John Whitaker: Global Champions League is like Formula One for the equestrian world


  • John Whitaker shares his thoughts on the London International Horse Show’s new venue, his plans for 2022, and the logistics behind the Global Champions League

    LAST year turned out to be a good year for me, with a second-place finish in the London Global Champions Tour grand prix and third place in the London World Cup, both riding my now 14-year-old Unick Du Francport.

    The London International Horse Show proved a huge success, having moved from Olympia to ExCeL. Olympia’s magic can’t be reproduced, but the show worked well in its new home – logistically, it was much easier to get the horses in and out and being able to park the trucks on site makes a world of difference.

    We enjoyed plenty of space, including in the stables which were also much quieter for the horses – I think everyone agreed from the riders’ side
    of things that it all worked really well. Judging by the crowds, who produced a really good atmosphere throughout the week, I think they enjoyed it, too.

    A change of plan

    MY plans for the start of 2022 changed with the cancellation of a few big indoor shows such as the five-star at Basel, but as I’m qualified for what I think will be my 21st World Cup Final, which this year takes place in Leipzig, Germany, my aim is still to head there in April.

    It’s hard to believe it is 31 years since I won it for the second time with Milton, but with it having been cancelled for the past two years and much of the season once again depleted, we’re just grateful that it’s going ahead.

    But in the meantime, I’m writing this from Doha for the start of the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT). Having started off in 2006 with just six events, the LGCT has turned into a worldwide series with huge prize money.

    There are 17 legs and this year the final is in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia – one of the few places I’ve never competed before, although I did a demonstration show there once.

    Team tactics

    I’M also back on a Global Champions League (GCL) team this season – Valkenswaard United, led by Jan Tops, which I first joined a few years ago. I think it’s a really strong team with Marcus Ehning, Laura Kraut, Edwina Tops-Alexander, Maurice Tebbel and Gilles Thomas.

    The GCL was introduced in 2016 and it’s just like Formula One, in that a team’s sponsor or manager pays €2m (£1.6m) to set up a team of six riders, one of whom has to be under-25, so it offers a great opportunity for up-and-coming talent. Some riders pay a franchise to join the team and some riders get paid to compete. It may sound like a huge amount to invest, but with €38m in prize money during the season, thanks also to title sponsor Longines, there’s every opportunity to win your money back.

    The manager has the final say in deciding which rider goes to which shows during the season, but of course it is adaptable to a point and they will take into account a rider’s commitments to other competitions. But it will also come down to each rider’s form and even when you’re at a show, the manager determines who will be the final members of the team competing that weekend.

    Each of the 16 teams in the league differs slightly as to how the prize money is distributed. However, there is so much to play for.

    Part of the idea behind it is that the managers and sponsors are all fighting to have the best riders on their teams in order to lead the GCL championship or, ultimately, to win the Prague Playoffs in November. There’s even a mid-season substitution window – just like football – where you can swap out and buy in new riders.

    With tactics, pressure and plenty of money at stake, the GCL is something a bit different for the sport – and there’s a lot more to it than perhaps meets the eye. Hopefully it will be a great season.

    • This column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 10 March

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