaning business from his father 14 years ago.
“I wouldn’t mind it if they were able to jump horses year-round,” he added.
Buying the farm
Long Island native Ralph Caristo, who approaches legend status in the elite field of hunter-jumper trainers, actually taught the school-age Struzzieri how to ride, sparking a life-long love of the sport.
At Struzzieri’s urging, Caristo and his wife of 35 years, Holly, whom he met when she sought to buy one of Ralph’s horses, came to Saugerties about six years ago to look at a 20-acre farm Tom had found and which he thought would suit them. Although they had toured properties elsewhere upstate, the Caristos quickly bought the farm on People’s Road in 2005.
“I wish I’d done it years ago,” said Ralph. “We love it here. The people are great and it’s like going back in time, the way Long Island was years ago.”
In addition to being an accomplished rider who still participates in HITS competitions, Holly’s a painter much inspired by the peaceful beauty of the region.
Their daughter Heather – also an accomplished horsewoman – is a riding scene contemporary of Georgina Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg’s younger daughter, whom Caristo has also trained. He’s proud to call the Mayor “a personal friend of many years.”
But Ralph’s not a fancy guy. He likes Saugerties’ lack of pretension.
“All my favorite restaurants are right here in Saugerties,” Ralph said. “We’re not boat people and we don’t take other vacations. We’re here half the year.”
The Caristo family spends the colder months in the equestrian community of Wellington, Florida, where they also own a place.
Struzzieri is also the lead investor in the $12 million Diamond Mills Inn, formerly known as the Partition Street Project, which will have 30 hotel rooms, a conference center for up to 400 people, and a contemporary American restaurant featuring locally grown foods with about 115 seats. It’s set for a fall opening.
Speaking recently to the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Struzzieri said that while the HITS participants will comprise the majority of Diamond Mills clientele during the summer months, the hospitality venue will also serve visitors to Saugerties who are interested in other outdoor and cultural activities. Nevertheless, the development faced a number of obstacles in the approval process, which needs to be streamlined if Saugerties is going to continue attracting large-scale investment, the HITS CEO said.
Diamond Mills is “going to be unbelievably top of the line,” said John Murphy, owner of Murphy Realty Group. John says he does sense that Saugerties is experiencing a moment of wider appreciation as it gains a bit more collective chic. Personally, he gives most of the credit to Struzzieri, who he believes is one of the most astute businessmen around.
“Tom’s got that sixth sense” when it comes to real-estate development, said Murphy, who years ago sold Struzzieri most of the commercial parcels which became the HITS showplace.
Rentals and sales to the HITS community is a growth area for local realtors. Although the seasonal-rental business began slowly, the number of properties Murphy Realty alone now rents annually for some or all of the HITS season has grown to about 30. Homes near the grounds fetch a premium even in an otherwise soft market, the broker said. Murphy would not reveal the commission received for representing rental properties. Rentals run the price gamut.
If you go…
General admission tickets for Sept. 11 event went on sale May 12. In Saugerties, tickets may be purchased through the HITS Box Office, 319 Main Street, 246-8833. The cost is $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. In keeping with HITS family-friendly theme, accompanied children 12 and under get in free. Most other days are free or $5, which HITS donates to Family of Woodstock. For more information, including a complete season schedule, visit www.hitsshows.com.