With the same humour that made his fortune as a BBC commentator, Mike Tucker jokes that his appointment as chairman of British Eventing is more a matter of condolences than congratulations. But he is clearly excited when he talks about the future of the sport in Britain and his plans for British Eventing.
Obviously, Leslie Law’s Olympic gold and the team’s silver are good enough reason for his enthusiasm, but what Tucker really seems to relish are the challenges to come. “As much as anything out sport is changing,” he says, citing the FEI’s decision to stick to the short format in international event as one of the developments to watch out for.
Although he doesn’t think the short format will be a disadvantage for British riders — “we proved that at the Olympics,” he says, with barely a hint of smugness in his voice — he thinks BE has a duty to ensure that British riders have a chance to practise it at home.
“A lot of the skills required in the format with steeplechase, such as having a very fit and athletic horse, will be needed in the short format. It is not a big change, but we need to make sure our riders from the juniors on are well practised,” he says. “We’ll be bringing [the short format] in and look at developing it into the sport. We need to bring both formats into [eventing] at top level but also at the low end.”
Tucker is also very positive about the proposal to have jumping judges assist the Ground Jury, which the FEI Eventing Committee put forward to the Board for 2005. “I think the FEI made a big mistake not having jumping judges at the Olympic Games,” he says. “Obviously, [the Olympic judging debacle] didn’t help the sport and how it’s viewed. It’s never nice to have the results changed in this way. Having an extra jumping judge there would have helped.”
However, he is more critical of the FEI plans to introduce new protocols to regulate communications between riders and officials at international events, which were introduced after the FEI Eventing Committee felt that communications between riders and officials broke down at this year’s Burghley.
“Burghley was a very dramatic time for everybody and people understandably got passionate about it,” Tucker says. “I think [the new protocols] will help. The number of times the [communications] system broke down are very few and this will ensure they are even fewer. But I have a feeling that power has swung a little bit too much to riders.”
The problem, he thinks, is that “often riders see through the eyes of a particular horse they are riding, and here may be a slight difficulty in what has been done [by the FEI]. At this stage, I just have certain reservations.”
He also believes the new system is rather hard on the officials. “There are officials who have been in the sport a long time. Some [of them] will feel a bit disappointed that the ultimate power has been taken away from them. I feel this is a bit of a sledgehammer.”
Although he too was very hardly hit by the tragedy at this year’s Burghley, Tucker believes that people need to be aware that eventing is a risky sport. “Obviously, we need to eliminate mistakes that create unnecessary danger. A huge amount has been done to make the sport safer and every way for safety to improve without ruining the spirit [of eventing] will be looked at,” he says. “[But] when we have the sport we have, we are never going to do away with serious accidents. It’s like driving a car — it’s the same with event riding. We will do all we can but can never make it 100% safe.”
Together with continuing to ensure the highest possible levels of safety, nurturing membership is another priority for BE in 2005 and Tucker thinks that there are “more potential members out there,” especially at the low end of the competition scale. “There is a lot of room for improving that area, such as, for example, looking at types of competitions.”
Looking at the way the association communicates to both existing members and aspiring ones is another issue Tucker feels passionately about. Ever the great communicator, Tucker pledged to improve BE’s communications strategy on the very day he was elected chairman.
“I think, like any company, communications is one area which is underplayed. We got a message from our membership that we can improve,” he says. “So it’s the one area I want to concentrate on because, at the end of the day, we are a service company to members.”
As a starting point, Tucker plans to build on the role of BE’s five Regional Directors, who will become the first point of contact for show organisers. “Help will originally come from the regional directors on a wide variety of roles, such as the viability of an event or sponsorships,” he says.
The membership at large can expect to see a bigger and better BE website at some point in 2005. “Our website is another area we know we can improve,” says Tucker. “It was good at the time but we will work on it in the new year, as it is now rather dated.”
British Eventing will also continue to assist in breeding research. “Sadly the opposition developed a lot more than we have in Britain,” says Tucker, “but eventing has a lot of trump cards. We have a lot of raw material and we need to put the database in place. I think as much as anything we have lacked a system, whereas other countries are much better at it. But I think we are closing the gap – we just have to work at it.”
And of course breeding “can help the rural economy. The countryside needs a bit of support.” With this, the question of the hunting ban inevitably comes to the fore. Although he thinks “hunting is far from gone,” Tucker wants BE to be “ready to welcome more people. We, as a sport, have certain aspects which are akin to the hunting world and need to be ready to take on any fall out from the hunting situation.”
Selling the joys of eventing to the hunting community may seem a task too far for the man who already has enough on his plate to stretch him for the next century and beyond, but he says: “It might be a possible challenge for next year.”