Sixteen of Britain's leading show-jumping riders will launch a new equestrian sport tomorrow, when the inaugural Ladbroke's Speed Jumping Challenge is run in conjunction with flat racing on the last day of the Ascot Festival. Traditionalists may pale at the new formula, but nobody can accuse the instigators of coming up with a tame variation of an old theme. Even the horses should find it intoxicating, some of them perhaps too much so.
Forget the familiar arena, with a solitary horse and rider tackling a twisting course of obstacles. In speed jumping four horses set out together to jump seven fences in straight parallel lanes over about one-and-a-half furlongs at the end of the National Hunt course. The winner of each race will be the first past the post with the fewest fences down, which means that a horse jumping clear will beat one that dislodges a fence, no matter which of them reaches the finish first.
Four heats will be run before the first flat race of the day, with the best two horses in each group of four going through to two semi-finals after the second race. The final, again with four horses in the line-up, takes place at 4pm and will be shown live on the BBC.
The concept was dreamt up by the sports broadcaster, John Inverdale. It was then developed by the show jumper Nick Skelton, who will be one of the participants, and Charlie Brooks, the former trainer. Because the concept is so new, even those who devised it are not quite sure how well it will work. Having talked about it for months on end, however, they are eager to put it to the test. "It's a good concept and I hope it goes well, it should be fast and entertaining," Skelton said.
With a prize fund of £20,000 (of which £6,000 goes to the winner) Skelton has drummed up support from virtually all the top riders, among them Robert Smith, the Whitaker brothers, Tim Stockdale, Richard Davenport, Di Lampard and Peter Charles. After the pilot event, there will be more discussions to decide if more tweaking is needed before planning next year's schedule.
The new sport, which has a made-for-television feel about it, is seen as a fun adjunct to the more classical show jumping that used to attract huge television audiences. Inverdale is hoping to "rekindle that audience's passion and interest with the launch of speed jumping".
If all goes well tomorrow, there will probably be six speed-jumping contests at the most next year, all of them linked to race meetings.