Del Mar Fairgrounds is a hallowed ground in Thoroughbred horse racing.

Founded in 1937 and put on the map by crooner Bing Crosby, Del Mar was Hollywood’s summer playground in the 30s and 40s, drawing Hollywood and racing elite alike with the promise of parties, concerts and top tier racing. (Think Seabiscuit-Ligaroti match race).

Some 87 years later, Del Mar’s famed oval continues to attract racing’s biggest events. This year, the venue will host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November. But it’s the offseason potential of the local landmark that’s captured the imagination of show jumper Ali Nilforushan.

The Iranian Olympian come hunter/jumper event manager is reimagining the glory days of old to build a modern new model for horse sport at the historic venue—and has recruited fellow disrupter Erica Hatfield of Eye Candy Jumpers to advance the cause.

In the beginning, there were horses

To understand what’s driving Nilforushan’s California dream, we have to go back to the beginning. The very beginning.

Born in Tabriz, Iran, Nilforushan was six when the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980—despite his young age, the memories of that dark period are “branded in his brain.”

“I was at the airport in Tabriz, Iran. My father was landing from a trip and as he was flying in, a black jet flew in front of his plane and bombed the runway. I remember just being swept up by our driver and then rushed into the car,” recalled Nilforushan.

“That was the beginning. All of our lives changed after that.”

The war would span eight years. Young Nilforushan had a front row seat for year one. “I remember sitting on our balcony and watching bombs raining down. And then the sirens would go off and we would be told to run into our shelters and we would sit in the dark until it passed.”

Amidst that chaos his infatuation with horses was born. Under war-time restrictions, Nilforushan and his brother Matt were permitted to watch one hour of television a week.

“My favorite show was Zorro, because it was one of the only things we could watch. At night I would dream of riding like Zorro and so that was kind of the start of my love of horses,” he recalled.

At age seven, Nilforushan’s mother took Ali and his brother to Turkey, then Poland and Germany in a months-long effort to secure a visa. (His father stayed in Iran.) Once procured, they immigrated to the United States, landing in San Diego, CA.

For an immigrant family, life in the golden state came with its own brand of adversity.

“Our life was always difficult, being immigrants into a new country and not speaking English. It was really difficult to feel like you belong,” Nilforushan said.

“I remember very clearly I went to get a drink out of a water fountain at school and I looked behind me and there was nobody standing behind me. I looked over to the fountain next to me and there were 20 people in line to drink water. I realized that people thought that being from Iran, I was a terrorist or whatever. It was hard.”

Nilforushan leaned on his brother and mother for support—“she showered us with love”—and turned his focus to horses.

“I realized I was never going to be the cool kid in school, so I started really just diving into my passion. When I was 12, I remember begging my mom, even though we didn’t have the means for it, I said, ‘Please, I need to go ride a horse.’”

It was at the barn that he found his people.

“Immediately, I felt at home with this community. It didn’t matter where I was from. It didn’t matter that I was a different skin color, didn’t look like them. It didn’t matter that I came from a difficult background,” said Nilforushan.

“Horses became the only thing that I wanted to do. So every opportunity I had, I would run to the barn. I would hot walk horses for a few dollars. I would ride polo ponies. Anything I could do to be at the barn because it just made me feel like I belonged.

“As time went on and I became better and better at riding, I realized like, no, man, this is like something that I’m actually kind of good at. I started to realize too what this sport could do for me. The more success I had, the more blessings came into my life.”

“I couldn’t say no”

Nilforushan would go on to great heights in show jumping. In 2000, at age 24, he became the first Iranian equestrian to compete at the Olympics. In the 17 years following, he won Grands Prix coast to coast, including World Cup qualifiers in Los Angeles, Del Mar and Las Vegas as well as the Casadores Grand Prix in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2006, he contested the World Cup Final in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Ali Nilforushan competing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Photo courtesy of Ali Nilforushan.

At 41 and at the height of his career, he retired to pursue horse show management full time, founding the Temecula Valley National Horse Show series. His goal: to reinvigorate hunter/jumper sport in California.

“I realized that it’s my time to do something for the sport that can hopefully leave a much larger legacy than whatever grand prix I was going to win,” he said.

RELATED: Horses Made Me… Dream Beyond Reason

Del Mar Fairgrounds presented a window to do precisely that. When the opportunity arose to host events at the famed track, it was a full circle moment for Nilforushan and a chance to build a legacy event from the ground up at a site that looms large in both his personal history and the history books.

“In 1992, Del Mar Fairgrounds hosted the World Cup Finals. It was won by Thomas Frühmann on a horse named Genius. I was lucky to qualify to compete in the junior division, which McLain Ward happened to dominate on a horse named Palermo,” he recalled.

“My brother and I being absolute fanatics of this sport, I remember we sat in the very top corner, the very last two seats, and we had our big camcorder on our shoulder and we videoed every round. I watched my heroes, Franke Sloothaak, Eric Navet, Thomas Fuchs, all the best of the best of the best compete here.

“This arena is iconic. It’s equivalent to Wrigley Field, the Yankee Stadium. So when the opportunity came to do a project in Del Mar, I couldn’t say no.”

From the Turf to the Surf

Set on 340 sprawling acres just 20 minutes outside San Diego and an hour and a half from Los Angeles, Del Mar Fairgrounds abuts almost 400 acres of beach and is fitted with 2,000 permanent 12×12 concrete stalls, ample restrooms and parking, and the permanent infrastructure to host large scale events.

“It’s far bigger than I even imagined or dreamed. So my end game is to turn this into a multi-discipline winter destination,” said Nilforushan. “I’m bullish on California and what we can do together.”

©Julia B
©Julia B

Seaside Equestrian Tour (SET) launched in 2023 with a six-week rated National series. The venue wasn’t awarded the USEF rated show dates it hoped for in 2024 due to the Mileage Rule, which prevents two AA events from running at the same time within 250 miles of one another. It’s a decision Nilforushan hopes will be changed in 2025.

“Just as Florida is host to five or six competing winter circuits, California has to be more than one. I believe that Del Mar and Desert Horse Park can flow beautifully between each other. I think they’re doing a wonderful job there. I hope to do a wonderful job here and stop this silly trend of people leaving California for Florida,” said Nilforushan.

“This is the most beautiful place in the world. I fully plan on doing everything I can to make this a destination again.”

He’s already moving ahead with that vision. Footing upgrades were made to the venue’s three rings last year. Plans are in place to add additional covered arenas and to make infrastructure improvements in collaboration with Fairgrounds management. Like Bing Crosby before him, Nilforushan dreams of a future where the venue blends concerts, culture and horse sport, drawing in new participants and new spectators.

It’s a vision shared by co-owner Erica Hatfield.

“When you hear about Ali and his philosophy, it’s akin to mine,” said Hatfield. “He wants to put on a big show. He has big dreams. And for me, as an owner, the idea that I could have a show in a more urban area where there’s tons of stuff to do between San Diego and LA, where there’s a lot of culture and museums, and to be in a venue that has a history, that feels filled with this past—to me, that’s very alluring.”

©Julia B
©Julia B

“It’s My Time”

For most, a dream of Nilforushan and Hatfield’s scope would be a decades long endeavor to build. Their timeline, however, is now.

“I don’t sleep,” said Nilforushan. “I want to build this while my heroes are alive and kicking and competing. Every night I go to bed feeling like I didn’t do enough.

“For me, it all goes back to those days at the barn. I went from a kid that nobody would even drink water after and would be called terrorist to one of the most beautiful lives you could ever imagine. Everything I have is from this sport.

“What I’m doing, I don’t look at this as a business. This is my duty. I have such big dreams for this sport because of what it gave me. It’s my turn to give back, it’s my time.”

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