“This time,” as Arnold Schwarzenegger used to say, “it’s personal.”
My support of the three-day event had been based on fond memories until last month, when I rode in my first one in exactly 20 years. And I want to be able to ride in more for at least another 20 years. It reminded me that those cavalry guys who invented it 80 years ago knew what they were doing. The roads and tracks give your horse a relaxing warm-up; the steeplechase gets both of you galloping, thinking forward. And the whole thing gets you in a rhythm, so that when you mount up in the vet box, you and your horse are ready to face the biggest, toughest and longest course you’ve done all season–or maybe ever.
I resolved to come to the three-day’s defense again after the short-format version of the Fair Hill CCI*** (Oct. 29, p. 12), one of the most depressing sporting events I’ve ever seen, because it just didn’t have the feel, the drama, the challenge it always has. And, with Mark Phillips glowering over them, the winning riders mindlessly droned on as if brainwashed about how much they loved the short format.
Kevin Baumgardner, a member of the U.S. Eventing Association’s Board of Directors and an amateur rider from Washington, composed a searching piece on the three-day’s demise for USA Eventing in July, and he too is disappointed by the upper-level riders’ unwillingness to fight. “Why aren’t they standing up for it?” Kevin asked me, noting that a USEA poll in 2003 showed an overwhelming 92 percent of the members favored the traditional format. “There is a conspiracy of silence that comes from the feeling that we’re powerless” in the face of the Federation Equestre Internationale, Kevin added.
Like me, Kevin thinks some influential FEI leaders are up to more than altering the three-day “for the welfare of the horse,” their dubious claim. “As a trial lawyer, I always look for motive,” Kevin said. “And I really don’t think this is ultimately about the short or long format. I think the short format is just a way to start to turn the sport into a dressage and show jumping competition.”
Fortunately, Janie Atkinson, who directs the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, isn’t giving in. She’s going to keep Kentucky in the traditional format, and she’s prevailed upon the organizers of the other two Rolex Grand Slam events–Badminton and Burghley in England–to do the same for the foreseeable future.
“Otherwise, it’s just a horse trial,” she insisted.
David O’Connor, who’s the U.S. Equestrian Federation president and a member of the FEI Eventing Committee, told me, “I haven’t really changed my view. The four-star should stay long-format because that keeps it very special, and the one-star is what the members want. But the two- and the three-star–well, that depends on the site, the organizer and the riders.”
Since FEI officials clearly plan to kill the sport as we Americans love it, why can’t our federation sanction our own three-days without the FEI, as it once did? The answer: They can. And why can’t we just have both long- and short-format events? The answer: It will happen when Foxhall (Ga.) runs a short-format three- and a two-star in April and Jersey Fresh runs a long-format three- and two-star in May.
You know, I just don’t understand why our best riders are cheering the demise of steeplechase. That’s the day’s most exhilarating part–it’s pure galloping and jumping. It’s the closest people who don’t ride steeplechase races can come to flying, and 92 percent of us want to keep that thrill.