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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Pumpkin spice lattes, light sweaters, crunchy leaves on the ground, and the smell of fresh manure in downtown DC. When fall is in the air, it's time for the Washington International Horse Show. And just as the hot summer transforms into the crisp, cool autumn, the Verizon Center radically transforms itself for its annual equestrian extravaganza.
The Verizon Center is best known as the home of the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. Fans in the nation’s capital who have attended basketball and hockey games and concerts here can vouch for the venue’s capability of handling multiple set-ups. While certainly nothing to be ashamed of, basketball-to-concert-to-hockey changeovers are par for the course for modern indoor arenas. To truly show off their versatility, today’s arenas need the opportunity to host something a little different. Some venues get unique, one-off events like the X-Games or political conventions. The Verizon Center has the annual Washington International Horse Show.
The WIHS called the DC Armory home from its birth in 1958 until it moved to the suburban Capital Center in Landover, Maryland, in 1978. The Armory still sees the occasional event, but the Capital Center is no more. When the Verizon Center (originally the MCI Center) opened in 1997, the horses followed the lead of the hockey and basketball teams and trotted back downtown.
Like clockwork, the WIHS shows up every fall. The show’s week of star-filled evening performances, sparsely-attended afternoon sessions, and theme nights are fall staples on the Verizon Center’s calendar, just as the circus is in the spring. Equine enthusiasts know this is a can’t-miss event, and others should take notice. The Washington International Horse Show shows off the Verizon Center’s versatility in a way any stadium traveler would likely enjoy.
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The Washington International Horse Show hosts some of the world's finest horsemen and women, as well as showcasing the Verizon Center's adaptability. But the WIHS itself is a fairly incongruous animal. Some of its sessions are big, Olympian-filled affairs. Others showcase children from local riding clubs in front of a few hundred spectators.
For the larger sessions, expect services from most of the same concessionaires that you would find for an NBA or NHL game. Expect everything from gourmet tacos to a kosher sausage stand to craft brews. For the smaller daytime events, fewer stands open. Hot dogs and pretzels are always an option, meaning you're unlikely to go hungry.
The Washington International Horse Show doesn't need to advertise much since the makeshift outdoor barn in the heart of the nation's capital announces the show's presence to the thousands who pass by the arena every day. If you're heading inside to catch a session, the stables outside the main entrance do a good job of setting the mood. Once inside, dozens of vendors transform the Verizon Center's main concourse into fun, temporary equine market. Before even reaching their seats, fans have the opportunity to grab free horse magazines and shop for saddles, boots, or maybe just some handmade fudge.
Upon entering the seating bowl, the fan can't help but be struck by several things. This a big, nice, modern arena, and it has really put its best foot forward for this event. Decorations seamlessly meld the idyllic setting of a horse pasture with the iconic sights of Washington's National Mall.
As far as the atmosphere delivered by fans, well, that depends on which session you choose to attend. High-priced evening sessions deliver large crowds and Olympians. Daytime sessions offer lower prices, smaller crowds, and general admission seating that offers fans the ability to move around the venue and probably find space in the first few rows.
While individual sessions have different atmospheres, the event as a whole differentiates itself from the Verizon Center's more mainstream events in a very enjoyable way.
The Verizon Center sits in Washington's downtown Chinatown neighborhood. What the area has lost in its Asian roots over the past decades it has gained in popularity. Some have compared Chinatown to New York's Times Square. While that's not really an accurate comparison, this is the closest DC comes to Manhattan.
The Verizon Center sits directly over three of DC's six Metro (subway) lines, and just blocks from the other three. A major bus stop sits just around the corner. You can walk to the heart of the tourist areas on the National Mall in about 20 minutes, and you're also within walking distance of many of downtown's offices. This is the ultimate central location.
As such, the area around the Verizon Center has evolved into a busy commercial strip that caters to the tastes of the very diverse groups who pass through here. Virtually every age, race, religion, and economic group imaginable is represented in front of the Verizon Center 24/7, and they all have their choice of fast-casual restaurants. McDonald's, Fuddruckers, Hooters, Walgreen's, three burrito chains, an upscale bowling alley, and a movie theater are just a few of the shops within a one-block radius. For a little more sophistication without the walk to the National Mall, check out the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery just across the street.
Horses have a reputation of being an expensive hobby, and while the well-heeled are indeed well-represented at the WIHS, the stereotypical old-money crowd is thankfully not the only demographic present. Fans show up in riding gear, tee-shirts, and everything in between to cheer on both famous and unknown riders. While Olympic riders are indeed the marquee draw, some of the lower-level events are well supported. Children's Shetland Pony racing is a newfound fan favorite.
The Verizon Center is about as central as you can get. The "Gallery Place-Chinatown" station on DC's subway system, Metro, sits directly below the arena, and provides safe, regular, and inexpensive service within the District as well as to suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.
Parking is expensive in the immediate neighborhood, but between metered spaces and private garages, fans should be able to find a place to park. In the evening, free parking may be available on the National Mall, about a 20-minute walk south of the venue.
Since the horses need a place to sleep, F Street NW in front of the Verizon Center is closed to vehicular traffic for the duration the Washington International Horse Show. If it weren't for the fact that F St NW is frequently closed before and after Verizon Center events, this could be a headache. But this part of DC is built on a grid, and it's easy to find an alternate route.
Inside, the Verizon Center is roomy. The horse show's numerous temporary vending stalls do take up concourse real estate, but fans still have enough room to circulate freely. Seats are cushioned and comfortable, and numerous restrooms are clean and well-stocked.
The 2014 edition of the Washington International Horse Show saw things get noticeably more expensive. The addition of a service charge for tickets bought at the box office and the removal of the discount for showing a public transportation card meant that general admission to even the least popular sessions ran $15. The more popular evening sessions start at more than double that.
The value in this event, like any, is in the eye of the beholder. Equestrian competition at this level is in relatively short supply, so fans may be happy to pay to see some of the country's best riders in person. Fans merely curious about the sport might balk at the prices.
Every fall, fans in Washington have the opportunity to see a known venue in an entirely new way, and to see a relatively unknown sport. In both respects professional presentation pays off. The Washington International Horse Show has lasted more than a half-century for a reason, and is worth seeing.
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