Should Nicholas Evans ever feel moved to write another equestrian tear-jerker, he need only turn to the world of junior show-jumping to find a sure-fire best-seller. The Pony Nobblers - a true-life tale of heartbroken children and drug-pushing villainy - would surely make the millions he earned from The Horse Whisperer pale by comparison.
For just as this week's world athletics championships in Seville has been overshadowed by drug-taking accusations against Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey, so the chaste settings of the Pony Club and gymkhanas have been rocked by doping allegations and dark mutterings of skulduggery in the stables.
Recently, after a junior event at Hickstead, 10-year-old Stacey Babes - one of the country's top 10 junior riders - complained of a sluggish round by her pony, Ailish Star. In an examination by the tournament vet, the pony tested positive for the banned substance acepromazine (ACP), leading Stacey's mother Muriel, a horse owner from Lanarkshire, to claim that the miniature steed had been slipped the sedative by a rival parent plotting to impair its performance.
"I had heard these sort of things went on, but I never thought it would happen to us," said Mrs Babes bitterly. "Whoever did it was motivated by jealousy. Someone was obviously desperate to win the competition and wanted to stop Stacey doing so well. And if it happened to us it could happen to anyone."
Since the incident, several other riders have stepped forward with accounts of equine espionage that owe more to John Le Carre than Jilly Cooper. One 13-year-old from Edinburgh, Tracy McNaughton, a member of the Scottish under-16 team, says she became suspicious of foul play after her pony jumped particularly badly. "I didn't report it because doping is so difficult to prove," she said. "It's impossible to discover the people who are doing it. You'd have to sleep in the stable every night to catch them in the act."
Once, all that the world of showjumping had to worry about was Harvey Smith's V-signs. Now these latest scandals have exposed the sport to be as cut-throat and insidious as heavyweight boxing or the Tour de France.
At a junior event in Devon this week, pre-teen competitors can talk of nothing but murky stories of spiked sugar cubes and downers disguised as Polo mints. The Bicton arena hardly seems like a hotbed of intrigue; despite the presence of army cadets barring the entrance to non-horsey interlopers, the mood is more convivial than combative.
Women wearing Horse of the Year Show sweatshirts push wheelbarrows loaded with hay, while their husbands head for the bar to bemoan the foxhunting ban ("bloody nerve"). Pony portraits are offered for sale, alongside a stack of florid oil paintings in a cardboard box marked "Eclipse souvenirs". "No, the eclipse finished weeks ago, darling," snaps one woman, pulling away her curious child. "Please don't be so annoying."
In another field, younger children are mimicking their elders by yanking reluctant pet dogs across an agility course of mini-jumps and tunnels. In the senior show-ring a tweed-jacketed rider ferociously whips his horse as it makes an attempt to dump him in the water.
Over in the junior arena, a smattering of parents in dung-caked wellies cheers on a few dozen 10-year-olds as they canter over modest fences in pursuit of a pounds 15 first prize.
Decked out in regulation jackets and jodhpurs, the girls' efforts at grown-up deportment are undermined by childish lapses: embroidered names on their collars, squabbles with bored brothers ("Mummy, he's doing it again"). The ponies' names - Little Miss Molly, Strawberry Mist, Wind in the Willows - only bolster the impression of innocent endeavour.
Why then the chicanery? Mrs Babes points the finger of suspicion at an influx of wealthy outsiders taking up the reins. "It's part of a growing problem. The sport is changing - it's big business these days. There is lots of money coming in, people wanting to buy the best for their kids. They've spent the money and they demand the results."
Many of the parents at Bicton blame the doping scares on the sport's increased competitiveness. "Ooh, all sorts of fiddles go on in this game," chuckles Wilf, a pensioner from Birmingham, cheering on his granddaughter Emma. "It's not all hoity-toity but there's pots of cash in the pony business and people want to see a return on their investment."
With horseboxes, stabling and insurance, junior eventing can cost parents several thousand pounds a year. Those prepared to boost their child's chances even further can expect to fork out around pounds 25,000 to pounds 35,000 for a top pony. One mount, named Colton Maelstrom, recently fetched pounds 250,000 when it was sold recently to stables in Ireland.
For some, it is a price worth paying. Prize money in children's competitions rarely exceeds pounds 20 but the glory is reward enough, with a precious place in the British under-16 team the ultimate accolade. "It's not the money that parents want, it's the prestige, the red rosette," says Sharon Newall as she watches her tubby seven-year-old Matthew pick up three faults on Little Jeepster. "These days, I'm not surprised at anything that goes on. The parents can be spiteful. I've seen parents hit children and lock them in the horsebox if they haven't jumped well."
Doping may be a new menace but rumours abound of other equally sharp practices. Apocryphal tales are whispered of a horse's hooves filed down so it would pass height restrictions and qualify as a pony; and of prize-winning mounts that mysteriously vanish, only to re-emerge under a new name to clean up in novice classes. "There are a lot of ways to beat the system," said Mrs Babes.
The sport's governing body, the British Show Jumping Association, says doping is "a minimal problem" but still feels it necessary to do random tests at big events, including next month's Horse of the Year Show. Jacky Knightley, a spokeswoman for the BSJA, said: "The sport is intended to be treated as fun and 99 per cent of the time that's exactly what it is."
For all the indignant denials, the senior event has a tradition of drugs scandals. Polly Phillips, the leading rider who died two weekends ago while showjumping, had been appealing against a fine and suspension imposed after her horse, Coral Cove, tested positive for an illegal level of the painkiller salicylic acid. Following the test, the British team was disqualified from the World Equestrian Games in Italy.
The use of painkillers, in particular phenylbutazone - a "horse aspirin" banned in the rest of Europe - is part of a wider drug culture that permeates the sport. Even at the lowest level, owners use drugs to conceal lameness or pacify a skittish pony. So common is the practice that Mrs Babes was herself suspected of slipping Ailish Star the ACP - routinely used to calm a horse during shoeing - and initially fined pounds 1,000. The ruling is now overturned.
Besides the illicit pills, there is a vast range of legal products designed to reduce a pony's pre-show jitters. Each week in Horse & Hound, the showjumper's bible, advertisements for "natural sedatives" with somnific names - Placid, So-Kalm, Tranquillity - promise to "soothe away your horse's competition nerves and prevent nervousness and excitability without impairing performance".
But it may be the parents not the ponies who need the depressants. At Bicton, with a top-four finish bringing a place in the prestigious Festival of Horses in Stafford, the atmosphere becomes frighteningly gladiatorial. While most children treat their victories and defeats with Kipling-like acceptance, the adults deliver animated pep talks and bellow red-faced instructions from the ringside.
"If he rattles a fence, smack him on the neck," one woman commands her daughter in a frenzy. Another young rider bursts into tears after a clear round earns her only a stern rebuke from her mother. "It wasn't good enough," complains Pia Saunders. So daughter Charlotte is sent back to the stables in disgrace. "We have good days and bad days, but it's usually Charlotte's fault, never the pony's. Kiki Dee is wonderful. My husband wants to buy her a diamond-studded head collar."
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