Mark Phillips: An undercurrent of concern *H&H VIP*

  • Opinion

    This has been a great year on eventing’s “field of play”, with Andrew Nicholson’s historic win at Badminton with Nereo, Oliver Townend taking Burghley on the young Ballaghmor Class and an amazing Europeans win for the Brits, knocking Germany off their perch for the first time since 2009.

    Behind the scenes, though, there is a major undercurrent of concern over where the FEI is taking the sport. I struggle to find one voice outside the FEI who thinks the three-in-a-team, three to-count Olympics is a good idea, but the FEI just doesn’t want to listen to anything beyond its agenda.

    The Olympic format will have unprecedented effects on team selection and funding. With three in a team, meeting your performance markers is much chancier — an overreach could jeopardise your funding.

    In nearly every selection I’ve been involved with over the past 30 years, we’ve included a star who was a little soundness gamble. I don’t see how you could take that risk in the future, so some big names could be left out. I’m sure that’s not what the International Olympic Committee and FEI want, but it’s an unintended consequence.

    WEG worries

    Closer to home, I’m designing the cross-country course at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon, North Carolina, next September.

    A concern is that riders must go at 126m per jumping effort under the new championship rules, as opposed to 145m at the current four-stars. Less space between fences to make up time increases the temptation to ride faster at the obstacles. When this is combined with smaller fences, which command less respect, the chances of a disaster multiply.

    But I’m a fan of the proposed five-star system. We’ve needed the new 1.05m level (future one-star) for years, as the natural progression to the 1.10m (current one-star, future two-star).

    I’m truly saddened, though, that Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky — the foundation of the sport for so long — are being cast aside, outside the star system. It would have made sense for the Olympics, Worlds, Nations Cup finals and so on to have been labelled “special events” and for the existing four-stars to have been branded as five-star, instead of vice versa.

    The Bartle effect

    Morale in the British camp must be sky high. It seems everything Chris Bartle touches turns to gold — and his partnership with Dickie Waygood is producing superb results. Luck always plays a part, but the signs are that the work he is doing with the development programme for the next generation will also bear fruit soon.

    Let’s just hope he can keep the train rolling through WEG and on to Tokyo, which will be 48 years after Britain’s last Olympic team gold.

    The Event Rider Masters (ERM) was in full flow this season and plans are in place to fly 15 horses and riders from Europe to the Carolina Horse Park for the inaugural ERM in America next March. ERM’s innovations are much needed and we will know in November whether they have been able to generate enough sponsorship to keep the series alive in 2018.

    It’s difficult not to be excited about the future. I just wish the FEI was aligned with the rest of the eventing world. Sadly, all the new rules will be set in stone by the time either Alec Lochore or David O’Connor take over as chair of the FEI eventing committee later this year.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 19 October 2017