The Sustainability of Show Jumping’s Evolution…

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Editorial: The Sustainability of Show Jumping’s Evolution…

This week, Eric Lamaze and Ben Maher both share their views with the New York Times on the changes that have occurred in our sport. They speak about the new additions to modern day show jumping that have pushed the sport from its humble roots to a sport of international acclaim. International show jumping has certainly evolved, but is this evolution sustainable?

The Rolex Grand Slam is the latest effort to up the stakes in our sport. It was conceived last winter after Rolex relinquished its longtime run as, among other roles, title sponsor of jumping’s world rankings. It was an incredible surprise to all those in and around the sport when it was succeeded by rival watchmaker, Longines.

This rivalry has offered tremendous benefits to our riders, their owners and prize winnings on an annual basis. Perhaps less beneficial to Rolex or Longines, the moment that these two watch companies decided to go head-to-head for the dominant position within show jumping, was the minute that rider’s predicted winnings doubled.

Belgium's Pieter Devos won the 2013 Spruce Meadows Masters title
Belgium’s Pieter Devos won the 2013 Spruce Meadows Masters title

The annual Grand Slam series involves the Grand Prix events at three historic horse shows: CHIO Aachen in Germany and CSIO Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary, before concluding with the Geneva event. Although there is significant prize money on offer at each show, the Grand Slam’s lure is its bonus awards, the most rewarding of which is the €1 million prize for any rider who wins all three shows consecutively, regardless of calendar year or horse. Quite a challenge, but a tremendous invitation to all the best riders out there.

“I think it’s created real buzz for the sport,” Maher said to the NY Times. “Three of the biggest arenas in the world, huge prize money and bonus money if someone manages to win two or three of the sections. Geneva is going to be exciting.”

But is there a direct correlation between the increase in sponsorship, increase in prize money and the inflation of international purchase prices? Or are the horses just getting better?

Everyone knows that great riders require great owners. This is how the sport has evolved. Great riders such as Beezie Madden, Scott Brash, Ben Maher and Roger-Yves Bost, all have more than one thing in common. They all sit in the World’s Top 15 and they all have incredibly supportive owners. Beezie Madden with Abigail Wexner, Scott Brash with Lord & Lady Harris as well as Lord & Lady Kirkham, Ben Maher with Jane Forbes Clarke and Roger-Yves Bost with Georgina Forbes. These riders and their owners have all formed formidable forces within the sport, which have directly resulted in major Championship wins within the last 18 months.

Georgina Forbes, Jane Forbes Clarke, Lord and Lady Harris, Lord and Lady Kirkham as well as the Saudi Equestrian Fund are just some of the most influential owners within our sport and they want to win as much as their riders do. So, does an Olympic gold medal or European gold medal have a price tag or is it not the idea of money, but rather the idea of winning, that drives our sport.

Has show jumping become more of a business than a sport?

Many sports are big business; Baseball, Football and American Football are dominated by highly-influential owners who bring their business acumen to the playing field.  Football has no salary caps and  clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid buy the best players for the most money. The Teams with the biggest budgets get the best players and therefore, often win the majority of the titles.

The National Football League (NFL) is one of the few sports that has taken steps to level out the playing field. They have imposed salary caps and a draft each year to make sure the best new players go to the weakest teams in the league. In addition, certain revenues are shared between teams. These measures have been taken to ensure that the big wins don’t circulate between a select few.

Does show jumping run the risk of going the way of NFL football?

If a select group of riders backed by influential owners all acquire the best horses in the world, does show jumping run the risk of seeing the major Championship titles circulate between a select few? What happens to the level playing field?

This year Belgium’s Pieter Devos caused one of the biggest upsets of the year and won the 2013 Spruce Meadows Masters Grand Prix. He is currently ranked 68th in the world. Proving that there are still elements of surprise in our sport. But what does the future hold?

The jumps are bigger, the courses harder, time allowed is tighter and competition is growing more intense by the year. “The margin for error is so small now, you have one rail down and it’s over nine times out of 10,” says Ben Maher. “So the horses have had to be changed to accommodate the courses that are built.”

“Everything has changed so much in our sport,” Lamaze said to the NY Times. “And so have the horses along with it.” So if the prize money is increasing, the horses are becoming more expensive, the competition is more intense and the international calendar is fuller than ever, what can we expect from our sport for the next 10 years? Is this growth sustainable?

Will the purchase prices continue to soar or is there a ceiling? If there is no ceiling, what measures would our sport go to keep a level playing field? Should it be required to take action or is our sport best kept to evolve naturally into a new age?

Riders have greater opportunities than they have ever had in the past; opportunities to win tremendous amount of prize money, earn very attractive sponsorship deals and land some of the best mounts in the world, but does all this come at a cost and if so, what is the cost?


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