Graham Fletcher: Why incompetence and shocking management saw our sport hit the buffers [H&H VIP]

  • People often ask me to compare our sport today with when I started competing.

    The most glaring difference is that showjumping was then run by impresarios and marketing men with a vision to entertain the public. 

    Sadly, we’ve never seen their like in Britain since.

    Forty years ago, showjumping was happening in major cities, with shows from Glasgow to London becoming important annual fixtures offering lucrative prize-money.

    Corporate sponsors — which importantly included many from outside the equestrian/country industry — saw their wide appeal and got involved. As the sponsorship flowed in and television turned its cameras on our sport, for two decades we riders enjoyed living every bit as well as the best pro golfers.

    Top competitions were put on at county shows, too. These were primarily agricultural events, but organisers quickly saw showjumping as a good draw to boost the crowds.

    Britain had the best shows and was the envy of the world. Now a mere handful are left bearing this legacy — Olympia, Horse of the Year Show [HOYS], Royal Windsor and Hickstead.

    Incompetence and shocking management saw a great sport hit the buffers. Most of that successful infrastructure disappeared and showjumping stopped believing in itself. So it was that a new era arrived.

    Equestrian centres sprung up, run by showjumping people for riders, and a fantastic job they’ve done too. Professionals produce their horses there, while amateurs enjoy the range of classes that have now become the lifeblood of British Showjumping [BS]. 

    I struggle to remember the last time a show was launched that put the “show” back into showjumping — so I applaud this year’s Bolesworth International [12-15 June].

    Having run it nationally for 6 years and found out what works and what doesn’t, the organisers have gone for a 3-star international with entertaining the public in mind. A new all-weather “Super Bowl” style arena on the lawns in front of the stunning Bolesworth Castle offers brilliant viewing.

    Where I think they’ve got it spot on is the ticket pricing at £20 for a family of four, with free grandstand seating and free parking. Last year’s Longines Global Champions Tour [LGCT] in London (pictured top) was a tremendously well-run show. But the admission was far too expensive at upwards of £50 for the best seats plus associated expenses; hence the poor crowds.

    Tickets for this year’s London leg of the LGCT range from £21 to £54, which makes Calgary look very reasonable with prices from $5 (£2.97) and under-12s free… And look at the size of crowds they get there.

    Bolesworth’s organisers appear to be aiming for a public-friendly show. With good weather on their side, I’m sure it will succeed. Good luck to them.

    I can only shake my head in exasperation at today’s politically correct world. Now the ever growing tentacles have totally stagnated, if not ruined, the art of sports punditry.

    When you switch on to a late night TV chat show, it’s unbelievable what they can get away with. And teenage movies have become violent to the point of insanity.

    And yet the sports pundit only has to say something a bit ballsy to end up in fear for his job. Unless he utters nothing but the bland and banal, the producer is inundated with letters of complaint from some of the puritanical fools out there.

    John Francome was one of the best on Channel 4 Racing. Respected for achieving his sport’s highest accolades, he shot from the hip and was funny. He’s been replaced by men I only listen to if I can’t get to sleep.

    A bird brain idea…

    I love the spring and when I look out at the garden it’s never been more colourful. But I’m still smarting about the heron that decimated my coy carp in the pond — fish I’d carefully nurtured, looked after and fed.

    Apparently the heron is a protected species. But to me it was an unwanted intruder. So if Oscar Pistorius is cleared of all charges at his trial and that bird returns — it needs to be afraid, very afraid…

    Graham’s column was first published in Horse & Hound (1 May, 2014)