Opinion

Last month’s European Championships were a missed opportunity for so many reasons, but the decision not to send a British team showed some serious flaws in judgement and revealed how badly our sport is being managed.

The performance manager’s job is to select the best team available — sending no team at all shouldn’t even be an option.

With our two best riders — Ben Maher and Scott Brash — out of the championship equation, for whatever reason, the Europeans should have been a chance for some different riders to go. Nigel Coupe, Keith Shore and Harriet Nuttall, to name just three, were all deemed good enough to be selected for the Nations Cups of Aachen and Dublin, but they were not on the list of nominated entries for the championships and therefore couldn’t compete in Gothenburg.

And herein lies the root of the problem — once again, performance manager Di Lampard simply didn’t seem to have a plan B.

Sending an appalling message

When I found out that we weren’t sending a team to the Europeans, I rang Di to say she should reconsider. Wearing my BBC commentator’s hat, I told her she would get a lot of grief in the media and from showjumping fans.

The BBC was all set to produce extensive coverage from Sweden based on there being British interest — and we should never underestimate the power mainstream TV has — but two weeks before the show, they receive the news there’s no British team. Ahead of next year’s World Championships are BBC producers now going to look at their busy schedules and tight budgets and say: “Well, Great Britain might not even send a team, so let’s not bother covering it”? Championship jumping lost from the schedules — does Di really want that to be her legacy? Unfortunately these implications had not been discussed.

It’s such a negative message to send to all the riders on the fringes, too. Every showjumper with team ambitions is being told: “Oh well, if Scott Brash and Ben Maher don’t go, let’s forget the whole thing.”

But we shouldn’t just be pointing the finger at Di in this sorry mess — British Showjumping’s chief executive Iain Graham and chairman Les Harris both endorsed her decision and need to have a long, hard look at the part they’ve played. Tim Stockdale’s resignation from the international committee over the matter speaks for itself and I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks sending no team was the right decision.

What pressure?

I also want to dispel British Equestrian Federation performance director Gordon Burton’s excuse that the lack of a team stemmed from not wanting to push younger, less experienced riders too hard, too fast. When you’re competing as part of a team of underdogs, everything is a bonus; you only feel pressure when you’re expected to win — this “pressure” excuse is garbage.

As is this nonsense about it being the first year in an Olympic cycle. Showjumping is a volatile sport and doesn’t work like that — these aren’t young sprinters who are going to peak at a certain age.

At the beginning of the London 2012 Olympic cycle, Big Star was six — can you honestly say that a six-year-old can be planned for the next Olympics? There are seven-year-olds around this year who might well go to Tokyo in 2020, but you’d have no idea who they are at this stage. And there are riders who will emerge in the next couple of years with new horses. You cannot say that you are planning for the Games now — you just have to plan for that year’s championship, pick the best team and go out to try to win.

Another excuse offered was that it wasn’t worth the money sending a team that wouldn’t do well, but how much did it cost to send countless British officials to Gothenburg? Those swanning around far outweighed the number of riders.

Where were these riders a month ago?

Just a month after these championships, we’re now heading to the Nations Cup final in Barcelona, where there just happens to be an awful lot of prize money, with what appears to be a very good team. The question has to be asked — what’s changed in this very short space of time?

Why are those riders who weren’t available a month ago suddenly representing their country at the highest level? Is it bad timing, do we blame Di, do we blame the riders, is it all about the money and ranking points — what is going on?

Scott’s Hello Forever wasn’t on the list of nominated entries, and yet a month later that horse is deemed good enough to compete in the Nations Cup final. Michael Whitaker and Ben Maher have new horses, while Guy Williams, who should have been nominated for the Europeans with Rouge De Ravel, is going, along with William Whitaker and his European ride Utamaro D’Eccaussines.

As previous columnists have mentioned on these pages, the youth side of the sport is healthy and the future looks rosy. But these young riders idolise the likes of Scott and Ben, so what message are they receiving when riders opt out of championships?

Is it time for a fresh start?

With the lack of results this year and the obvious lack of support from top owners and riders, in footballing terms Di has lost the dressing room.

Until recently, the Belgians were also in a terrible state, winning nothing, then they got Peter Weinberg on board, a very tough German who doesn’t take any nonsense, and look at what they’ve achieved this year.

And in Ireland, previous chef d’équipe Robert Splaine had lost control, the committee was in a mess, then they got in Rodrigo Pessoa to take the helm. The riders all came on board, taking strong leadership from someone they hugely respected; there was team unity, they saved their best horses for the championship and they won gold in Gothenburg.

Britain’s team no-show must never happen again. We need to take up every available space on the nominations list and we need to have plan A, B, C, D and E to make sure there is a team. Our top riders need to be on board with their best horses and everyone needs to make a plan of action at the start of the year. Enough of this flying by the seat of our pants.

In their hearts I believe our two leading riders do have the desire to jump on teams, as well as juggling top-level shows every week, but they do need to be brought back in the fold.

We also need to have a proper dialogue with some of our owners, so they no longer feel alienated. This requires someone with serious standing and really good communication skills — is Di the right person for the job? It’s a fair question to ask.

Ref Horse & Hound; 21 September 2017