Mark Phillips: why eventing can’t offer £1million prize money [H&H VIP]

  • I have been lucky over the winter and spent a lot of time in the sunshine in Florida. With the storms that have ravaged the north of the United States, it’s not difficult to see why some 4,000 horses make the pilgrimage south every winter.

    I know it’s an old chestnut of mine, but to reduce cancellations British Eventing should pay more attention to soil type before sanctioning events at the beginning and end of the season. Still, spring seems to have arrived in the nick of time and events are running on near-perfect ground.

    Horse trials are chock-full with entries. Gatcombe and Belton are among those which have had to ballot.

    Lower costs

    I look forward to writing alongside Mark Todd this season. He knows the sport inside out and always has something interesting to say. When he comments about my courses, I always listen, as he is rarely wrong.

    I stayed out of the prize-money debate initially, but I would certainly like to be the first organiser to offer a £1million prize-pool (comment, 13 March). It’s a romantic idea, but the practicalities are another matter!

    The old statistic was that 10% of competitors win 90% of the prize-money. I’d put a lot of money on that being much the same today. When we doubled the first prize in the British Open a few years ago to £10,000, entries actually went down.

    I believe only a few look at the top prize and many more note the money in 8th, 9th and 10th. But the 1st prize is what catches the public eye.

    A lot of people compare our prize-money to showjumping, but it’s quite a different sport. A competition of 40-45 horses for the big money is 2-3hr entertainment on a Saturday night, under lights, with television and hundreds of hospitality tables, each costing several thousand pounds.

    In addition you only need 4 television cameras, as opposed to 14 at the big 3-day events, so the TV costs are a fraction.

    The maths is quite simple: when your costs are down and your income is up, you can give more prize-money.

    Entry fees fund prizes

    The other thing that everybody forgets is entry fees. There is a class with a total prize-pool of $500,000 (£300,373) at the end of the month in Wellington, Florida. But by the time you’ve entered for the warm-up class as well, paid the stabling, the office fee, the ambulance fee etc, it costs over $4,000 (£2,404) to be there.

    In Wellington mid-week, it costs $1,250 (£750) to enter 1 class for a prize-fund of $125,000 (£750,931) with more than 100 runners. Top riders will pay this here to aim for high returns.

    How many entries would we get for our £1m if it was £10,000 or even £5,000 to enter?

    The other reason these shows can put on the big money is that in America they run for 6, 8, 10 or — in Wellington — 12 weeks, so organisers can give sponsors exposure over a long period.

    Also, hopefully when organisers are running 2,500 horses in a weekend, they are making money and are better able to stage a showcase class. The same applies to the Global Champions Tour, where Jan Tops gives sponsors worldwide television coverage over a multitude of shows. It’s much more difficult to give value for big money over just 1 weekend.

    Don’t worry, though, I’m working on it! I am meeting some like-minded organisers this spring to see if we can’t club together to give our sponsors wider exposure, because we have to be able to give value for money to sponsors and patrons.

    A £30 start fee?

    British Eventing allows organisers to charge a start fee of up to £22 for novice, £27 for intermediate and £30 for advanced. While most organisers go for the more reasonable £10-15, some are charging at the top end. This seems like 1 turn of the screw too many for some riders and owners.

    On the other hand, maybe it would be better to have a lower entry fee and a higher start fee — that way competitors only pay the big money when they actually run. Either way, entering and starting is becoming very expensive. It’s small wonder those running unaffiliated are finding it a very palatable alternative.