Concerns over merit versus money as shows emerge from lockdown *H&H Plus*

  • The European Equestrian Federation has warned that showjumping’s “credibility” is at risk, while International Jumping Riders Club director Eleonora Ottaviani cautioned against “profiteering” from the pandemic as riders pay sums rumoured to be up to €50,000 to attend European shows. H&H finds out more...

    Early in lockdown, international showjumping organisers speculated that their sport would emerge from Covid-19 with new priorities.

    Long before the practicalities of social distancing were understood, Olympia and Royal Windsor supremo Simon Brooks-Ward hoped funding would swing back towards footfall from ordinary spectators.

    Christophe Ameeuw, promoter of the Longines Masters, felt that the “new normal” would rail against conspicuous consumption. Fans would no longer tolerate “trucks that could carry three houses” and the lavish “pop-up” garden party scenario – expensive hospitality tables occupying two or three sides of the arena.

    But a different picture has emerged in Europe, where FEI jumping resumed months ahead of the UK.

    With few shows yet able to admit grandstand-seated spectators, funding has relied wholly on subsidy by super-rich organisers, sponsors, rumoured “pay cards”, which are prohibited in FEI rules but impossible to police, and VIPs, with public spats between promoters over the inequalities arising.

    There are unconfirmed reports of €50,000 (£44,640) “pay cards”, the sum a low-ranked rider privately pays for an invitation.

    The European Equestrian Federation (EEF) said jumping’s “credibility” is at risk, while International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) director Eleonora Ottaviani warned against  “profiteering” from the pandemic.

    “Tennis does not allow anyone who feels like it to play with Federer just because they have paid,” she said.

    Former Olympic champion Eric Lamaze walked away from Lier in Belgium, after it ran 252 horses in a 1.45m class, a scenario also “unacceptable” to the IJRC.

    At the other extreme, insurance billionaire Sadri Fegaier has hosted the frequent “Hubside” four- and five-star shows near St Tropez since June, admitting mostly the same 50 riders.

    In a normal year, Stephex group founder Stephan Conter organises five-star CSIs at Brussels and Knokke in Belgium. He said: “What is happening now is actually really dangerous.

    “At three-star, riders from the top 100 now take up the invitations of those who used to go to these shows. Only a small group of riders is showing and getting the opportunity to earn points. We can’t say we have a level playing field under these circumstances.”

    The problem is unintentionally exacerbated by the FEI’s new online invitation process. This generates CSI invitations in ranking order. Organisers may still personally invite 20% of entrants.

    The system launched on 4 February and had barely bedded in before lockdown began. The FEI shelved it for lower-level shows and “froze” rankings points for riders grounded by travel restrictions, hoping they would retain their positions.

    But the latest rankings table suggests the minority currently able to compete has already made gains. Ms Ottaviani said there is no perfect solution.

    “Freezing the ranking completely is not an option,” she said. “Without ranking classes, prize-money will drop considerably. This will leave riders in a more pressurised situation financially.”

    Last month, EEF president Theo Ploegmakers urged adherence to the new system; if young riders feel excluded by “prevailing money-driven networks”, they will give up.

    “The interest of the sport must be at the core,” he said. “The invitation system will, to some extent, limit the freedom of individual participants for the sake of the entire community. Nevertheless, it is also a tool to enable the principle of ‘merit over money’.”

    In April, Mr Brooks-Ward told H&H: “If I ‘buy’ a jumping team, I am automatically ‘buying’ rankings points for my daughter/son/friend. An interesting discussion could be had over whether this is a Corinthian sport any more.”

    On future funding, he observed: “There will be belt-tightening across the globe and stresses on luxury and non-discretionary spending.

    “None of us have the answer yet, but quite a few might take this opportunity to drop out of the high-end game.

    “I would like to see shows with heritage continuing – Hamburg, Piazza di Siena, Rotterdam – and shows that have gone through good times and bad to come through this. There will be a clearing out, though it’s an entirely healthy thing to jump our horses less.”

    Five months on, that seems a pipe dream.

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