When I wrote about problems in the British world class programme at the end of June I did not realise quite how bad the situation had become. Three weeks later, the chief executive of the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) Clare Salmon resigned, stating she didn’t like the way the autonomous UK disciplines went about their business. They didn’t much like her modus operandi either. Then we received the staggering news that Britain wasn’t mounting a full team for this week’s European show jumping championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, sending just two individuals, Michael Whitaker and his nephew William. (Michael Whitaker has now pulled out, however, as his mount, Viking, appears to have twisted his foot.)
Yes folks, despite the millions of pounds thrown at jumping riders from public funds over the decades, Britain can service the year’s major championship or a Nations Cup three weeks later, but not both.
The situation is so dire I pondered that Team GB might have contemplated not sending anyone at all, but that Michael persuaded them as he fancied his individual chances.
Needless to say, the UK jumping community is agog and aghast, actively debating why the team gold at London 2012 and Nick’s medal in Rio are such misleading pointers to the health of our domestic sport.
Britain has narrowly escaped relegation from the premier, eight-team European Nations Cup league before. Our luck ran out last fall, and this year we have vied with 18 other “lesser” nations in the second league.
Britain’s strike rate hasn’t been great. We are second by a distance to another embarrassed major jumping nation, Belgium. Luxembourg – a country so tiny you can drive across it in 40 minutes – lies third.
Results have not been helped by the reluctance of some big names to put themselves forward for teams when they could be winning big money in the Global Tour or another stand-alone five-star. Team manager Di Lampard alluded to changing priorities in a BEF press statement about the Gothenburg decision.
Days earlier Scott Brash and Ben Maher filled the top two spots in the Global Tour’s London Grand Prix. Ben has jumped just one of the Nations Cups in the secondary league this year; Scott none. Even if they wanted to support the Nations Cup or the Europeans, their horsepower and schedule are now partly governed by contracts to ride in Jan Tops’s Global “league.” We can reasonably assume the rest of Europe is grappling with this predicament too.
The FEI insists the Tour is no longer using “pay cards” to facilitate participation of the lower rider-ranked rich over the higher-ranked solvent, but the two million Euros forked out by each commercial team to play in the Global Tour’s league boils down to the same thing.
Britain is desperate for Nations Cup promotion, as the top division will obviously provide tougher competition in the run up to Tryon and Tokyo, and enthuses riders with its access to five-star prize-pots. Britain needs its strongest performance of the year in the final round in Gijon, Spain next month to consolidate its position amid speculation as to whether or not Luxembourg will turn up.
Meanwhile, endurance communities in the UK and Europe are equally aghast at this latest aberration: the provision of generous “appearance money” for everyone who turned up at two Maktoum-backed rides in Italy last month and, this past weekend, the UK, even on a leading-rein!
British endurance has long been acrimoniously split between those who deplore Endurance GB’s association with the Maktoums (who have a summer base near Euston Park in Suffolk which is a short trip from Thoroughbred empire in Newmarket;) and those happy for Dubai to underpin the multiple rides at Euston if it means they’ll get an enjoyable weekend’s entertainment and hand-outs to fund the rest of their season. After all, the UAE riders visiting the UK can’t be the same ones who dope horses, break horses and break rules out in the desert, can they?
Once again Sheikh Mohammed has got what he wanted simply by signing a massive check. At a rather late stage – June in fact – a Euston “Masters” was confirmed for August 18-20 with two million Euros available in rider “support.” The key incentives 1,500 euros (US$ 1,763) for every starter in the FEI rides and a further 1,000 euros (US$ 1,180) for each completion not already awarded some of the 60,000 euros (US$ 70,524) earmarked for best condition. There were further subsidies for those travelling from abroad.
Some people used social media to tout for rides, or brought veteran horses hastily back into work to Collect as they Pass Go. I don’t how long it takes to get a horse fit from scratch to do a 40k or 80k ride with no ill-effects, though I’d guess slightly longer than five or six weeks. The results speak for themselves, for a number of Brits new to the fast pace and heady atmosphere at Euston went out early in the loops, some with alarming heart recovery times.
I reckon Euston will be shelling out at least 760,000 Euros in start and completion money alone. 356 horses started the international classes, though the finish rates were not great; 160km – 40 starters/13 finishers; 120 km – 110/54; 120 km juniors – 40/19; 80km 149/95. The line vets were certainly doing their jobs, and judging by the concentration of Dubai-owned horses topping the leader-board, Moh will get a lot of his money back anyway.
But anyone who argues that paying people to start on an unprepared horse cannot be welfare averse because they will be quickly vetted-out really needs to adjust their moral compass.
How Sheikh Mohammed must have enjoyed reminding himself how cheaply (by his standards) people can be bought. Euston’s money-fest also torpedoed the FEI European senior and world young horse championships in Belgium’s capital city, Brussels, the same weekend, which has been planned for three years. It was perceived as a deliberate slight to organiser Pierre Arnould, a vociferous critic of Dubai endurance, and to sponsors the Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi, with whom Dubai has historic rivalries.
Entries in Arnould’s supporting rides were badly affected. “It is not sane to give free entry, money for travel and bonuses all that finish the race,” said Arnould. “If you take all the entries from other competitions, that’s a catastrophe.”
The rights and wrongs are still being aired on social media in many languages. My distinguished colleague, Swiss editor Alban Poudret, also wrote a guest editorial for French paper L’Eperon blasting the FEI for allowing this to happen.
Meanwhile, EGB seemed comfortable about letting established UK domestic rides take a hit, too. Several reported smaller field sizes as their usual supporters headed to Euston, with the Peak District ride cancelling due to an uneviable number of entries.
Proposed FEI rule-changes for 2018 could prohibit events in the new five-star category running against a FEI championship. We must wait and see whether Sheikh Mohammed’s ego wants Euston 2018 to don the prestigious five-star mantle or if he’d prefer to retain the flexibility to kibosh other peoples’ rides.
Paying to play in show jumping and being paid to play in endurance have much in common. Both enterprises pivot around fabulously wealthy patron-riders who have no need to prove whether or not they are capable of producing a horse to any level themselves. They’ll give whatever megabucks are demanded for a ready-made horse that will stoically carry them round a five-star Grand Prix or the Olympics or a 160km ride, and buy another the moment they sour it off/break it.
But you need a very big base of producers to service this trade, and a wide range of competitions at which they can do the producing. For now the trade in superhorses is flourishing as never before; but if rider-producers start to hang up their boots because dreams of personal glory are crushed by dwindling opportunity, or organisers give up in the face of shameless sabotage, one day in the distant future there might just be no ready-made superhorses for the uber-rich to buy. Just sayin’.