By Ellie Kelly
LONDON (Reuters) – Showjumping has a proud tradition rooted in amateur sport but it has developed so much that this week riders will compete on Miami Beach with hospitality to rival Formula One and a prize fund of 630,000 euros (£546,145).
At the heart of the revolution is the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT), of which Miami is the third leg, where professionals and A-list celebrities bring glitz and glamour to the saddle as well as the viewing galleries.
This week’s entry list includes Athina Onassis plus Jennifer Gates, Jessica Springsteen and Georgina Bloomberg, daughters of Bill and Bruce and Michael, alongside the world’s top jumpers such as overall ranking leader Niels Bruynseels of Belgium.
Jan Tops, founder of the event, has been dubbed the ‘Bernie Ecclestone of showjumping’ after the former F1 supremo and, though he shrugs off the comparison, the Dutchman has plenty of time for what the now 88-year-old Briton did for Formula One.
“Everyone has their own identity,” the four-time Olympian, who won team gold for the Netherlands the 1992 Barcelona Games told Reuters. “I don’t know if we will ever reach the numbers of F1 but Bernie was a visionary and I admire what he did.”
Tops’ vision has changed the face of the sport by presenting showjumping to a global audience, making the horses worth millions and the riders millionaires, attracting sponsorship from luxury brands and breezing through economic downturn.
Since the advent of the LGCT in 2006, Tops has brought events to prominent places in Shanghai, Mexico City, Monaco and even under the Eiffel Tower as well as to Miami Beach.
“I looked at other sports like soccer, F1 and thought what can we do to reach the same level of excellence?” he said.
“Showjumping is exciting — there are so many variables that can take you from hero to zero. There is no other sport where you have this diversity”.
Equestrian is one of the few sports where men and women of all ages compete against each other.
In the London leg of the LGCT, 18-year-old Harry Charles competed with 63-year-old John Whitaker.
Britain’s Ben Maher was the 2018 LGCT champion.
The 58-year-old Tops wants to grow showjumping beyond the millionaires playground and new concepts like the Global Champions League (LGCL), a competition where riders become part of a team financed by ‘owners’, have helped.
The Prague Playoffs, the sport’s richest event, was launched in December and is the Super Bowl of showjumping.
Devised to crown the champion of champions, it attracted a 35,000 crowd to Prague’s O2 arena in a country which had never staged major equestrian sport before.
The Super Grand Prix, which pits the 16 winners of the season’s LGCT events against each other, was won by Jan’s wife, 44-year-old mother Edwina Tops-Alexander of Australia.
Since its inception, the LGCT and LGCL have been broadcast on Eurosport but, while there is interest, it has been hard to convince other media giants that the sport is worth watching.
Tops’ mission is to get the sport back on terrestrial television around the world.
“We lost that 30 years ago, when riders and horses were household names. I think riders can become sport’s stars,” he said. “We need to push them to open themselves up more and need to engage the media more because we have a lot of characters in our sport but also diverse backgrounds.
“Most of these riders come from very normal families and with hard work they have attracted good sponsors and people to buy them the horse power. Now they are competing for millions.”
Tops himself was a leading competitor, ranked among the top 10 riders for 20 years, and is a renowned trainer too.
He was employed five years ago to help Qatar’s jumping team and they qualified for the Olympics for the first time at Rio 2016. Sheikh Ali Al-Thani just missed out an individual medal.
With unprecedented prize money on offer – like the record $13.7 million up for grabs at the Prague Playoffs in December — those people invested in showjumping have welcomed the changes.
“It’s been great for the sport,” said Maher, who won team gold with Britain at the London 2012 Olympics.
“We ride every weekend for at least 100,000 euros to the winner. Only five years ago we won 20,000 euros in total and that was a good weekend.”
It has also benefited those who train horses as the market prices of equine talent have risen sharply.
However, Tops has faced challenges from what he calls traditionalists’.
“They think they’re losing power because their riders choose to compete in the GCT instead of for their country. They can do both,” he said.
“At the end of the day, this is a very expensive sport and the most important thing is that the owners, riders and sponsors get a return on their investment, otherwise they stop taking part.
“Then they don’t have the riders and the horses for the teams anyway. I have simply given them a new motivation” he said with the look of a man keen to get back to work.
(Reporting by Ellie Kelly, Editing by Ken Ferris)