So much always seems to change from one year to the next, yet on reflection so much stays the same. And the most distressing changes that mark any year are the loss of special individuals. In the hunter/jumper world, 2002 saw three icons of our sport pass from our lives, but not from our hearts.
In January, we lost Bert de Nemethy, the man who shaped so much of our sport in so many ways, a man who stood for good horsemanship. And in July, we were shocked by the sudden illness and death of Victor Hugo-Vidal.
Victor was a mentor or special friend to so many, in virtually every area of our country. His unflagging enthusiasm for the sport, and especially the young people coming into it, will live on as an inspiration to so many of us. I will always miss his smile and that wonderful, deep voice greeting us at a show’and I regret that future riders will not experience the special attention that Victor the judge would accord each and every child in an equitation class.
Another immeasurable loss to our community came in December with the death of Robert “Doc” Rost. A pillar of the sport for so many years, we all have Doc to thank for so much that we take for granted today. Dr. Rost was someone who was never afraid to press ahead for the sport that was his life. It was through his efforts that electric timers replaced the stopwatch, and that jump equipment took huge steps forward from the days of poles resting on wooden dowels. Doc had been a member of the USAEq Jumper Committee for a long time, and he continued to contribute to every meeting, despite worsening health problems in the last year or two. His sometimes gruff demeanor was always belied by his innate kindness and keen sense of humor’we will all miss him terribly.
Each year also witnesses the passing of some icons of the equine variety. For The Moment, the American Thoroughbred owned and ridden throughout his long career by Lisa Jacquin, died in November. The only American show jumper to compete in two Olympic Games in recent memory, “Fred” was truly special. Lisa recognized his abilities, and coped with his foibles, remaining at the pinnacle of the sport for more than a decade. I wonder when we will next see this kind of partnership emerge and endure in the jumping arena?
While losses can mark a given year, the emergence of a new star does the same. With 2002 being a World Equestrian Games year, Peter Wylde and the Holsteiner mare Fein Cera (p. 61 and 63) became the first American pair since Greg Best and Gem Twist (Stockholm, 1990) to advance to the “final four” of jumping’s World Cham- pionships. Peter’s horsemanship and skillful riding earned him the bronze medal and his partner the title of best horse.
As unpredictable as this discipline can be, it is truly a credit to Peter’s ability to plan and execute that both his campaigns’first to qualify for the U.S. team and then to compete in the WEG itself’were so successful.
Both Gem Twist and Fein Cera completed the grueling nine rounds of jumping in spectacular fashion to earn their titles. It’s no small feat to take on nearly 100 of the finest jumpers in the world and emerge with the best horse award. I consider it a tribute to American horsemanship as well as to the horses, their riders, and coaches that we’ve accomplished this twice in the last four WEGs.
Gem Twist epitomized the American system at its best. Gem, an American Thorough-bred, was bred by renowned horseman Frank Chapot, an Olympic medalist and final-four participant in the 1974 World Championships. Frank trained Greg and Gem together, bringing them through the ranks to first win medals at both the U.S. Olympic Festival and the North American Young Riders Championships, before going all the way to an individual silver medal at the 1988 Olympics and a final-four finish at the WEG.
Fein Cera, on the other hand, was bred and began her jumping career in Germany. She came here to compete at grand prix with Alison Firestone, even being one of her mounts in the trials for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Shortly afterward, Peter gained the ride on the leggy brown mare and quickly achieved a special rapport with her.
I made the details of his quest for a medal the topic of a column following the WEG (Oct. 18, p. 62), and you can read more in Molly Sorge’s profile of him in this issue. And what should be distressing to us as show managers, course designers or trainers is that Peter felt’rightly so, it seems’that it was imperative to be based in Europe to best prepare to take on the world at this level of competition.
Why is it that immersion in the highly competitive European environment is superior to competing here when preparing for a major event? What if our top competitors of the future feel it’s actually imperative to move to Europe? That will certainly have a serious impact on the level of our domestic competition. We could easily embark on a vicious circle.
Our riders and horses are every bit the equal of their European counterparts. The weekly report detailing the results of Americans competing abroad (now available via e-mail courtesy of USA Equestrian) demonstrates that a broad spectrum of our riders more than hold their own in the toughest of competition. Yet the riders competing here not only don’t have the very real benefit of knocking heads against the Europeans week in and week out, but they also don’t even have the opportunity to compete under the conditions found at every major international event.
Yes, we have excellent shows with lots of competitors and some of the best prize money in the world. But the American system is very different. Here, success tends to be as much a matter of quantity as of quality.
The sheer number of grand prix “starts” by riders creates a different form of competition. A talented rider with two or three (or more) horses starting in a class has a definite “edge.” It’s like playing several hands at a time in a game of cards. No wonder our riders put a premium on how many horses they have to ride.
In contrast, top-level competition in Europe is re-stricted to one horse per rider, so a single error erases any chance for a good prize. This, together with more frequent competitions in which it takes more than a single round plus a jump-off to decide the winner, puts the emphasis on consistency and the ability to ride under pressure.
Remaining on top still requires depth in horseflesh, though. In Europe the emphasis is on the “right horse for the right competition,” so typically each rider will have horses at several different stages of development. Their system also presents far less temptation to overface a younger horse or to compete on a horse in need of a break.
Results Mean Invitations
But there’s another important difference: While our shows typically offer nearly all the prize money in one (or perhaps two) “grand prix” classes per show, European events offer money at a variety of different levels of difficulty. And, without exception, the prize money increases with the difficulty of the course’and the difficulty of “qualifying.”
European riders are used to the concept of working their way up the ladder’typically only a handful of the very best qualify for more than a handful of the larger events. Only by virtue of the results they achieve is it possible to get invitations, first from their own federation to ride on a team at the smaller international events, and then via personal invitations to more and more prestigious events. For the most part, sought-after invitations to the most lucrative competitions have always been based on the rider’s record and thus their ability to draw spectators and please demanding sponsors’the entities that provide that all-important prize money.
The business model for major European jumping events is competition between the “best of the best,” just like our own major league sports. Only a tiny percentage of athletes in any sport have the talent, perseverance, managerial abilities, and luck to ever reach’much less remain for years at’the elite levels. The vast majority compete only on a recreational level, with no expectation of earning money. A myriad of jumping competitions take place all over Europe that don’t offer much more than token prize money but are enjoyed by young, and not-so-young, amateur riders. At the same time, these events serve as the training ground for the superstars of the future.
Our own competition model has evolved rather differently. Nearly 100 percent of prize money is subsidized by the various fees paid by the participants themselves. The money paid out in most all $25,000-and-up classes comes from the entry fees for the class itself, supplemented by all the fees being paid by the hundreds of other horses that attend the show in the company of the riders and trainers that follow the grand prix circuit. The successful events generate an excess of fees over prize money and other expenses, instead of drawing spectators and sponsorship to decrease the exhibitors’ costs. With this system, any restriction on entries is undesirable.
Our sport is in a Catch-22 situation. Even as our shows continue to grow in size, costs of competing continue to escalate. Yet a typical U.S. horse show, or even a grand prix class, holds little appeal to the average spectator. Without attracting the kind of broad audience that provides the return on investment sponsors seek, we aren’t likely to ever see any part of our sport supported by anyone but ourselves.
Lots of people talk about better marketing for show jumping, but the real secret of successful marketing is first creating a product that your market wants. In the world of sport, it’s impossible to “sell” anything but the highest level of competition, presented to appeal to the spectator.
Given the steady demand for opportunities to show, it’s no surprise that managers find it far easier to maintain their profit margin by attracting more entrants and charging higher fees. It’s also no wonder that every participant is eager to see an occas- ional opportunity to offset the ever-increasing costs.
So a new “innovation” has appeared’classes with big purses over the smallest jumps in the form of children’s/adult grand prix events. Special sections for these riders haven’t been around all that long, but the relatively short learning curve and sheer number of animals capable of negotiating 3’6″ jumps made them very popular almost immediately. Prize money in the $25,000 range adds a whole new dimension.
Time will tell, but I fear a number of unintended consequences will result. Managers are less likely to simply add additional prize money; they’ll just reallocate it from the grand prix and/or the junior and amateur-owner classics.
With no clear-cut definition between children/adult amateurs and junior/amateur-owners, a strong incentive will be created for riders to remain in, or return to, the less demanding classes. Up against more capable and experienced competitors, the very people for whom the divisions were designed will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. The division designed as a starting place for younger riders and a fun place for amateurs with limited opportunities to ride suddenly becomes far more expensive to enter and much harder to get a piece of the action.
At the same time, the riders and horses with the capability to compete at the higher levels will be perfecting racing over small obstacles’a skill that doesn’t transfer into successful performances over the larger and more technical tracks found in real show jumping competition. Many of us even fear the accident rate will rise when more novice riders or “true” amateurs take the chances necessary to equal the speed of more experienced riders mounted on horses over-qualified for the task.
The appeal of big money may well result in the creation of a new sport that bears little resemblance to what we’ve always known as show jumping.
Not Over Yet
This review of 2002 couldn’t be complete without mention of the never-ending “governance issue.” It is hard to believe that this month marks the second anniversary of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s filing of a formal challenge to assume the governance of all aspects of our sport, which they withdrew in January. Not even that was the end of the issue. Numerous attempts to find an acceptable means of consolidating the strengths of two valuable institutions had still failed. By the time you read this, the situation may well have changed for the better, but I won’t hold my breath.
I was the USAEq secretary until I stepped down in January, and I can tell you that philosophical differences reign supreme, with the major areas of disagreement centering on inclusion and transparency.
I believe strongly that our sport has its greatest strength as a single sport’one that offers unbroken opportunities within a single framework, from the short-stirrup rider and in-hand classes to the Olympics. I also believe that, given the sheer number of competitors and the value of today’s horses, athletes deserve both governance and selection processes that are as transparent and unconflicted as possible.
We should be reminded as we review the past year that, while the specifics may change, there is little in our sport that we haven’t experienced before. A formal arbitration occurred in our sport in 1988, many expensive legal issues have had to be decided over the years, and the USET even endured a costly and acrimonious proxy fight a decade ago to achieve greater objectivity and inclusion. The same basic issues are those that face us now. Yes, the costs can be high, but principles that will shape the future of our sport are what’s at stake.
As we embark on a new year’one bound to fly by as quickly as the last one’I hope that we can learn as much as possible from our past, appreciate all that is good about the present, and effectively “ride forward” into the future.