Horsefeathers

What do you get when you cross a horse with a white elephant? The Las Colinas Equestrian Center.

Brune, looking around for someone to take the center off his hands, focused on Hersman. Hersman's offer to put money into improving the premises sealed the deal.

In October 1992, Hersman and company became the new managers of the property, signing a 10-year lease at $1,000 monthly rent. Hersman, who has testified in a lawsuit that he had never run an equestrian facility, and who had little knowledge of the business end of the hunter-jumper world, clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He learned quickly when the trainer at the facility quit and emptied most of the barn with him. "There have been two or three of those mass exoduses," Hersman now says with a laugh. He turned to a friend, Philip DeVita, who was training horses in Florida. In 1993, DeVita agreed to move his business to Las Colinas.

Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.
Mark Graham
Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.
Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.
Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.

DeVita had a hard time making a go of it. "I wouldn't work for Jake and Wes," DeVita recalls. "I said the only way I'd do it was to lease stalls and run my own business." Unfortunately for him, others had the same idea. To bring in additional revenue, Hersman let part of the barn to another trainer, Linda Tedesco, who ended up subletting her half to two more trainers. Soon, Hersman had four trainers occupying the barn, and by late 1995, he was negotiating with the polo club to bring them in too.

"In an ideal sense, it was pretty cool," Hersman says, "because any client could walk into the barn and get what he needed. But there were too many egos involved." Trainers who were there at the time say they tangled over issues ranging from who earned commissions on horses to who gave lessons. The trainers began issuing ultimatums: who had to go, who could sell horses, who had first shot at customers walking in the door.

"People weren't filtering through and getting to me," DeVita recalls. "Either you have to control the whole thing, or it's a nightmare." In June 1995, he called it quits.

Hersman admits it was a lot of hassle for the money. DCURD's records show that while the equestrian center grossed nearly $1 million some years, Hersman was losing a few thousand dollars some years and netting no more than $30,000-$40,000 others.

In October 1995, he attended a veterinary seminar at the Kentucky Horse Park, a show and tourist facility run by the state of Kentucky. The experience started Hersman's wheels turning: What if he could turn the Las Colinas Equestrian Center into a horse-based theme park? He decided to tear out the east wing of the main barn and replace it with a restaurant, bar, and viewing lounge, which he would rent out to corporations during horse shows and on weekends. The west wing would continue to be a barn.

DCURD agreed to change Hersman's lease to permit him to run a "corporate entertainment facility" on the property. Hersman and the utility district entered into a 50-year management agreement that gave Hersman, in essence, the right to do as he wished with the property and take all the revenue -- or lose his shirt. In exchange, Hersman would pay DCURD an amount that escalated from $1,800 a month in the early years to $6,250 a month in 2036.

Hersman decided to divest himself of the boarding, training, and lessons headaches by selling these to Tedesco, who paid him $20,000 cash for the exclusive right to give lessons. She also leased half the barn, with an option to take the other wing. Tedesco knew what Hersman was planning for the property, but says she took one look at those plans and thought it would never happen. "I knew he'd never get approval," she says.

She severely underestimated Hersman's resolve. He prepared a business plan for the facility he intended to call "Mustang Ranch." It was a study in utterly inconsistent uses. It proposed turning the facility into a horse-themed tourist venue that would compete with Southfork Ranch. Hersman planned not only to hold horse shows on the property, but concerts, basketball, softball, swimming, hayrides, corporate parties, and even weddings -- all on a 43-acre facility, and all at the same time.

Horse folk who saw the plan still howl. "He's a dreamer," DeVita says, laughing. "Jake has these visions, and if he could ever get them processed and together, who knows?" But the more he was questioned, and the more people smirked, the more Hersman seemed determined to see it through. "You tell Jake he can't do something," says one person who has worked for him, "and he's determined to prove you wrong."

The boarders, meanwhile, had axes to grind with Hersman and company. For some time, they felt, routine maintenance on the facility had been ignored. Tensions ratcheted up when Hersman began constructing new veterinary facilities, both at Las Colinas and at the new Lone Star Park. Whispers went around the barn that it was being done out of the equestrian center cash flow, that Hersman was putting their beloved animals at risk. Hersman denies this.

Certainly, Hersman never ran the place with the Carpenters' aplomb. When he erected additional show stall space, he did so cheaply, with materials that would never have passed one of Carpenter's beloved architectural review boards. Maintenance turned out to be a major issue with Tedesco and the boarders.

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