Three weeks ago I followed the FEI sports forum on livestream. After listening to David O’Connor’s eventing risk management presentation I made a mental note to pick Mike Tucker’s brains on a couple of topics raised, when I saw him at Badminton. Mike sat on the original Hartington safety working group and chaired British Eventing’s safety committee. While not so actively involved in risk management nowadays, he could always be relied upon to proffer some balanced while incisive views.
But the very next day we heard the dreadful news that Mike had died suddenly. A sense of shock and loss continues this side of the pond. A church the size of a cathedral was selected for his thanksgiving, but it was nonetheless standing-room only 45 minutes before the service began.
There was a clear sense of bewilderment too. What will we do without him? Aside from being an all-round lovely guy, Mike was the glue binding so many disparate sections of our horse community together.
The career of “Tucks” is incredible. Most of us would be thrilled to have just one or two of his achievements in our resume.
A fearless rider to hounds, he was a lifelong follower of the Duke of Beaufort’s, and its popular and exemplary field-master. As a competition rider, he had 12 Badminton appearances, notably with home-bred General Bugle finishing second in 1983. He was course designer at two European Championships, the 2002 World Equestrian Games, Burghley, Bromont, Fair Hill, and all over the world; FEI technical delegate at the 1992 Olympics.
In national hunt racing, Mike was a regular steward (judge) and chaired the stewards panel at the greatest of them all, Cheltenham. He was a trustee of the UK industry’s pioneering re-homing scheme, Re-training of Racehorses.
A natural leader, in more recent years he became the very hands-on chairman of our premier indoor jumping show, Olympia.
The younger generation tends to think of him primarily as the “voice” of horse sport. He was an established commentator at major shows and trials before adding TV to his skill set, taking over as the BBC’s equestrian anchor in 1992. He retired from the BBC only last year, deeming Nick Skelton’s individual gold in Rio as the gig that could never be bettered.
If pressed to “label” himself, Mike would most likely have said “farmer.” He studied at the world famous Royal Agricultural College, and took the bold step 10 years ago of disbanding a well-established dairy herd to start farming Wagyu beef, which he saw in Hong Kong during the 2008 Olympic Games. (It was while out feeding his beloved cattle that he was taken ill.)
I will always remember his incredible facility to store away important things about everyone he met and to raise them, sometimes years later, just at the moment you needed a confidence boost. In recent times, I have become associated with campaigning about the abuses in desert endurance racing. Whenever I go to horse shows, people usually make polite enquiries about what’s going on in that respect, but it was always Mike who asked me the really detailed questions, the ones that showed he had read around this niche subject and taken an interest, even though he didn’t have to.
So getting back to where I started, I wonder what Mike would have felt about progress on eventing safety: It will soon be 20 years since Hartington – has enough been done so far?
I am sure change will come faster under O’Connor, who took over as chair of the FEI eventing technical committee in November. But I am still confused why the FEI seems ever more bogged down with collecting facts and figures before it dares to take each next step.
We saw lots of slides from a decade’s worth of data collection about every type of fence jumped at hundreds of competitions, whether a fall eventuated or not. This gives, said O’Connor, new insight into trends and enables “second or third level” conversations about certain aspects.
Anecdotally, for instance, riders jumping the exact same course at jointly FEI and national designated events have been thought to encounter more problems with the former. Now there is data to prove it, so we can expect more intense discussions as to the cause. Does the kudos of riding FEI put the rider under pressure – or is it just because you are attempting the fences at a slightly faster pace?
But seriously, though, have we lost all faith in our own ability to make conclusions based on lifelong understanding and observation? I couldn’t believe it when the forum shown a bar chart indicating that a rider at their first four-star will encounter more difficulties than someone who has done quite a few.
Some of these “findings” are now the catalyst for a new FEI eventing-specific coaching program (I didn’t realise there wasn’t one already.) A FEI blurb published since the forum said: “The coach is the most important advisor on the level at which the combination can compete and preparing them for that level, as well as evaluating the level of fitness, health, mental and physical preparation and technical ability.” Gosh, who would have thought it!
I can only assume we need statistics to back up the bloomin’ obvious because our sports are increasingly administered by “suits” who have a zero in horse heritage. I guess they feel more comfortable about decision-making if someone shows them a spread-sheet. What ever happened to consulting the oracles, all the Tuckers of this world, who already know these things, and a great deal more, because horses are etched into their DNA?
This struck me even more this past week with news that the beleaguered British Equestrian Federation has a new chairman, Mohamed Elsarky . Not heard of him? No, me neither. He is the latest in a string of “outsiders” in senior roles. This is a UK Sport appointment following the BEF “bullying” allegations and the threat of funding cutbacks if governance etc is not brought into line.
Elsarky is a hugely successful businessman, most recently in global comestibles, and it looks as if his major remit will be establishing a rapport between funding agencies and the “fundee.” I watched a video of him discussing cocoa prices and he seems to have a kindly, restrained while authoritative manner, which he will certainly need in the months to come. Less encouragingly, though, he served just two years in a similar role at British Canoeing, citing other work commitments for his premature departure.
The word “horse” wasn’t even mentioned in the BEF press release. I guess he’s another person who’ll be served up lots of research rather than being asked to find time in his diary to meet knowledgeable people out in the field.
For Mike’s family and enormous circle of friends, the personal loss is incalculable. But I felt an extra sadness when we gathered to celebrate his life last week. Mike is from the very last generation of equestrian all-rounders whose insight into one facet of our complicated passion is informed and enhanced by deep involvement in so many others. Those hard to label horsemen are now starting to pass away. The generation now in charge of deciding where all our sports head next doesn’t quite compare.