Horseman Nick Novak admits the idea of coming to Omaha for a major equestrian jumping competition seemed a little weird at first.
After all, he said, you don't usually use "Omaha" and "equestrian sport" in the same sentence.
But organizers of the International hope that's going to change after about 175 professional horse riders like Novak — who is from Minnesota but travels to the South and the East Coast for competitions — will compete at the CenturyLink Center Omaha this month.
The goal is to make the event a springboard that will one day attract a world equestrian championship on par with the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
In order for that to happen, Omaha will have to impress the international equestrian group that sets up rules for such events. Organizers are trying to draw top-level competitors from Canada, Mexico, Europe and across the United States to the April 20-21 event.
About 150 riders have signed up so far. Of those, about a half-dozen are Omahans.
"We've been working on this for over a year," said John McQueen, the International's competition show manager. "We've had representatives at every major horse show this winter, passing out fliers and giving out invitations. People are signing up as we speak."
Each course will have an average of 13 jumps for the two classes of competition: the grand prix and speed derby. The jumps likely will simulate things found in the country or in Europe: posts and rails, stone walls, fences, ditches and streams. The jumps themselves are difficult and could range in height from just under 4 feet to 5 feet, said Jim Urban, an Omaha horse trainer and adviser to the International.
Most of the riders already have won accolades in the sport. One rider recently won a $100,000 prize in Florida.
Novak, who lives in Minneapolis and has been competing in equestrian jumping events since he was 6 years old, won $5,000 at a recent show.
"I'm a veteran grand prix rider," said Novak, 54. "I'm curious to see where people come from who are going to Omaha."
If the event is a hit, Omaha would host another equestrian competition in 2013. After that event, the city could bid for a world cup qualifier in a few years. Qualifiers are held around the world in different cities.
If that goes well, Omaha could request to be the site for one of the annual world cup championships.
The equestrian world cup championships are typically held in Europe, although Las Vegas has twice been a site, said Urban, the trainer. He said there's no reason why Omaha can't one day be picked to host the world championship.
The rules are laid out by Fédération Equestre Internationale, based in France, which also chooses the host sites.
A lot will have to come together to make Omaha a world cup qualifier spot, said Jon Garner, competitions manager for Spruce Meadows, a Canadian equestrian venue that hosts about 16 competitions a year.
"It's really a step-by-step process," he said. "You have to prove that you can do an event like this for a couple of years. The world cup is a product, and the FEI is very keen on it being looked after well."
The Omaha organizers, led by Lisa Roskens, the event's founder and chairwoman, have lined up sponsors, a move that Garner says is key to impressing the FEI. ConAgra Foods, Children's Hospital & Medical Center and SilverStone Group are among the sponsors.
The International also is offering big prize money — $50,000 is the top prize, followed by $30,000 and $15,000, depending on the event. More prizes are being offered throughout the weekend.
Garner said giving away top-dollar prizes also will show the world that Omaha means business when it comes to becoming an equestrian sports town.
"You have to get a reputation for putting on a quality event with good prize money, quality equipment and a good course," he said.
About 3,000 tickets to the event have been sold thus far.
The International is being presented by RFD-TV, an Omaha-based network focused on the rural lifestyle, and run by the Omaha Equestrian Foundation.
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