Equestrianism / Horse of the Year Show: Noble cavalcade in unstable condition: A grand old institution fears the force of the recession. Genevieve Murphy reports

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The Independent Online
THE Horse of the Year Show could become another victim of the recession if the equestrian world fails to respond to the rallying cry, which is urging people to fill the stands of Wembley Arena from today's opening session to Sunday's final cavalcade.

The show, once a big money-spinner for the British Show Jumping Association and favourite stamping ground of ticket touts, has fallen on hard times. It has lost its television revenue of pounds 50,000 from the BBC and sponsorship from Henderson Unit Trusts, which was its main supporter when contributing pounds 65,000 last year.

'We were asked to spend more money for less TV coverage and we couldn't justify it,' Robin Berrill, Henderson's managing director, said. Prize-money is down as a result, while the costs of stabling and entry fees have gone up.

Despite these problems, Michael Bates, the chairman of the BSJA, remains resolutely optimistic. Not everyone would agree with his belief that this flagship of the association is 'the most important equestrian event in the world', but most would concur that it does have a unique atmosphere.

The Horse of the Year Show brings the country to town. Merely getting there is a source of immense satisfaction for many of those who have qualified for the jumping or the showing classes or for the Pony Club mounted games. Some 2,500 horses and ponies will be involved in the action.

Though the show has lost its daily slot on BBC television (often transmitted so late at night that only insomniacs were still awake in their armchairs) it will be shown daily on Sky Sports. The organisers have to pay for that privilege, but Bates says that it will not be costly because they will be selling recorded highlights to other outlets - including the BBC, which is taking 50 minutes for Sunday Grandstand.

By ending the show on Sunday night (instead of the traditional Saturday finale) it had been hoped to increase ticket sales, but at the start of the week these were slightly down on last year. Advance sales for Sunday's afternoon and evening sessions were particularly disappointing, but it is hoped that there will be a late surge as news of the derby bank circulates.

The 10ft bank, which has been built over the competitors' entrance to the arena, is the first to be erected at an indoor British show. Built from rubber-clad sleepers on a steel frame, it will be the centrepiece for two new contests: The Derby (which carries the richest first prize of pounds 6,000) on Sunday afternoon and The Pandiship Speed Derby, which is the closing contest on Sunday night.

But there will be no Masters or Grand Prix - and no Milton floating over the fences, though the great horse will be making celebrity appearances on two or three days.

When the show opened in 1949 (with just pounds 69 in the till) it cost pounds 10,500 to stage; now the expenditure amounts to nearly pounds 1m. It has made a profit every year since 1951 and Ian Dawson, the new chief executive, now has the awesome responsibility of trying to keep it solvent.

John Whitaker might have been speaking for all the British riders when he said: 'We must try to keep the show going, it would be a big loss if it closed.' As they all know, its future is at stake this week.