DEL MAR — For the past several weeks, work crews have battled historic winter storms and flooding to finish a million-dollar makeover of Del Mar Arena and surrounding grounds in preparation for a world-class horse show, carnival midway and concert series.
The Seaside Equestrian Tour is billed as a show jumping tour de force featuring the world’s top hunters and jumpers bounding over colorfully painted wooden cross rails atop fluffy sand-fiber footing.
Former Olympic equestrian rider Ali Nilforushan, owner and manager of Nilforushan Equisport Events, told The Coast News the company had spared no expense to transform the arena’s dated interior into a luxurious space showcasing the “Holy Grail” of West Coast equestrian facilities.
“It’s an unbelievable venue, but it was run-down,” said Nilforushan, an Iranian-born resident of Rancho Santa Fe. “How do I sell this to a customer? So, I just started spending money, and it never stopped because everywhere you turn, it’s a dry sponge.”
Nilforushan’s stated passion and love for equestrian sports drive his desire to accomplish the seemingly Herculean task before him — presenting an unprecedented and unforgettable show jumping experience for guests of all ages in a first-class environment by the grand opening on Jan. 25.
“This is an equestrian town — Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe — the richest people in the world live here, and they want this product,” Nilforushan said, estimating the total remodeling costs at $5 million. “This is going to be one of the biggest equestrian festivals in the world.”
And this isn’t Nilforushan’s first rodeo.
The event company, which Nilforushan owns and operates with his wife, Francie, a competitive rider, previously invested in significant capital improvements to the equestrian facilities at Galway Downs in Temecula for its Temecula Valley National Horse Show.
For the Seaside Equestrian Tour, Nilforushan employed the talents of former Del Mar resident Matt Basson, owner of Bigfoot Stage, who joined the project to help transform the primary enclosure for Seaside’s Grand Prix Arena.
“Ali is exceptional and a true visionary,” Basson said. “He is going to change the whole sport because he loves it. This will be a real show, and I wanted to be part of this.”
In just a few weeks, workers installed new carpet over the cement walkways and stairs surrounding the 46,250-square-foot arena floor; removed more than 1,700 stadium seats in the east grandstands; installed 50-foot high nylon wind battens; constructed several temporary outdoor competition areas; and covered each arena floor with plenty of specialized sand-fiber footing.
The funky patterned carpets and faded maroon chairs of the venue’s Arena Room were swapped for sleek hardwood floors and a modern interior to create the Seaside Social Club.
The club’s VIP deck consists of private dining tables, couches and battery-operated indoor firepits with a comfortable view of the grand prix, the tour’s marquee show-jumping competition every Saturday night.
In show jumping, the grand prix event is the sport’s most difficult course — tighter turns, odd angles, higher fences — requiring the highest technical ability from both horse and rider.
“It’s probably the most dangerous sport in the world,” Nilforushan said of grand prix show jumping. “Riders jump five feet high and clear a dozen obstacles in 90 seconds on a horse. There are not many more dangerous sports in the world. And our athletes do it with style and grace, demonstrating the beautiful art between man and his partner.”
Each of Seaside’s grand prix weekly showings will be followed by performances from artists, such as Arizona, Queen Nation, Steel Pulse, Bad Fish (a Sublime tribute band), and Bobby Kerr Mustang Act, a wild west-themed show with horses, dogs and antique cars. Outside of the arena, midway operator CM Amusement will host a carnival equipped with a Ferris wheel, bounce houses, games, rides, fair food and more.
World’s best riders
Topping the bill of the Seaside Equestrian Tour is an impressive slate of championship show jumpers, including Danish rider Bjorn Ikast and Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet and local champions Kerri Potter of Del Mar and San Diego’s Mandy Porter.
“I know when Ali starts a project, it’s going to be fantastic,” Ikast told The Coast News. “(Nilforushan) goes all out to make it special for the audience and the riders. He’s a true horseman. So, when he came to me with an idea for a horse show in Del Mar — what better place than Del Mar, honestly?”
After speaking with Nilforushan, Ikast cleared his schedule and brought his finest horses — Top Castino, Chicharito and Crespo — to Del Mar to train before the circuit starts later this month. The three-time Danish, Norwegian and Scandinavian champion will reside in Del Mar until the festival ends in early March.
Championship rider Jamie Taylor will also be riding in the Seaside event. In 2021, Taylor won the Spruce Meadows 1.35M Need for Speed finale atop Cocoliche of Greenhill Z at the 2021 Temecula Valley National Series.
“I’ve heard Ali talking about this being his dream since I met him 20 years ago,” Taylor said. “He wants to put the ‘show’ back into ‘horse show.’ I’ve always admired that — that’s not easy to do. This will be a great event, and I hope the community enjoys it.”
UCLA student Clea Cadell, 19, is also preparing to compete in this year’s Seaside Equestrian Tour in Del Mar. Cadell, who has known Nilforushan since she was 12, participated in her first World Cup qualifier late last year in Las Vegas.
“I’ve been coming to the Del Mar showgrounds for a long time,” Cadell said. “I’m excited because this has so much potential. I think this show will take the sport to a new level.”
For the love of horses
Ali’s wife and business partner Francie, who has been riding horses since age 5, said she is eager to provide visitors with a top-notch equestrian experience alongside other attractions not typically associated with traditional show jumping events.
“Hopefully, we’ve made something for the whole family to enjoy, and people will also get to know our sport a bit,” said Francie, who will be riding her Dutch warmblood Valentino at Seaside.
For the Nilforushans and many others involved in equestrian show jumping, the sport is all about the love of horses. All of the European warmbloods in the Seaside Equestrian Tour are former racehorses. Nilforushan partnered with renowned local horse trainers Paula Capestro and Sandy Aston to give these thoroughbreds a second career.
For those curious about the Olympic sport, riders describe it as a challenging yet rewarding dance between humans and animals.
“As a rider, my favorite part of show jumping is having a partner with a mind of their own,” Francie said. “It’s a whole different ballgame when compared to other sports. Horses have opinions and emotions, so you have to learn how to build a partnership and communicate with them.”
The Seaside Equestrian Tour runs from Jan. 25-29, Feb. 1-5, Feb. 8-12, Feb. 22-26, March 1-5 and March 8-12 at the Del Mar Arena. For more information, visit https://www.jump-nee.com/.