Former international showjumper Graham Fletcher, who is now a highly-respected trainer, as well as a breeder and young horse producer, analyses Harvey Smith’s recent assessment of the sport
Nobody before or since has done more for the popularity of showjumping than Harvey Smith. More than anyone, he made it a non-elitist sport enjoyed by millions. Harvey recently spoke out (H&H magazine, 29 December 2023) about how the sport in this country has gone downhill.
I well remember travelling and being on international teams with Harvey, and the period he’s talking about. So, since I’m still involved at the top level through my lads Will and Olli, do I think he’s right and what’s the difference between then and now?
For sure, the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s were the golden era of showjumping. It’s probably hard for our younger riders to imagine, but when Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) was at Wembley, it was televised on BBC1 six evenings a week.
Mass-market coverage brought in big corporations’ sponsorship – so much so that not only did Britain lead the world in lucrative prize money, but major cities were keen to host shows. It wasn’t unusual for riders to win a car. These rich spoils made it difficult for selectors to convince our top riders to compete abroad. They could win more at home…
Today, our national championship illustrates quite how far our national circuit has fallen.
I was lucky enough to win it a couple of times when it was a sought-after title, televised and contested by the best. Now, no leading names come forward because it’s held at a non-prestigious venue at Stoneleigh and the prize money is so poor, especially compared with other European countries. The prize fund for Belgium’s national championship, for example, is €75,000 (around £64,000).
In his H&H piece, Harvey singled out the Great Yorkshire as “still a great competition.” When I was invited to join that show’s organising committee, fortunately I found them keen to get the jumping back to its former glory. We trebled the Cock O’ The North prize money and transformed the collecting ring into an all-weather arena from which all competitors really benefit.
I’m sure other county shows would be keen to follow if they had the right person to help. If riders need to make a living, only the Yorkshire and Royal Highland offer that chance.
Hats off to centres hosting two-star shows
A recent positive is centres putting on two-star international shows. I take my hat off to them. These shows are expensive to run with venues reliant on entry fees, rather than gate money like county shows. Let’s hope these two-stars are as well supported this year as last.
Recent internationals, from the elegance of Paris and Geneva to the razzmatazz of Prague, show that our sport has mushroomed, as has the international prize money.
The BBC’s top-class coverage from a sold-out London International did showjumping proud. With great rider interviews and a fantastic World Cup win by the great Ben Maher riding better than ever, it proved our sport is still popular with British audiences.
A generous mentor
Another big improvement nowadays is how top riders support the younger ones. I remember being a successful young rider when the older pros were more hurtful than helpful.
My son Olli has spent time at Steve Guerdat’s in Switzerland. One of my all-time top-five riders, Steve remains a generous mentor to him – and I think that for a top rider to do that is really something.
So, was Harvey right? Nationally, he definitely was, and having won gold medals at the past three Olympics, we’ll never get a better chance to put things right at home. Internationally, with the likes of Aachen, Geneva and Calgary grands prix running for millions of pounds, I can’t help but think that if Harvey was riding now, he’d think that’s not bad… In fact, not bad at all.
● Do you agree with Graham’s views on the sport? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name, nearest town and country, for the chance for your letter to appear in a forthcoming issue of the magazine
- This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 25 January
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