Making The U.S. Team: The Lone Ranger Versus The Conglomerates

Sep 13, 2010 - 5:40 AM

Our columnist addresses the new business realities of 21st century eventing and whether they are “fair.”

The myth of the Lone Ranger loping down out of the hills to save the day is appealing, romantic and quintessentially American. It’s an easy stretch to transform that version of the myth into the equally compelling “young girl and her horse ride to the rescue of the U.S. Equestrian Team,” with shades of Mary Anne Tauskey on Marcus Aurelius, Dorothy (Trapp) Crowell on Molokai, Kerry Millikin on Out And About, and, more recently, Gina Miles and McKinlaigh.

This scenario is much more satisfying than watching a battle of equestrian business conglomerates, each rider wielding a budget instead of a lance, but the day of the lone rider appears to be on the wane. The new reality might be called something like “Equestrian Franchises,” and just as the New York Yankees baseball team has been called the most successful franchise in sports history, so some of the bigger three-day event franchises are redefining what it means to be on top in 2010.

“Franchise” may not be quite the right word, since the various eventing “teams” aren’t linked enterprises, the way McDonalds or Pizza Hut are part of the same chain. Still, “Team O’Connor,” “Team Dutton,” “Team Buck Davidson,” “Team Martin,” “Team Coleman” and so forth, just like the New York Yankees, all bring a range of economic firepower and horsepower to the competitive arena that the one-horse rider finds daunting.

How Did It Happen?

Back in the ’70s when I rode for the USET three-day team, most riders felt fortunate if they had access to one advanced horse. In 1976, most of us considered it a “big deal” that Mike Plumb actually had two to choose between: Good Mixture and the young Better And Better. At this time the USET still owned various horses, which the coach could dole out to selected riders—Tad Coffin and Bally Cor and Mike Plumb and Blue Stone being two gold-medal examples.

But with the shutting down of the South Hamilton, Mass., USET headquarters, and the retirement of coach Jack Le Goff in the mid-’80s, this source of funding, both of horses and of money, dried up. It became increasingly clear to riders like Bruce Davidson and David and Karen O’Connor that if nobody else was going to create a support network to prevent the elite riders from getting cast into the role of “one-horse wonders,” then the elite riders had better start creating their own sources of support.

As a few top riders began to show the way, others, like Phillip Dutton, followed until this equestrian business model became the norm. The term “owner,” which I almost never heard used in the ’60s and ’70s, has now become a mainstay of the aspiring event rider’s lexicon and is a close analogy to the famous business adage about using OPM (Other People’s Money).

Is It Fair?

As I listen to various groups of eventers and their supporters talk about the way some of today’s riders have created equestrian empires, the word most repeatedly used is the word “fair.” As in, “It’s not fair that so and so had eight horses at Southern Pines and I had just one.” Or, “It’s not fair that so and so has 15 horses to practice jumping on. If I could do that much jumping, I’d be much better too.”

What’s unfair? What law prevents any single American rider from having the drive, desire, business acumen, charming personality—whatever it takes—to persuade various others to support him or her in the quest for top-level success?

The problem isn’t “fair” versus “unfair.” The problem is that conglomerate building is enormously hard work. Sheer riding talent isn’t enough. If you happen to be the fastest runner in the 100-yard dash, and you can prove it by beating everybody else in the various selection trials, you’re going to be selected for the U.S. Track Team. How much, after all, does it cost to buy a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers?

But just as a great America’s Cup skipper commanding a leaky rowboat is going to be left at the dock, so the most skillful rider in America will be relegated to a couch in front of the TV, watching others in action from the living room, if an equally omnipotent horse isn’t hanging its head over the rider’s stable door.

I think this is the crux of the dilemma for the “one-horse wonder,” that the moment the one great horse is gone, that rider’s hour in the sun is also at an end.

Some years ago Jim Wolf of the USET phrased it in these words, “You have to persuade other people to support your dream.”

The Practice Dilemma

It’s almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of practice as a means to improving performance. Just about every sports book and article I’ve ever read tells the same story. The greatest athletes work the hardest and practice the most. Ted Williams, at the height of his powers, still took more batting practice than the lowliest rookie. Larry Bird shot more baskets, and Vince Lombardi ran more football drills. The story never varies, whatever the sport.

Here is where the big “teams” have such an edge over the one- and two-horse stables. How do you practice riding without a horse? How can you jump the thousands of fences you need to jump to sharpen your eye, enhance your feel and build your confidence, when your one horse can’t take the pounding? How can you become cool under competitive pressure if you rarely have the chance to compete? You need many horses. Actually, to amplify that thought, you need more than just many horses, you need many good horses, and at least one of these needs to be a great horse. Fair or unfair, hard to accept or not, that is the reality.

Just as the success of the mighty New York Yankees raised the bar in professional baseball, so the big stables have forced everyone else to ride better. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz summed it up concisely: “If I don’t practice for one day, I know. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows.”

It’s almost inconceivable for a rider with one or two horses to imagine the scope of the budget that is required to keep a large string of elite horses on the competitive trail. The purchase price of the horses, which in itself can be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, is just the start. There’s usually a farm in the north and a farm in the south. There are trucks and trailers—often tractor trailers—mountains of equipment and myriad employees to assist with all the logistics and work. There are trips across the oceans and across the American continent, hotel lodging, entry fees, stabling fees—again, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars spent each year by the larger stables in support of their chosen riders.

In the last couple of years since the Olympics, leading up to this year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, we’ve watched the various riders try to position themselves to be selected for the U.S. team. Certainly, included in this mix, are a few single horse stables, riders with one bright shining star of a horse, and it’s absolutely conceivable that when a national anthem rings out in the Kentucky Horse Park later this fall, it could be the “Star-Spangled Banner” being played in honor of one of them.

However, international horse sports, like international horse racing, seem increasingly to be a struggle among conglomerates. This tendency toward “bigger is better” is the chief paradigm shift I’ve noticed over the past quarter of a century, and it’s a tough reality to face for those who either can’t or won’t create their own significant networks of support.

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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