Equestrianism: Time for the horses to abandon Wembley: Genevieve Murphy argues that Sunday's fatality at the Horse of the Year Show should serve as a catalyst for change

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The Independent Online
SOME sympathy should be spared for the distraught committee of the Horse of the Year Show after the fatal injury sustained by the eight-year-old gelding, Sir Arkay, when he broke a hind leg on the steep face of the new Derby Bank in Wembley Arena on Sunday.

'We'd been criticised for having the same old format and we were looking for innovations,' Major Malcolm Wallace, director general of the British Equestrian Federation, said. 'The indoor derby in Ireland had been hailed as a huge success, so we decided to have one.'

It was also planned to have a Masters contest and a Grand Prix, until sponsors pulled out. In the great anxiety to fill the stands at Wembley Arena, the Derby and its now infamous bank became the main selling point. All the hype which followed served to make the injured mount of the Swiss rider, Jurg Friedli, seem like the innocent victim of a publicity stunt.

But even those who disliked the bank (and I belong to that group) would have to accept that the organisers did not believe that the obstacle was any more dangerous than the conventional fences in the arena. Their drawn, unhappy faces at the press conference which followed the accident suggested that they were more shocked than anyone else.

The riders, not always known for their respect for the powers- that-be, supported the organisers. It had, they said, been a tragic accident. Perhaps the horse, ridden by an amateur Swiss show jumping rider, would not have made that fatal slip down the face of the bank if it had been equipped with the studs that they had planned to use in their horses' shoes. But blame was not apportioned; it was seen as an unexpected tragedy.

It was the quiet voice of John Whitaker, which often gets to the kernel of things, that confirmed my disquiet about this new obstacle (more bridge than bank) which was constructed from rubber-clad sleepers on a steel frame.

'I think it frightens the horses a bit because of the noise they make when they go across it,' Whitaker said. The sport is supposed to be about leaping fences, often of substantial proportions, so why not leave it at that and forget the gimmicks?

The bank should now be left on the scrapheap, where it belongs, while the committee concentrates on the future of the Horse of the Year Show - in the hope that it has one. After five days in Wembley's small down-at-heel arena, a change of venue seemed to be its best chance of rebirth.

For some incomprehensible reason, there are siren voices which suggest that this once great show must stay in London. It is the flagship of the British Show Jumping Association (now based at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire) and it stages the finals of jumping and showing classes for which horses and ponies qualify throughout Britain.

Why should a Midlands venue (or somewhere nearer the centre of the country) be seen as a disastrous move? The South-east already has the only three important outdoor shows (held at Hickstead in Sussex) and London has the flourishing Olympia Show Jumping Championships. There is no major fixture north of London.

The sport in this country needs a new breath of life. There is no point in trying to patch over the cracks with new gimmicks; creative ideas are needed and a new smart venue where sponsors will be happy to take their guests and spectators can watch the skills of brave riders and horses in pleasant surroundings.

Show jumping in this country has wrapped itself inside a blanket of damage limitation without acknowledging its past problems: overexposure on television, those awful commercial names of horses and the stifling effects of the computer rankings, which has made it so much harder for bright new talents to emerge.

We have reached the stage when British riders at the top of the rankings are eager for some creative thought. It is time for the association to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas.

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