If you wish to talk show jumping, Michael Blake is your man. He has a deep forward-looking and modern view of the sport. He loves his role as high-performance manager and Chef d’Equipe of Ireland’s senior teams and, at the same time, does not shy away from casting a critical eye over how some aspects of it are handled by the International Equestrian Federation, the FEI.
When asked what his main goals are for the year ahead, he replies: “The World Equestrian Games in Denmark are the first qualification for the Paris Olympic Games. I think we are good enough to get the job done.
“The FEI’s decision to cut the number of qualifying places from the usual six to just five has made things a bit more difficult. Remarkably, there is a specific qualifier for teams from Central and Eastern Europe.
“They are eligible to compete at The World Games and the Europeans, giving them an added opportunity for qualification.”
Reflecting on the past two years of COVID-19, he regrets missing out on two Aga Khan Cups immediately after his appointment.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow. But because of the pandemic, you cannot take it for granted that a show will go ahead. So your plan has to be a bit fluid.
“The pandemic has increased the importance of tours like Wellington and the Sunshine Tour because if you go to one of those for eight or ten weeks, you are less likely to be affected by the pandemic. After all, there is less movement of people and horses.”
As to last season, Michael is most happy about Ireland placing second to Holland by just .21 of a second at the FEI Longines Nations Cup Final in Barcelona.
He recalls that three of the five Irish who jumped there had progressed through the bursary for young riders to go to America and Europe, that he was instrumental in starting back in 2012.
“These elite young riders, the two Michael Duffys along with Eoin McMahon have served their time and have come up through the ranks. It is important for people to know that this is possible,” Michael says.
He then recalls that a very young team was just a time fault off a medal at the 2021 Europeans. “They were all first-timers; Mark McAuley, Eoin McMahon, Daniel Coyle and Michael Duffy.”
That important second placing at Barcelona allowed the Irish to make a good choice of venues for this year’s Longines Nations Cup series.
“We selected Sopot, Rotterdam, Hickstead and Dublin. Also, this year, there are several excellent 5* Nations Cups sponsored by Rolex at places like La Baule, Rome, Aachen, Spruce Meadows, Knokke and Wellington.
“They are of a very high standard and have very good prize money. We would hope to compete in all of those as well.
“There are a lot of opportunities for riders to win big money on Global Champions Tour teams,” he says, “and this amount of jumping can be hard on horses. When you go to a traditional Nations Cup, it may not be the richest show. But for me, there still is nothing more important than the Nations Cup.
“I will be asking riders what is important to them? Do you want to be defined by winning Nations Cups and qualifying for the Olympics, or do you want to go out every week and try to win? I believe riders have to define their goals.”
Reflecting on the Tokyo Olympics, he says: “The way things panned out was a hard knock. Our three horses all jumped clear on opening day – one of only four countries to do that. It was such a blow that Kilkenny was unavailable for the team event.
“It is disappointing that countries with no FEI riders can control how the Olympics are run with just a three-person team and having the individual championship jumped first.
“ Along with other managers, I think we have succeeded in getting the schedule changed for Paris so that the team event will be first. If that had been the case in Tokyo, we jumped so well over the first two days we would have been in contention for a medal. So it is logical to have the team event first.”
As to having teams confined to just three riders with no dropped score, he notes: “There are four horses there, so why not let the four of them jump!”
Looking forward to Paris, he is excited that some of our young riders are coming to the fore with some younger Irish horses.
“I want the younger riders to have hope. But three years is a long time, and keeping combinations in top form is always a challenge. So you have to target events that are most important.”
Finally, Michael paid tribute to our Irish rider diaspora.
“The budget for our show jumping teams is less than a tenth of the French. Were it not for the fact that our riders went off and got themselves owners and investors who have adopted our country and provided horses, we would be in a tough situation.
“Our riders have thought so much outside the box that it makes my job easy, and I am so indebted to them.”