Mark Phillips: ‘The sport has to change’ [H&H VIP]

  • The start of a new season is here and already we have experienced sadness and are embroiled in controversy.

    Francisco Seabra, who was killed in a fall in Spain last month, was a decent rider, having competed at the World Equestrian Games. Portables tipping over — as reportedly happened here — is every designer and builder’s nightmare. It’s happened to me twice and I was lucky that no one was hurt.

    I write from central Texas, so could not be at Heathrow for the FEI meeting with the International Event Riders Association and course-designers to discuss the new rule giving riders an automatic 21 penalties for breaking a frangible fence.

    Riders are obviously worried that they could clip a rail with the back feet, break a device and lose big money or forfeit a medal. Many organisers and designers share their view.

    Our fence judges are volunteers, but even for experts it’s really difficult to tell if a pin has started to bend or a touch of tension has been lost from the reverse pin wire or rope.

    The only way to guarantee fair play is to change a device every time it is hit. Obviously this is impractical — it would be expensive and time-consuming as since time began horse have used their hindlegs on rails going into coffins, sunken roads, quarries and drop fences. It’s part of the balancing process even when the fence is ridden well.

    Such is the concern of organisers — who want a result on the Sunday night and not an impending visit to the Court of Arbitration for Sport — that at Kentucky, Luhmühlen and Burghley it’s been decided to replace frangible rails that might be broken by hindleg contact with old-fashioned logs or short-backed cabins. This is surely a retrograde step in trying to reduce the risk of serious injury.

    The trouble is, I think the new rule is a good one with fences out in the open. We have had too many serious accidents where riders have not respected straightforward jumps enough. I’m not sure that the rule can differentiate between the two, but hopefully by the time you read this a compromise will have been reached.

    Is this the future?

    Just over a month ago I was course-designer in an eventing showcase in Wellington, Florida. The organisers there could not get a date from the governing body, so decided to put up $50,000 (£33,000) of prize money and run unaffiliated. It’s a similar frustration many organisers have suffered in this country, although not a solution we’ve seen often.

    We ran an advanced dressage test, Richard Jeffery designed a 1.25–1.30m showjumping course and I did a 2,000m cross-country course with 20 jumping efforts at 535mpm, so a slower, shorter version of a regular CIC3*. Every part of every phase could be seen from the hospitality tent. The result was a huge success, enjoyed by spectators, sponsors and TV, as it was so easy to cover.

    What if this was the future of the Olympic sport? What if teams were seeded like a tennis tournament, with a top and bottom half of the draw? Sixteen teams could be whittled down to four for a final medal showdown.

    Countries could nominate teams of four, but in every round could only run three. Everyone would have to ride competitively to stay in the game. You could run a similar knockout contest and a second showjumping round for the individual medals.

    The whole thing could be done in an area the size of a couple of polo pitches and with portables you could have a different course every week. The possibilities are endless.

    There is no question that the sport has to change — nothing is forever, even if Badminton and Burghley survive in their existing form. Princess Haya has recently commissioned Charles Barnett, formerly the boss at Aintree and then Ascot racecourses, to look at new ideas for eventing and I hope he studies this one.

    Riders and owners in the US are also pushing for a new rule that if an organiser puts up a certain prize fund they can choose their date, in an effort to raise prize money and break old-fashioned protectionist policies. You know this one is not going to be universally popular!

    Ref: H&H 12 March, 2015