Equestrianism: Sign of times as sponsor reins in: Genevieve Murphy on a cash crisis for the equestrian world as the recession begins to bite

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The Independent Online
SHOW JUMPING could be facing its worst cash crisis since the start of the recession as the result of Everest, the home improvement firm, deciding to concentrate its resources on leading riders and shows at grass-root level.

Last week the company signed a contract with John and Michael Whitaker, the top two riders on the British computer rankings, who will be wearing swiftly stitched new jackets (navy with green collars) when the 21st Olympia Show Jumping Championships begin tomorrow. Three other members of Team Everest are in the top 10 - Nick Skelton (3), Marie Edgar (7) and Geoff Luckett (9).

So far so good for the riders. But there is one worrying consequence of the Whitakers' change of allegience: their erstwhile supporters at Henderson, the unit trust firm which has had a high profile in the sport for the last three years, is dropping out. Future sponsorship may be considered but, since Henderson believes that support for leading riders and big shows go hand in hand, it is hard to see how it could find anyone to follow the successful Whitaker act.

The two brothers went through considerable anguish before deciding to change their jackets and the prefix to the names of the horses they ride. In the end, the Everest offer was one they could not refuse.

Henderson was willing to continue with a contract that could be terminated at any time by giving six months' notice; Everest was offering a three-year guarantee. 'You don't get sponsors queuing up these days, so there wasn't really any choice,' Clare Whitaker, John's wife, said yesterday.

Last year, Henderson sponsored the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead and four grand prix at other venues, including the National Championship at Stoneleigh. The decision to drop the sport from its budget is said to be unaffected by the departure of its former managing director and show jumping enthusiast, Robin Berrill, from the firm.

Other important fixtures are expected to suffer from Everest's change of policy. 'We feel our best leverage is at grass roots, so we will continue to support the county shows,' Kevin Mahoney, the firm's managing director, said yesterday. 'We also intend to organise open days at the riders' yards, so that people can see top horses like Milton at home.'

It is, however, 'unlikely' that Everest will sponsor any competitions at the 1993 Horse of the Year Show and has not yet committed itself to supporting next year's Olympia Show Jumping Championships, of which it will be one of the two main sponsors this week.

Olympia is widely regarded as a big success story with its full houses, slick programme and television packages which have been sold to more than 50 countries - twice the number that were bought last year. Mahoney is looking for guaranteed television coverage in this country or a contract which reduces the amount Everest has to pay if it is not forthcoming.

The show lost Crosse & Blackwell, formerly one of three main sponsors, earlier this year when other potential backers had already allocated their budgets. Olympia will plug that financial hole this year, but will also be hoping to have Modern Security Systems, Everest and another major sponsor signed up for 1993 before budgets are channelled elsewhere.

'We have four or five potential sponsors who will attend the show this week,' Simon Brooks-Ward, of the organisers, Best Communications GB, said. 'We feel confident; our ticket sales and corporate hospitality are on target and the demand for television packages seems to prove the standing and quality of the event.'

But there was also a note of warning from Brooks-Ward. 'Olympia is a great benchmark. If it started to slide the sport would be in real trouble,' he said. Hard times are ahead if this happy show, in its splendid setting, cannot attract one or two new sponsors.