Mary King discusses why the lack of high-profile events is now worrying
THE 2021 season has begun where the last one left off – with a no-frills system of “compete and go” and limited grooms and owners permitted. Who could have predicted, one year after the pandemic started, that we would still be subject to such restrictions?
I’ve managed to keep fit with a lot of tennis and I am starting to run in earnest – I am part of the GOSH (Great Ormond Street Hospital) team for the London Marathon on 3 October, which will be my first. I’m fundraising at justgiving.com/marykingmarathon and support is much appreciated. I’ve also been learning bridge online, which I have found unexpectedly fascinating.
I have low-key weekly outings with my young horses to look forward to; Tweseldown, the first, was a great start: the sun shone, the ground was excellent and both my babies, King Seamus and King Cyrus, were placed in BE100 sections.
Portman was slightly harder work – the lorry registered a temperature of -4°C as we approached the event. It really wasn’t eventing weather and all the officials did well to stick out an absolutely freezing day.
Snow at Weston Park and cold rain at Larkhill this last weekend didn’t deter from some great sport, but roll on summer!
The silver lining to another difficult season is that my local event, Bicton Arena, will finally host a much-deserved CCI4*-L, stepping in to replace Bramham. Organiser Helen West has been longing to do this and it’s well overdue.
It seems a shame Bicton can’t count as an Olympic qualifier, but then there has to be a question mark over Tokyo; thank goodness some farsighted people pushed the FEI for a European Championships, and how great to see it at a new venue, Avenches in Switzerland. I have never been there, but I remember Ginny Leng (now Elliot) winning there on a precocious Murphy Himself.
THE worry is not the lack of national and behind-closed-doors events, where many organisers are heroically managing to provide qualifying runs for all, but the lack of high-profile occasions for a second consecutive spring and the challenging decisions facing organisers of major internationals.
Badminton was always facing a race against time and the cautious roadmap out of national lockdown. Had it been able to run behind closed doors, it might still have been a vehicle to promote pure elite sport and elite riders and horses on television, with a sports press desperately in need of stories.
However, unlike racing, which has been able to showcase fantastic sport at Cheltenham and Aintree, we are now in a situation where the last big horse trials in this country was 18 months ago, at Burghley in 2019. Pippa Funnell’s comeback win there was as good a sporting story as any, but the memory is in danger of fading from the public psyche.
Equestrianism is a sport in which Britain wins medals, but there hasn’t been any opportunity for that either and a perfect storm of Brexit costs, equine herpes and the slower rolling-out of the coronavirus vaccine in Europe isn’t helping riders to prepare for this year’s championships.
The cancellation of so many county shows – the Royal Cornwall recently raised the white flag on its September date – shows the difficult decisions facing any organiser of a major event, whether it be it a music festival or a horse trials.
The infrastructure required – seating, tentage, contractors and so on – plus sponsorship is a huge commitment and, without a guaranteed audience, some events aren’t viable. A lot will depend on the success of the test-and-trace procedures put in place at next weekend’s World Snooker Championship and at the FA Cup final next month.
I believe things can and will recover in 2022; eventing, which can call on so many dedicated people, is too good a sport and too much a part of British country life not to. However, everyone will need to pull together and make compromises.
This exclusive column is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (15 April, 2021)
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