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August 19, 2013

Horse-obsessed town in Virginia bristles as an outsider buys a beloved magazine

They've bemoaned it at the saddlery shop in downtown Middleburg, Va. They've talked about it at the tack place across the street. Loyal readers of The Chronicle of the Horse have even grilled one of the magazine's reporters about her publication's future while she was on a morning trail ride.

In horse-crazy Middleburg, people are still stirred up about last month's sale of the 76-year-old Chronicle, the nation's preeminent news source for all things equine. The Middleburg-based magazine, owned for much of its life by the local Ohrstrom family, is now in the hands of Mark Bellissimo, the majority owner of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., the world's largest horse show circuit.

Now, the magazine's devotees worry, Bellissimo might use their horse bible - billed on its Facebook page as "The Wall Street Journal of Horse Sports . . . but better!" - as a promotional vehicle for his annual 12-week Florida horse show circuit, an accusation that the new owner strongly denies.

In an interview, Bellissimo vowed that he will never meddle with the editorial mission of the Chronicle, which covers horse sports around the world and in recent years has written about illegal horse injections and horse slaughter. Bellissimo, whose company, Wellington Equestrian Partners, owns and operates more than $250 million worth of assets, said he wouldn't halt the Chronicle from digging into his own business.

"I don't think we've ever done anything to elicit an investigation, but do I believe there's a circumstance where I might make a decision that catches some attention? Absolutely," Bellissimo said. "There's going to be a circumstance where [the Chronicle] is going to call it like they see it."

Since Bellissimo, 51, purchased the Chronicle in mid-July, readers have been venting in the magazine's online forum, a kind of country club for mannered and fanatical horse enthusiasts. To even register as a commenter, one must answer trivia questions like: "If Mr. Ed was an off-the-track Thoroughbred, we might have seen one of these when he was flapping his lips with Wilbur." (Answer: Tattoo.) Or: "If the farrier shoes three geldings in front and trims four more, how many shoes does the farrier need?" (Answer: Six.)

Under the comment thread headlined, "Bellissimo has bought COTH!" one person likened the Chronicle's sale to the Wall Street Journal's in 2007: "This is starting to feel a little Rupert Murdoch-ish . . . ewwwwww."

When one of the Chronicle's nearly 20 employees posted a link to the magazine editor's op-ed - headlined, "New Owner, New Future, Same Product" - one reader unleashed a verbal horse whip: "In all deference to the editorial content of the link you posted: Sounds like a lot of PR spin to me."

Bellissimo braved the forum himself, promising readers that the editors will have "free rein" in the stories they pursue, even if they're about his Florida horse show. Since Bellissimo bought the Winter Equestrian Festival in 2006, the show has grown from a laid-back affair with $2 million in prize money to a carnival-like event boasting $7.5 million in awards. It now features not just horses, but fire eaters, magicians and a carousel, all to lure in people who may not know the difference between a gelding and a stallion.

A lengthy Boston magazine story in April chronicled a long-running feud in Florida between Bellissimo and Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who owns a 200-acre estate near the horse show. Over the years, the Jacobs family has unsuccessfully fought Bellissimo in court and through the town council over the show's rapid expansion.

When Bellissimo heard the Chronicle was for sale, he was intrigued, he said. He thinks the magazine would complement his other equine business, and vice versa.

Clarke Ohrstrom, his family's third generation to lead the Chronicle, said in an interview that he and his siblings no longer wanted to prop up a money-losing publication, which had lost advertisers and classified ads to online competitors. The Chronicle, which comes out 40 times a year, has seen its print circulation fall to a little less than 13,000, down from 26,000 in the late 1990s. (Some of the same pressures have prompted the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon billionaire Jeffrey P. Bezos by its longtime owners, the Graham family.).

The Ohrstroms, who amassed a fortune through ventures as varied as fruit-pitting machines and aluminum horseshoes, are sentimental figures in Virginia's hunt country, admired for their philanthropy, money and, in keeping with local values, being low-key about their money.

"We're running these disparate businesses and recognizing that with the evolution of the media industry that the Chronicle might be better off under someone else's ownership, particularly someone who has other businesses related to the horse show industry," Ohrstrom said.

His grandfather, George L. Ohrstrom Sr., purchased the Chronicle from two local horse enthusiasts in 1952. (The New York investor also founded what is now called the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg in 1954.)

George L. Ohrstrom Jr. became chief executive of his father's investment house. A classmate of George H.W. Bush's while growing up in Connecticut, Ohrstrom Jr. later invested in George W. Bush's Texas oil business.

He nearly made his family a household Washington name in the 1960s when he tried and failed to buy the Washington Redskins. In the 1970s, he helped found the Piedmont Environmental Council, the nonprofit well-known for its battle in the 1990s to stop Walt Disney Co. from building a theme park in Prince William County, Va.

His son, Clarke Ohrstrom, inherited the Chronicle's reins and runs his family business out of their 1,700-acre Fauquier County, Va., farm, which shares a driveway with his neighbor, actor Robert Duvall. There, the Ohrstroms raise beef that winds up at Whole Foods and train steeplechase horses.

Clarke Ohrstrom began looking to offload the magazine last year. Neither he nor Bellissimo would disclose the purchase price. The deal closed on July 12, prompting the magazine to publish not one, but two essays by editors reassuring readers that there would be no drop in journalistic standards.

Bellissimo wants to focus on making the magazine profitable, luring advertisers that already sponsor his Florida horse show and others, too; promoting the print edition more; and revamping the Web site, which is expected to reach 4 million annual unique visitors by the end of 2013. He also wants to live-stream horse show events, including his own, on the magazine's Web site.

Punkin Lee, who owns Journey Saddlers, said many people around Middleburg are mourning the loss of the Chronicle's local ownership. "It's the idea that the magazine was something everyone around the world read, and it came from here, and everyone who worked there lived here, and the people who owned it lived here," said Lee, whose mother was the magazine's first managing editor.

That sense of melancholy doesn't extend to the Chronicle's newsroom, which is buzzing with optimism.

Earlier this month, Bellissimo flew in for his first company-wide meeting since he took ownership. He was joined by Chronicle correspondents from Chicago, Knoxville, Tenn., and Richmond, and the ad sales director from New Hampshire. The staff brainstormed business ideas and talked about the magazine's values.

No one brought up story ideas in front of the boss or concerns about a conflict of interest, said Beth Rasin, the Chronicle's editor and president.

"That issue," she said, "is already behind us."

               

 

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