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Official Review by Lloyd Brown, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
One of the nation's top venues for equestrian competitions will soon be entering its third decade of use, and there is no sign that this thoroughbred is slowing down. The Georgia International Horse Park (GIHP) was built to host the equestrian events and the mountain biking competitions at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The 1,400-acre facility is located in Conyers, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
The GIHP is a very impressive campus, as it offers an 8,000-seat Grand Prix Stadium, the 2,500-seat Charles Walker Covered Arena and ten event-specific arenas for the various components of a typical horse show. To support the needs of these events, the facility offers enough stable stalls for 690 horses and includes veterinary facilities on-site to take care of any special needs that come up. There are more than 6,500 parking spaces on site, which handle everything from cars to horse trailers and RVs.
In a typical year, the Georgia International Horse Park will host more than 30 weekends of horse shows and competitions. These range from local to regional and national-level events, from rodeos to steeplechases to programs for specific breeds of horses. While this remains the central purpose of the facility, the GIHP has prospered for more than 20 years, due in part to becoming a more diversified site for all types of sports competitions. These include the continued use of the mountain biking course established for the Olympics, the adding of an Arnold Palmer designed golf course, polo matches, road races of varying lengths and the very popular Rugged Maniac Obstacle Race (a variation on the survival /mud race theme). The park also hosts concerts, corporate picnics and festivals to fill out the slow periods in the equine communities competition calendars.
In many ways, the Georgia International Horse Park has become one of the most successful legacies of the 1996 Olympic Games.
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The primary food concessionaire at the GIHP is the Winner's Circle Café and Grill, which is located adjacent to the Charles Walker Arena. The Winner's Circle offers menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its sandwich menu includes a Philly cheesesteak, a roasted turkey sub and a Virginia ham sub (all at $7.00). Salads are $8.00, and you can choose from the grilled chicken, fried chicken, buffalo chicken or a chef salad.
The Mane Course includes the Triple Crown burger, the Grand Champion chicken sandwich, the Blue Ribbon chicken tenders and the Top Trophy veggie burger (all at $5.50), as well as the Gold Medal chili cheese dog and the Bronze Medal corn dog ($4.25). Rounding out the Course are the Silver Medal all-beef hot dog ($3.50) and the High Point grilled cheese sandwich ($4.50). The Café sells Coca-Cola beverages for $3.75. Other beverage options include bottled water ($3.00), Powerade ($4.00), sweet/unsweet tea ($3.75), domestic beers ($6.00) and wine ($8.00). The Georgia International Horse Park also provides in-house catering for the larger events, which typically have an awards dinner at the end of the competitions.
The larger horse shows will often set up a vendor midway which will include food booths and a sweet shop. The midway typically is very similar to the vendor villages found at NASCAR races, and they sell a wide variety of clothing, horse supplies, and other equestrian-oriented memorabilia.
The atmosphere at an event at the GIHP could be compared to a county fair. It is a very festive place, the competitors wear colorful outfits, and there is always a midway filled with great food and booths with games, riding supplies and other entertainment. Meals are usually served in large tents or in picnic areas set up throughout the complex. Typically, the competitions are held in the daytime, with concerts or other entertainment taking place at night in the Grand Prix Stadium.
At 1,400 acres, the Georgia International Horse Park is its own neighborhood. The main entrance is off the very busy Highway 138 coming out of the central area of downtown Conyers. There is no entry gate, and it basically has the feel of a subdivision. Along the main road (Centennial Olympic Parkway), you will pass apartment complexes, housing developments and city parks. Once you get further into the park, you will begin to notice the more athletic side of the complex. This includes the Cherokee Run Golf Club, the trailhead for the mountain biking course and the specialized fields required to hold events such as the steeplechase. You are nearly five miles into the GIHP property before you reach the main competition complex.
A secondary neighborhood within the Georgia International Horse Park is the temporary neighborhood that comes together for the equestrian competitions. These communities consist of the persons taking part in the competition, not the fans. Their lives are built around horses, either as an expensive hobby or a family business. It is not unusual for entire families to be involved in some aspect of the competition, and there seems to be a true feeling of community between the participants. There is also a distinctive language in the equestrian community that outsiders would find difficult to understand.
A majority of the fans who attend these competitions come from the families of the riders, members of their farm staff and persons who just love horses, but cannot afford to have one themselves. When a competition has more than 950 horses enrolled in at least one event during a three-day weekend, it adds up to a sizable crowd within the 8,000-seat Grand Prix Stadium.
The decorum at a horse show is very similar to that of what you would find at a golf tournament. The crowds are not rowdy or overly partisan, as the sport is really based on the rider and the horse executing to their best ability, rather than competing head-to-head against another rider. Applause and cheers only take place after a rider has completed their run through the designated course, and fans appreciate a good performance just as golf fans appreciate an especially good shot. These horse shows do not feature head-to-head racing, with the exception of the steeplechase event, which is the exception to the rule on cheering during the live competition.
Conyers is located 25 miles east of downtown Atlanta via Interstate 20. You would exit at the Highway 138 exit for Conyers and head north on Highway 138 for approximately five miles. The main entrance to the GIHP will be on your right, and you will follow Centennial Olympic Parkway to the competition complex. There are numerous entrances into the complex, and parking is plentiful. Seating at all facilities is aluminum bleacher seating, so it is a good idea to bring a seat cushion. Once in the complex, some walkways will be paved, while others are packed dirt, as it is easier on the horses' hooves. Restrooms are well marked and are located near the primary competition areas.
For persons who wish to attend an event at the Georgia International Horse Park merely as a spectator, the return on investment is excellent. In most cases, there is no admission charge and parking is always free. (The income from these events usually is derived from the entry fees for the participants, stable rental and the reserving of parking spaces for the RV's brought to the events by the competitors.) The food concessions are of excellent quality, though it can be pricey. The GIHP is within easy commuting distance from Atlanta, and the GIHP also has a Hawthorn Suites hotel on the property (rates in the $109-$128 range). In addition, there are chains and restaurants to fit any budget in the five miles between the I-20 exit for Highway 138 and the GIHP complex.
The Georgia Olympic Horse Park plays host to several festivals each year. The Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival is held the first weekend of April and is listed in the "Top 20 Festivals in the Southeast" by a national tourism organization. The Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival is held in the fall, and the Caribbean Jerk Festival occurs in the summer.
One of the most popular non-equestrian events held at the GIHP is the Rugged Maniac Obstacle Run. This event will have you swinging on ropes, climbing over walls, and most of all, getting muddy. Don't worry -- there are plenty of shower facilities at the end.
Olde Town Conyers is located about four miles south of the GIHP off Highway 138. This shopping area is part of the Main Street movement to bring back the historical downtown areas of many small cities. You will find some interesting shops, a farmers market, a community theatre, and best of all, Beasley Drug Company. Make sure you stop by for one of the great treats at their soda fountain.
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1659 Centennial Olympic Pkwy
Conyers, GA 30013