Nick Skelton, who helped to formulate the rules for the new equestrian sport of speed jumping, collected the first prize of £6,000 when the inaugural contest was run over Ascot's National Hunt course yesterday, in conjunction with the last day of the flat race meeting.
Naturally Skelton, who nursed an ambition to be jockey in his younger days, thoroughly enjoyed his successful day on his mount, Pandur. Less obviously, the other 15 show jumping riders enjoyed themselves as well.
There was one crucial problem, however, for those who attended the meeting. It was voiced by John Whitaker when he said: "The idea's very good, but I don't think anybody knows what's happening."
Even the riders were in the dark as to which of them had won each of the four-horse contests over seven fences that had been constructed on straight parrallel lines. It was said to have worked well on television, for which it was designed, but the lack of a coherent commentary (for much of the time the lack of any commentary at all) made it a fun but incomprehensible spectacle.
The first of the four initial heats was unfortunately chaotic, since Chloe Bunn almost collided with a camera man when she set out on Buddy Bunn. Having veered off course she pulled up, leaving that heat to be declared null and void. The re-run made little difference to the result because Robert Smith, the No 1 seed and favourite to win the Ladbroke's Speed Jumping Challenge on Kalusha, was once more the winner with Duncan Inglis again in second place on Lavaletto. Both went through to the two semi-finals, in which Smith dropped out.
Skelton was the only rider to jump clear in the final, which would have made him the winner in whatever order he had passed the post. He was, in fact, second at the finish to Inglis who (like the other two remaining finalists) had three fences down. Mark Armstrong was third on Rex, with Geoff Billington fourth on Timbuctoo. "I'm back," said a delighted Billington, who has slipped down the show jumping rankings since being best of the British in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Initially, Billington was thought to have had only two fences down and he was announced as runner-up before his third error came to light. This is another problem that was uncovered in this pilot event for the new sport, since it is hard to keep track of falling rails when four horses are jumping simultaneously. The organisers were nevertheless pleased with their pilot and they are determined to address the problems that arose when they meet within the next month. That meeting will involve riders, broadcasters, possible venues and sponsors.
Some of the problems encountered yesterday do not look too difficult to solve. Having the finish of the speed jumping hidden behind sponsors boards was one of them. The television crews were not hampered by this, since they filmed the final from the other side of the course with the grandstand as a backdrop. But the boards did add to a sense of remoteness for the racegoers.
The most obvious difficulty was in communication, especially regarding the number of fences that each horse had dislodged as it was such a crucial element in the result. When they drew up the rules, the organisers were naturally considering the welfare of horses as a major priority. They did not want the first horse past the post to be deemed the victor if it had left a trail of show jumping rails on the floor.
Yet, even for those of us who were vainly attempting to work out the result of each race, the new concept seemed to have something going for it. If the rules can be fine tuned and a proper commentary introduced, speed jumping could be an entertaining adjunct to both the racing and show jumping circuits next year.
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