Securing Olympic equine talent: what Britain could learn from the Dutch *H&H VIP*

  • With quadruple world and European golds in their pockets, the Dutch showjumpers look almost impossible to beat in Rio next year.

    Team strategy is a big part of the country’s success. But many Dutch riders have one less pressure than their rivals — comfort that their top strings won’t disappear from under them in the scramble to buy and sell Rio horses before the FEI’s 31 December deadline.

    Horse syndication, variously profit-driven and altruistic, is growing fast in equestrianism, though the Dutch approach is unique.

    Horses suffixed SFN are owned by the Springpaarden Fonds Nederland (Showjumping Fund of the Netherlands), aimed primarily at saving them for championship teams.

    On top of that, existing owners of 17 further potential team horses — including four in eventing, until recently the Netherlands’ weakest discipline — are under contract not to sell until after Rio, through the Dutch Olympic Foundation (NOP).

    SFN successes

    SFN horses have competed at six of the past seven major medal events. SFN currently owns nine horses — including Zenith, Jeroen Dubbeldam’s winning ride at the 2014 World Equestrian Games and last month’s European Championships.

    The scheme — which is only for showjumpers — was conceived by veteran Dutch photo-journalist Jacob Melissen. Matters came to a head in 2005 when the Netherlands accrued a dismal 45 faults in the La Baule Nations Cup — won by the US, all riding Dutch-breds. On his 10-hour drive home, Mr Melissen resolved to contact the major dealers.

    “I told them, ‘You’re all really rich, thanks to equestrian sport’,” he said. “‘It’s payback time’.”

    SFN talent-spots horses and then buys them at a preferential rate, often for new riders. Horses competing at four- and five-star cannot be sold abroad between the ages of eight and 12. The original seller retains 25% and shares prize-money and eventual sales profits but, significantly, relinquishes influence over the horse’s management.

    The NOP is more recent.

    “After London 2012, rather than before it, we started to have bad feelings about our existing medallists being sold.

    “We saw what happened with Totilas [who experienced limited success after switching from Edward Gal to Germany’s Matthias Rath after being sold],” said Maarten van der Heijden, the Dutch federation’s sport director.

    He obtained funding of €1.2m (£880,000) from Rabobank and the national Olympic committee to subsidise the contracted owners’ expenses, including horse insurance, over the four-year period leading up to Rio. Jumpers involved include the London 2012 silver medallists Glock’s London (Gerco Schröder), VDL Zirocco Blue (Jur Vrieling) and VDL Groep Verdi TN (Maikel van der Vleuten.)

    Could the idea work in Britain?

    A similar format was developed in 2001 by Desi Dillingham and Simon Hardwick, respectively chair and founder member of British Dressage.

    Mr Hardwick, now head of real estate legal for PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the concept offered tax advantages through the equivalent of the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), but it failed to take off.

    “Stoneleigh had other priorities, and indications from major owners, back then, were that they did not wish to lose personal control of their investments,” he said.

    “This managed approach to horse-and-rider pairings could still be part of the ownership mix. Attractive tax breaks remain available, though they are not a magic wand.”

    One such EIS scheme is currently being offered by Lillybrook Showjumpers for European showjumping team debutante Jessica Mendoza, suggesting possible tax relief of 30%. However, investors are reminded that horse values can go down as well as up.

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    The United States equestrian team owned horses decades ago; but this practice ceased after a lawsuit.

    Having won no dressage medals except at the Pan-Am Games since 2006, the US federation recently set up an owners’ task force and this May a new medal-orientated syndicate acquired the Sandro Hit eight-year-old Sandronnerhall from Spain for Adrienne Lyle.

    Shareholders include Steffen Peters’ long-term backer Akiko Yamazaki, who said: “I realised that it was imperative to support other potential members for Team USA to step back on the podium.”

    A downside of “managed” ownership is the potential for rider upsets; high-worth individuals don’t usually mind making harsh decisions. Ten months before London 2012, SFN removed star ride Utascha from an angry Eric van der Vleuten and sent her to Jeroen, who rode her until December 2013 when she was sold to Qatar, having turned 13. She died in July this year, after breaking a leg.

    Mr Melissen said: “For us it’s quite simple. You come to the conclusion that the combination is no longer working and so you need to make changes.”

    Ref: H&H 1/10/15