When Abigail Wexner initiated the New Albany Classic Invitational Grand Prix and Family Day in 1998, she saw it as a way to combine two of her passions: horseback riding and helping central Ohio families.
“I was really looking for a different kind of unique event that could be used as a fundraiser, and although it doesn’t seem like the two would marry, I really wanted to be able to do something for the sport of riding because I love it so much,” Wexner says.
“We created a day that could message about healthy families of all different backgrounds, families that could come together for a wholesome, healthy day and then use the sport as a centerpiece.”
It’s safe to say she’s succeeded in both those efforts. Since its inaugural year in 1998, the Classic has raised more than $18 million in funding for the Center for Family Safety and Healing – and has inspired a new generation of riders in the New Albany area.
The event, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 22 this year, draws approximately 15,000 attendees annually, with more than 188,000
guests to date in 15 years. Many of those are children, brought by their parents to enjoy the games, carnival rides, entertainment and, of course, horses.
One of those children was Ali Wolff, who moved to New Albany from Upper Arlington in 2000 at age 11. Already a rider, Wolff found the Classic – with its field of U.S. Olympians and top international talent – inspirational.
“That had always been my dream to compete here,” says Wolff. Just seven years later, her dream came true. Wolff has now competed in the Classic four times, beginning in 2007. “The first time, I was quite excited.”
Competing in her own back yard was a new challenge for Wolff. “It was more nerve-wracking,” she says. “You have your friends and you have your family there.” Being in front of the New Albany crowd is “one of the greatest feelings,” Wolff says.
Competitors for the Classic are chosen based on worldwide rankings – the top 25 riders are selected. And, as an invitational, the competition is open to a handful of others at Wexner’s discretion. A total of about 30 riders compete for $125,000 in prize money.
“We’ve got a couple of wild cards that we can include,” Wexner says.
Wolff was one of those wild-card riders in the past, as was New Albany resident Gabriela Mershad, who competed in the Classic for the first time last year. In subsequent years, including this year, Wolff has qualified for the event. In July, she won a Junior/Amateur-Owner Jumper Prix in Traverse City, Mich.
The last 15 years have seen an incredible increase in the popularity of horseback riding in the New Albany area, says Nicole Parrill, a New Albany High School graduate and owner of Hunters Court Farm just outside New Albany.
“When I began riding in the early 80s, there were not a lot of barns or trainers in the area. Now we are very lucky to have many choices,” says Parrill, whose farm offers boarding, horse training and riding lessons. “Since (Wexner) has showcased the sport, it has grown immensely in the New Albany area. The New Albany Classic has given many people the opportunity to witness the amazing athleticism of the horse. The riders and horses that participate in the Classic are wonderful role models.”
The sport of riding teaches discipline, dedication, responsibility and sacrifice, Wolff says. “I’ve had to grow up a lot faster than my friends,” she says, explaining that the growth came with taking care of a live animal.
Wolff has noticed a change in attitude toward the sport even since she graduated from Columbus School for Girls, where most of the other students participated in school sports or ballet. There are a lot more riders now, she’s noticed. “I don’t get the weird looks anymore when I walk around in britches,” she says.
Wexner sees a difference at the Classic itself. “In the earliest years, when we had 3,000 in attendance, people kind of watched the show, but the stands were never very full. … Now they understand it’s OK to cheer for your favorite (rider). Their attention seems to have really grown.”
Though Wexner herself didn’t ride as a child – she grew up in New York City – she developed a love for the sport beginning in her late teens. The barn on the Wexner property in New Albany is known as Abigail Stables, and she rides as often as she gets a chance.
“It’s always been a lifelong passion and dream,” Wexner says. “It’s wonderful to see so many young girls and boys that have that opportunity.”
She hopes to see more New Albany riders at the Classic in the future, and with the number of local riders, including several students from Hunters Court who compete in local riding events and have attended the Classic, that possibility is very real.
“It would be great,” Wexner says. “Growing our own would be beautiful.”
Lisa Aurand is editor of Healthy New Albany Magazine. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The New Albany Classic International Grand Prix & Family Day
10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sept. 22 4584 Reynoldsburg-New Albany Rd.
$20 per person, ages 11 and older. Children 10 and under, free. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
- Performances by Ariana Grande and Emblem3
- Amusement rides
- High ropes course
- The Classic Petting Zoo
- The Ohio State University Marching Band and Cheerleaders