By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It is the last Saturday night in May, and several hundred "velvet-heads" -- the fans, owners, and trainers of hunter-jumper horses -- are gathered on the warped wooden bleachers of a show barn on Royal Lane in Irving. One by one, 30 or so high-strung horses enter the main ring at the Las Colinas Equestrian Center, eyeing the crowd and the 14-jump course nervously, prancing, snorting, nostrils quivering.
Even in soiled breeches and blue jeans, the audience for this event, the highlight of the Las Colinas Show-Jumping Classic, is an expensive-looking lot, sporting luxury watches and clutching high-dollar purses as they thumb through programs. A few snicker at the ads touting Las Colinas as the "Southwest's foremost equestrian facility." Many once trained or rode here in the facility's heyday, and they are quick to spot what others might overlook: the dust and haphazardly patched wiring, craters in the flooring, the inactive fly-spray system, the four enormous nonfunctioning fans bolted to the ceiling.
They search to see who is here, who has a new hot jumper, who might be able to maneuver the course within the mandatory 80 seconds without knocking down rails.
As the evening wears on, their hopes are dashed, as first one, then another entry knocks down rails, refuses to jump, or finishes with time faults. The course is just too hard for the jumpers and riders competing, and the $4,500 first prize money is too paltry to attract top talent.
Upstairs in the glassed-in, second-story viewing lounge, Dr. George Jacob "Jake" Hersman barely seems to notice the competition below as he chats with representatives of the show's sponsors. Instead, the handsome large-animal vet migrates from table to table, working sponsors as if he owns the place. He practically does. Since 1992, Hersman and his partner, veterinarian Wes Williams, have been running the equestrian center under an agreement with the public utility district that owns it. In exchange for a small monthly payment to the district, Hersman and company have exclusive, 50-year rights to make whatever they can off the center -- as well as absorb all losses.
Now, it seems, Hersman is about to become the property's new owner. For three weeks in May, the Daily Commercial Record carried a tiny notice that the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was to be auctioned. On May 20, the bids were unsealed, and Hersman and his newest financial partners, architect Bill Dixon and developer Buddy Jordan, were high bidders. Thanks to a series of deals at Irving City Hall, the partners soon may be permitted to do the one thing that has always been forbidden: develop the 43-acre property commercially.
As instructed by the utility district, they offered two bids: $1,062,000 as is, or $2,025,111 if deed restrictions limiting the property to "equestrian-related uses" could be finessed.
The show over, the crowd files toward the exits. A few check their own horses, picking their way through potholes and standing water in the facility that was once the pride of Las Colinas. A few renegades walk through the barn, smoking; there are no guards around to stop them. A handful of mothers with young daughters wander through the main barn, petting the noses of $125,000 thoroughbreds and $150,000 imported warmbloods.
The sponsors gather souvenir mugs and T-shirts imprinted with Las Colinas Grand Prix logos from years past. On the wall, posters from the early '90s document the downward spiral of prize money, reminders that this was once a $50,000 event. Along the hallway, sponsors walk by photos of past winners, legendary names in the horse world who once came to Las Colinas to show.
"It's sad, but it's never going to be a great facility again," says Philip DeVita, one of the dozens of trainers who once operated out of the center but have since moved on. "It's just a white elephant."
The decline of the equestrian center in many ways parallels the history of Las Colinas. Both began as the grandiose, impractical dream of Dallas developer Ben Carpenter. Both flourished in the real estate boom of the early '80s and fell on hard times during the bust. Now the property is at the center of a fight involving the city of Irving, an obscure municipal utility district, a New York teacher's retirement fund, and a herd of squabbling horse folk. While that battle wages, the equestrian center quietly sits, falling into disrepair and waiting for someone to restore its faded glory.
Jake Hersman wants to be that someone. Depending upon whom you ask, this makes Hersman a hero or a villain, a visionary or a fool.
The story of Las Colinas is a classic Texas tale, as old as Giant and as fresh as last week's made-for-TV-movie. The development is the brainchild of Ben Carpenter, son of John W. Carpenter, one of the grand old men who ran Dallas from the '20s until the '50s and '60s. The "old man," as John W. is still known, made money in real estate and ranching, but most of all in insurance and financial services. His company, which became Southland Financial Corp., had headquarters downtown in its own building on Olive Street, which now houses the Adam's Mark Hotel.