Showjumping is now a global sport, with standards getting higher in all areas.
Earlier this year, I went to Hagen in Germany with our son Will, who was on the under-18s European team, and our stable jockey Alfie Bradstock who had been picked for the under-21 division.
The courses were really beefy — horses that not so long ago would have been considered young riders horses wouldn’t get the trip now.
This country now has the best crop of up and coming riders we’ve had for many years. But they require the horses to match their abilities.
As more and more shows take the easier financial option of downgrading their classes to 1.20m, often maximising at 1.30m, whether we have the infrastructure to produce the horses our younger riders need is a major concern.
Brash and Maher under pressure
Having lost a few points in counting Nations Cups this season, Britain now needs either one very good result or two decent results in the remining two at Hickstead and Dublin to stay in the super league.
And that matters because without access to top action, our riders could lack the depth of opportunities to remain competitive on the world stage.
Riders have to be very high in the FEI rankings to get into the Global Champions Tour (GCT) shows. Ben Maher and Scott Brash have got themselves into that position, and can maintain it — but anybody else needs good “super league” results to have a hope of qualifying for GCT.
While on paper, our Dublin team looks stronger than that going to Hickstead, there’s huge expectations of both. I wish them luck.
WEG will come round all too quickly after those shows — with a top five finish needed to qualify for the Rio Olympics, which is essential.
With Ben, Scott and Nick Skelton as our cornerstones, we’d not only be serious medal contenders but a near certainty to qualify. However, the absence of Big Star and Skelly not only piles the odds against us but emphasises the importance of keeping Ben’s and Scott’s horses sound and right.
As Rob Hoekstra’s squad gets thinner by the day, he faces the biggest challenge of his managerial career to deliver the goods.
Bias from the commentary box
There’s no doubt that the Germans have an inherent winning mentality when it comes to sport. But I couldn’t believe the German commentator on the last day of Hagen during the pony Nations Cup.
Throughout the show he’d done no more than announce the name of horse, rider and nationality. But when Alex Gill came into the ring, last to go and needing a clear round to win, the commentator said in heavily accented English: “Alex Gill who has to go clear. If he has one fence down or a time fault, the Germans win. So I repeat, Alex Gill has to go clear…”
Talk about putting pressure on… but Alex held his nerve, went clear and Britain won. If that hardworking German commentator is enjoying a well-deserved holiday, when he goes for breakfast at the hotel, I hope someone nicks his towel off his well-placed sun lounger!
Hickstead’s finest vintage
The ground at Hickstead has been consistently superb ever since it was renovated a couple of years ago. In fact, there’s no better going in the world — and as Geoff Billington and I were walking the course at the Derby meeting, we stopped to tell groundsman Edward Bunn as much.
I also asked Edward if a story I’d heard was true. Having frequently been a houseguest of Dougie’s, I knew that he always brought out the very best wine. He also took a great interest in it, and had laid down a great many special vintages over the years.
And, yes, Edward confirmed that the renovations to Hickstead’s ground had cost around £750,000 — and that when the family sold the contents of Dougie’s wine cellar, it came to almost exactly the same amount.
“So it’s fair to say that the wine cellar paid for the main arena,” I said, at which point Geoff dropped to his knees and began kissing the grass like a winning tennis player or goal-scoring footballer. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m just sucking the grass to see if there’s any wine left in it…”
This column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (31 July, 2014)