By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The Super Bowl of equestrian sport kicked off on Tuesday as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the World Equestrian Games (WEG), where riders from 70 countries and horses from six continents will battle for medals and Olympic berths.
Tucked away in rural North Carolina, tiny Tryon, with a population of 1,700, will be at the center of the equestrian universe from Sept. 11 to 23 and in the projected path of Florence, the most powerful storm to menace the Carolinas in nearly three decades.
Staged once every four years, an estimated 500,000 spectators are expected to take in the action in nine disciplines, including the Olympic events of show jumping, eventing and dressage, making it the highest-attended sporting event in the United States this year according to WEG projections.
After Tuesday's opening ceremonies, competition is scheduled to get underway on Wednesday while at the same time more than a million people along the U.S. southeast coast will be fleeing the Category 4 storm and winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph).
Florence is expected to make landfall on Friday, most likely in southeastern North Carolina near the South Carolina border or about 250 miles (400km) from Tryon.
The WEG could avoid most of the ferocious winds, but forecasters have warned the storm could linger for days and could result in 20 to 30 inches (51 cm to 76 cm) of rain falling in places, posing the risk of deadly flooding miles inland.
The National Weather Service, which has an office on site at the WEG, is closely monitoring the situation and advising organizers.
"We are proactively preparing for the possible severe weather the storm system may bring to this area and have both strategic and emergency plans in place for both the people and horses on-site," said the WEG in a statement.
"There are numerous multi-floored buildings at the venue and our permanent stabling is incredibly secure and safe. In the case of severe weather which requires immediate response, we have a robust evacuation protocol."
Any major disruptions to the WEG would also be a significant blow to the local economy which is expecting an injection of $400 million into a region still dealing with the fallout from the last recession and a disappearing textile industry.
For entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo, who along with his partners have invested close to $200 million into developing the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC), the WEG was designed to be a springboard that would turn the facility into a year-round horse lifestyle destination.
"At the end of the day it (WEG) was an opportunity to breath life into this place quickly," Bellissimo told Reuters. "People say you're doing an awful lot for the WEG, we are not doing it for WEG.
"WEG is a great opportunity to create an engine that will accelerate the growth long term."
A 1,600 acre facility rolling out under the gaze of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the TIEC underwent a massive rebuild for the WEG that included the construction of a 20,000-seat main stadium and an adjoining arena with seating for 8,000.
The original property had featured an Arnold Palmer designed golf course that is now a cross-country course designed by British Olympic gold medalist Mark Phillips, where bunkers and tee boxes can still be spotted.
The facility also includes seven permanent barns and 1,200 stalls that will be home for most of the world's elite show horses.
It will be first class treatment for the four-legged stars of the show, with 550 horses arriving on a specially designed Boeing 777 freighter aircraft in customized stalls.
Organizers said it was the largest commercial airlift of horses ever undertaken.
There is also no lack of five star amenities for a fan base that includes the rich and famous.
Billionaires Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and rocker Bruce Springsteen all have daughters who compete internationally but missed out on qualifying for the WEG.
For $125,000, patrons of the Games can stay on site in the luxury of custom built three-bedroom cabins that come with a butler and in house catering (for an extra charge).
(Editing by Toby Davis)