Looking at the list of venues for this year’s Gain/Alltech National Show Jumping Grand Prix League, it is amazing to note that almost 100% of the showgrounds used in similar series three or four decades ago, have now disappeared.
Of the 30 local volunteer greenfield site shows that hosted a leg of the Heineken Irish Show Jumping League in the 1980s, possibly two will be among the 25 venues for this year’s League. Instead, all the rest will be held in private permanent equestrian centre arenas. As one participant notes: “The days of owners and riders jumping expensive horses on ad hoc multi-use surfaces are just about over.”
This is just one of the major changes that have affected our national show jumping circuit over the past number of years. Another is participation. The migration of Irish riders to foreign lands did not really take off until the new millennium. Back in the 80s and 90s you could have seen our top international riders appearing on prime time TV once a week and then competing before a good crowd at a local show six days later. I can remember a full Aga Khan team taking part in the Heineken Grand Prix at Clonmel just days before the Dublin Horse Show. Our current Aga Khan squads are mostly flying in from Continental Europe or the US two days before the RDS and out again the day after.
These changes have been both inevitable and beneficial for our extraordinary cohort of world-class riders. But they have come at the cost of a disconnect between them and the general Irish public. I often do a little test by asking people to name an Irish show jumper. They mostly say Eddie Macken. The only current one that comes up is Cian O’Connor, who has remained Ireland-based.
This disconnect hurts sponsorship, show attendance, media coverage and funding of the sport. It is interesting to note that despite a recent announcement of a €100,000 package for the Gain/Alltech League, each of its 25 legs have the same €4,000 prize fund that was available for the Heineken League back in the 1980s.
The good news is that Coolmore has now joined with TRM as sponsors of the SJI Premier Series, in which €15,000 will be on offer at each of the four legs. In addition to money, the top two horse and rider combinations gain automatic entry to five star classes at the Dublin Horse Show.
That is the kind of forward thinking that is needed to revitalise and make more relevant our national show jumping series.