What would you think about pari-mutuel betting on eventing? Don’t laugh – I’m serious – or rather, the U.S. Eventing Association is.

The perfect opportunity will be available with the transition of the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event to the nearby Maryland Special Event site, where the Fair Hill races have been held for 85 years. There’s legal betting for those races, and USEA board member Eric Markell will be looking into how the new Maryland 5-star at Fair Hill, scheduled to debut Oct. 15-18, might become part of that.

Could it happen this year? Not sure, since Eric doesn’t expect to have a report until August, which leaves scant time to ready the project before the 5-star’s debut. I asked the new USEA president, the well-traveled Max Corcoran, what she thought about betting on eventing and got a positive response. Max noted that it’s done in Britain, so it wouldn’t be the first time that the sport was deemed suitable for wagering.

The topic came up at USEA’s annual convention in Boston this month, marking the 60th anniversary of the organization that began as the U.S. Combined Training Association, when the discipline was not long out of its infancy in the U.S. The 25 people involved in the USCTA’s first meeting could hardly have envisioned that the organization would grow to the nearly 13,000 members who are part if it today, with events across the country vying for space on a busy calendar. The oldest of the U.S affiliates in the Olympic disciplines (the U.S. Dressage Federation was formed in 1973 and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association in 2004), USEA puts a priority on safety due to the nature of riding cross-country, where horse and rider fatalities cast a pall over the sport’s image.

While the safety situation “keeps getting better,” said former USEA President Carol Kozlowski, who finished her term this year, “this sport will never be foolproof.”

In the continuing effort to improve that aspect and predict risk, USEA utilizes information from Equiratings, the Irish statistics company. The board is considering a proposal to bar riders from going cross-country if they have five knockdowns in show jumping, which comes before cross-country in a horse trials format. It would be applied to levels at Training and above, since Equiratings determined the show jumping score was not related to a successful cross-country trip at the Beginner Novice and Novice levels. But at the higher levels, it found “there’s a huge direct correlation to rider and horse falls”; particularly the latter.

“It shows they’re not ready to be at that level on that day,” said Max, a strong advocate for prioritizing horse welfare, whose background includes being a top-level groom for Olympic medalists Karen and David O’Connor. In the United Kingdom, the marker to stop a rider from going cross-country is 20 show jumping penalties, which includes refusals as well as knockdowns. The measure will be discussed further and referred to the USEA’s executive committee in February. It was pointed out such a rule would take a burden off officials in terms of making the tough call of telling someone they can’t go cross-country. Officials are involved, however, in keeping an eye on riders while they are going cross-country. Equiratings has developed an amber- and red-alert system to identify horses that bear extra scrutiny, based on their records.

The thought may occur to you that riders should have a grip on when it’s time to continue, whether into cross-country or on course, but sadly, that’s not always the case. USEA is trying to nurture that sensibility. An innovative Rider Responsibility forum took charge of the “big elephant in the room–how do you know when to call it a day?” Think of the accidents that could have been avoided if riders pulled up and raised an arm to signal they were withdrawing, rather than pushing a horse to a fall or worse when the animal was tired or not firing on all cylinders.

The forum, featuring 2004 Olympic eventing individual gold medalist and U.S. developing rider coach Leslie Law with his wife, trainer/competitor Lesley Grant-Law; Jon Holling, chairman of cross-country safety for USEA and Shannon Lilley, president of the Eventing Riders Association of North America, emphasized “we need to know our own and our horses’ limitations,” as Lesley put it. She commented some people believe that if they did everything right, most horses could go Advanced. As Lesley pointed out however, “most horses shouldn’t go Intermediate or Advanced,” especially with an inexperienced rider.

It is, she said, “Russian roulette.” Instead of blaming course designers or fence builders for accidents, “It’s time to be realistic, she continued, noting “it’s more pleasant to lie to ourselves and our students.” And also a lot more dangerous.

While the caliber of riding “is far and above what it was 20 years ago,” Jon pointed out, he advised no one should be pressured to move up a level “if you’re not confident.” And he added, “if you can’t do it at home, you’re not going to do it at a show, when the pressure is on.”

As Leslie Law noted, if you have problems cross-country and it’s not getting better after four or five fences, “it’s a question you should ask yourself quickly. The course won’t get easier.”

And that’s just common sense.

~ Nancy Jaffer