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Graham Fletcher: ‘Is now the time to introduce six-star shows?’

*Opinion*

  • The former international showjumper, now a highly-respected trainer as well as a breeder and producer of young horses, shares his thoughts on rebranding and why venues are switching back to grass

    It’s amazing how much prize money has come into our sport in recent times. This year, there are six shows with grands prix worth €1m (around £665,000) or more. However, unless you’re in the know, the wider public has no way of appreciating this, which is why I believe the FEI should rebrand them six-star shows. Then people would realise that they really are watching the best of the best.

    These top shows deserve it and a six-star label would give them a bit of attention-grabbing glamour. Importantly, it would also be something for the mainstream media to pick up on and publicise.

    A forward thinker

    There’s been much interest in and debate about the improvement in some horses after leaving them unshod, especially after the success of Henrik von Eckermann and his world champion King Edward.

    It’s more than 50 years since I had a spell training with his fellow Swede Lars Sederholm at his well-known yard Waterstock in Oxfordshire. Lars is a remarkable and thoughtful man who, in many ways, was well ahead of his time.

    All those years ago, most of the ridden horses at Waterstock were unshod. And Lars very diligently explained the benefits to me. It all makes sense now… although at the time I thought, rather disrespectfully, that he was just being tight with money!

    The man, the legend

    The Rome Nations Cup has always been considered one of the biggest of the year, and so it proved last weekend. Of only three double clears, one was from the best of the Brits, John Whitaker. Now the old maestro doesn’t need any more accolades from me. So all I will say is: “It was a pleasure to watch you, pal.”

    Fantastic footing

    Fashions and ideas change all the time. And although all-weather arenas have been a game-changer for centre shows, when it comes to television productions or live streams from the major shows, artificial surfaces invariably look drab compared with grass.

    Indeed, it’s very telling to note how many of the big international venues are changing back to grass. Rome is probably the best example. In the most beautiful setting of the Piazza di Siena with its sprinkling of cedar trees, Rome’s famous arena has once again become a visual splendour, a real joy to see, since it reverted to grass from all-weather.

    Add to that a packed-out, patriotic crowd, artistically-made fences all in different colours and a course impeccably designed by Italy’s Uliano Vezzani, and it really was showjumping at its best.

    The making of these grass arenas nowadays involves a remarkable feat of engineering. With state-of-the-art drainage systems and an underlayer of sand, they provide consistently good ground regardless of the weather conditions.

    My son Olli was competing in Samorin, Slovakia, a couple of weeks ago. It’s a very impressive showground with both types of arenas. However, when we heard that the ranking classes were to be run on grass when it hadn’t rained for weeks and the sun was shining, I feared the ground would be firm. But no, it was perfect; you couldn’t hear the horses landing.

    Olli won the grand prix with Garande, so we decided to give her a rest the following week and jump the comparative novice BP Pocahontas in the second grand prix – only for it to rain for 24 hours. Now, the one thing you don’t want when asking a horse to jump bigger than he has before is soft or unsure footing. However, despite the deluge, the footing remained perfect. These arenas are truly remarkable.

    ● Do you agree that rebranding top shows as six-star would help to boost mainstream interest in equestrian sport? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and county, for the chance to have your views published in a future edition of Horse & Hound magazine

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 8 June, 2023

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