Remember The Truman Show, the eerily prophetic Jim Carrey film from the late 1990s? It’s about a man whose life is one giant reality show, played out on a set so huge it is visible from outer space. For 30 years (spoiler alert!) people have tuned in 24/7 merely to watch Truman clean his teeth.
The whole world is on the ruse ‒ except for Truman. But then he escapes, and the show ‒ and the film ‒ abruptly ends. The final scene shows two devoted viewers cheerily reaching for the TV remote and saying “let’s see what else is on.”
I recalled that film after hearing that Burghley Horse Trials have been cancelled again because of the pandemic. Major UK horse trials have toppled like ninepins amid Covid uncertainty; Badminton, Chatsworth, Bramham and Gatcombe have also been cancelled for a second year. And certainly in the eventing world there is an uneasy feeling that, after two years’ absence, iconic events simply may find a reason not to renew.
Humans find they can adapt to enormous upheaval more easily than they think. In the western world we have not been so tested since the second world war. I cannot be the only person that hasn’t missed some of the annual occasions that used to define my year. I realise I have been attending some of them (as a spectator, rather than a working journalist) simply out of habit. As soon as society opens up I am keener to sample things I have previously disregarded because they clash with the big race meet at X or the jumping show at Y.
This morning the lavish catalogue for a world-famous music festival plopped through my door. It operated on a much-reduced scale, online only, last year, but real audiences are invited back in July. The catalogue is still unopened on the kitchen counter. Normally I’d have read it cover-to-cover over breakfast. I felt bad for abandoning it, but not for long. If anything, I feel bad about not feeling bad!
Concern about the future of UK eventing is not just idle Facebook chat. Leading figures are worried, too, the latest being Pippa Funnell who in Horse & Hound made a direct plea to the major landowners not to abandon her sport in perpetuity.
As Funnell says, the big three-day events have a vital role in weaving the countryside community together. And from the equestrian perspective, only over those natural undulating terrains are riders and horses developed and challenged to the full.
There is no point pretending that some organisers won’t have crunched the numbers and, putting sentiment aside, decide that now could be the time to bow out and that any backlash won’t last long.
Riders don’t intend to appear small-minded for complaining about the interruption to their careers, or that their 5* horse is missing its peak. Their inconvenience is trivial compared to the misery the pandemic has inflicted on billions through the loss of loved ones and the wrecking of livelihoods. Other British horse shows have been cancelled or down-sized for 2021, but the eventing scene is especially hard-hit. The diminution of the calendar now challenges Britain’s status as the epicentre of world eventing.
The loss of Badminton, Burghley and others has baffled fans, because Britain’s vaccine rollout is so advanced. The national eventing program has managed to resume every time each lockdown was lifted. Other permanent venues have stepped in to provide replacement FEI opportunities. Aston-le-Walls recently had a bumper few days as the “alternative Chatsworth,” and there are ample CCIs on the continent (in countries that will have us, and where our own government does not impose a 10-day quarantine on return.)
Unfortunately, some riders are content to just get a run any time, anywhere, and don’t appreciate that these stand-in competitions are mere band-aids. Unless we can recover the big, atmospheric events with a huge social and retail function and mainstream TV coverage, our leading world status is not assured.
When you ladle on the extra costs and travel delays caused by Brexit, Britain must now be a less appealing base for the many foreign nationals who enrich our domestic scene. No other country offers anything like the scope of the UK’s national eventing calendar. But then again, a smaller choice of prep events hasn’t exactly done Michael Jung or Ingrid Klimke any harm!
There have been other Covid related setbacks, too. Over 40 British riders had entered the 4* and 5* CCIs at Luhmuhlen (June 17-20) but now, because of concerns about the “Indian variant” of Covid, Germany has barred entry to Brits for anything other than emergencies. It’s unclear if “elite sport” is exempt. The decision to accredit just one owner per horse instead of two at the Olympic Games is another negative for the owners mentally listing the pros and cons of remaining in top-level eventing when they get so little out of it.
The public reaction to Badminton’s cancellation was one of sympathy towards the organisers. The later news that Burghley is also off was, however, met with exasperation, even hostility, as it seemed so premature. It didn’t help that the Kentucky 5* had just gone ahead thanks to crowd-funding. Why couldn’t Burghley crowd-fund too?
Most people don’t understand the widely different financial models of the world’s headlining 5* three-day events ‒ nor should they be expected to. The Kentucky Horse Park is a purpose-built, year-round equestrian venue (the clue is in the name.) In contrast, Badminton, Burghley, etc., are historic stately homes who, just once a year, import vast infrastructure onto their green field sites.
It would be wholly wrong to imply that these private landowners are indifferent. Both are fully aware of their place in eventing history. Badminton is the effective founder of the modern sport, while Burghley was originally set up to directly fund the national governing body which “owned” Burghley horse trials until 2010, when the estate took it over. Burghley now donates British Eventing (BE) a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the profits, as Badminton has always done. The loss of those dates over two years has probably reduced BE funds by CAN $1.5m.
Burghley and Badminton have stoically carried on year after year, even when their land has taken weeks to recover from the trashing of pasture where tens of thousands of spectator cars got stuck in mud and had to be towed.
But it’s a fact that these iconic “marquee” events will not go to all this trouble unless they stand to make a seven-figure profit. And you don’t make any profit at behind-closed-doors, spectator-less events. That consideration dwarfs rider desperation for a 5* run.
Burghley’s devoted chief executive Liz Inman actively considered crowd-funding, and indeed anything else she could think of to salvage any kind of competition for 2021. All manner of cost-trimming was applied. For example, Mark Phillips was to return as course designer to save flying Derek di Grazia over from the US, and the farming schedule was revised so that sheep could graze the area of the cross-course to save paying someone to mow it.
But in the first week of May the estate lost its nerve. Burghley is cared for by a trust (the absentee heir, Michael Cecil, is a long-time resident of British Columbia.) The trust, as a charitable caretaker, has onerous obligations of its own and felt that the cost of cancellation after May could still be a serious six figures because of local taxes, rents, licences and fixed overheads.
A few days after Burghley was called off, BE announced it was actively looking to provide a one-off 5* opportunity this fall. A re-scheduled Bramham (normally a 4* in June) is in the frame.
In normal times a replacement top-level CCI would have to run on the same date as the cancelled one, and the organiser would need previous 5* administrative experience. I asked the FEI if it would waive those obligations during this emergency, though it simply replied that a formal proposal “will need to be reviewed by the FEI Eventing Committee for further consideration.”
Blenheim, sole remaining survivor of our 2021 marquee events, might seem an obvious choice, but it will already be bursting at the seams with 4* entries, and the costs of bolting on a 5* ‒ even if there was the will to do it ‒ would cut deeply into revenue. That is of particular importance to BE, for Blenheim is the one big money-spinner it does still own!