The horse world has always taken a lot of trouble to persuade the outside world it is not elitist – it’s one justification for being allowed to remain in the Olympic movement, after all. We specialist journalists try hard to promote that myth to the outside world too, not an easy task if privately you don’t believe it.
At London 2012 the UK’s general sports writers turned up in force to watch the equestrian events. I recall conversations with many seasoned hacks who exuded incredulity at our various explanations for the Saudi jumpers’ unexpected team bronze (omitting their fat wallets) after wondering how they’d found such form when the four team members had an average world ranking of 138rd at the time!
We might as well have saved ourselves the trouble. Jumping has now openly “outed” itself as the “only Olympic sport” in which people can “buy” their way to the top.
It’s not unusual to hear knowledgeable folk saying that money is “killing” horse sport, but it’s pretty monumental to hear it said by the current jumping world champion and other active riders of his ilk. The decision to take this potentially damaging public stance shows quite how sensitive things have become with the Longines Global Champions Tour, and the general concept of “paying to play.”
The perception that the Tour is favorably treated by the FEI has been well chronicled already. From inception, it enabled the mega rich (but not-really-up-to-it) to ride in its 5-star classes; their special entry fees rumored to be around Euros 30,000-50,000 per show were fundamental to its business model.
Now that the Global calendar has doubled its number of fixtures and is also allowed to run the same weekend as FEI Nations Cups, it provides myriad chances to pick up world rankings points more easily than in a genuinely “open” contest. This could artificially promote the not-really-up-to-it rider’s eligibility for other upper tier shows – and, of course, the Olympic Games.
The International Jumping Riders Club doesn’t want to curtail the Global phenomenon as such; many of its members compete in the Tour for the big money, of course.
Instead it seeks to severely limit the number of “counting” classes for rankings points at any 5-star show unless the organiser issues 60% of his invitations to riders from the top of the Longines ranking list and 20% to the host national federation, leaving just 20% to the organiser’s personal discretion – widely understood to be more or less the opposite of how the Tour goes about things.
For “organiser’s invitations” read “palms may have been greased,” even though the pay card is not meant to happen and is vehemently denied by the powers-that-be. This often is understood to involve the rider or his owners paying a massively inflated sum for “VIP hospitality” to facilitate their name on the start list.
The IJRC says the only exception to the 60-20-20 ratio should be the Longines Nations Cups and Longines World Cup events, whose participants are largely decided on merit by their NFs and whom Steve Guerdat says “deserve to go.”
The big difference is that in adopting this ratio, FEI intends to exempt the Global Tour alongside the official FEI series. So it will still be able to prioritise invitations to the 80-odd riders involved with its own Global team league. The annual fee for participation in that is a cool Euros 2 million per four-rider squad – a “pay card” in all but name.
The IJRC stepped up its lobbying a few weeks before the FEI’s imminent General Assembly (Montevideo, November 18th-21st). Most of the FEI’s 130-odd member national federations do not boast a single jumping rider who will affected by 5-star invitations one way or the other, so there is a very real fear they will simply rubber-stamp the Global Tour’s exemption when voting for the new rules that take effect on January 1st.
In a widely circulated video US rising star Reed Kessler openly states that jumping could become the “only Olympic sport where you can buy into the biggest events with easier access to the most ranking points,” while Steve Guerdat, Kevin Staut, Jeroen Dubbledam and Malin Baryard also argue for “equal chances for all.”
The IJRC also issued what seems like a heavily veiled threat to NFs, reminding them that the IJRC owns the rankings formula, and of the IJRC’s resolve to confront pay cards, hotly debated at its own annual assembly in the spring.
I am not clear, though, what will happen if the jumpers don’t get want they want next week. Will they confiscate their rankings formula or stage a boycott – though how, and of what? National federations don’t tend to make decisions on the basis of social media comment, 99% of which they don’t even see. I just hope that on the day delegates who have been well briefed will stand up and explain the concerns in words of two syllables.
What doesn’t quite help is that no-one has offered any research corroborating how many, if any, riders have allegedly rocketed up Longines rankings using points they have “bought”. Last year I looked at the opening 5-star class at a typical Global Tour show and saw that 20 starters were world-ranked well below 100, with seven well below 300. Arguably they shouldn’t have been there, not even if they were the organiser’s siblings. On the other hand, they were largely harmless “get rounders” and didn’t even seem to be niggling their way into the minor placings. I couldn’t assert that any of them were on pay-cards, though a glance at their FEI records showed none were riding in 5-stars outside the Tour.
In reality the pay-carders are not so much “buying” points as occupying a place which could have gone to someone more talented, and who would have won points on merit in a class made more competitive by their presence.
Guerdat (world ranked 11) and Staut (3) are among the jumpers who declined to join a Global League team on principle, though it now means they won’t get into Global shows on a standard invitation if they drop much below the world top 15.
I can’t imagine any of this will worry the other horse sports meanwhile. At least the jumpers receive millions in prize money from Longines, who seem enamoured of jumping to the exclusion of everything else, apart from the odd FEI championship that their Top Partner status obliges them to stick their name to.
In eventing, it has fallen to the riders themselves to generate more ideas and money for their discipline. The Masters (ERM) series pioneered in the UK and now cautiously spreading its wings abroad has been underwritten so far by Chris Stone, the generous owner of William Fox-Pitt’s Badminton winner Chilli Morning.
No-one else has ever come forward to sponsor the FEI’s eventing Nations Cups, and the FEI Classic series took a hit when HSBC dropped out.
I am not aware of corporates lining up to sponsor global (with a small “g”) dressage. The Reem Acra sponsorship of its World Cup was down to former FEI president Princess Haya persuading the eponymous fashion designer, a personal friend, to help out. The rumour mill has always felt HRH stumped up some of that money herself. Either way, that arrangement surely cannot be open-ended.
The down side of the FEI’s 2012 Top Partner deal is that Longines is obviously allowed to veto the involvement of brands who cut across their field of endeavour. While Rolex was the most obvious casualty, other big names in the luxury goods sector, to whom equestrianism has historically appealed, may well have felt alienated too.
These salutary truths have finally come home to roost. The FEI is planning a major marketing re-vamp on a discipline-by-discipline basis. It hopes to announce new sponsors/partners for them soon – presumably that won’t be anyone associated with horology!
We know this because the FEI made the curious decision to announce its new marketing strategy at something called the Grimaldi forum in Monaco four weeks ago rather than telling the horse industry first. FEI commercial director Ralph Straus was reported as saying: “We need to recognise the uniqueness of each sport.” Hurrah for that, anyway. Perhaps all will be revealed in Montevideo.