The premise of the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) is a simple one: assemble some of the world’s elite show jumpers and have them compete at a five-star level in spectacular locations across the globe.
The 15-event circuit has this season alone erected temporary courses and stands in such diverse places as Miami Beach, next to Rome’s Coliseum amphitheatre, amongst the neon-lit skyscrapers of Shanghai, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in Berlin’s Sommergarten, and close to the Port d’Hercule in Monaco, as well as on the traditional lush green lawns of the Tops International Arena in Valkenswaard in the Netherlands.
Following a two-year absence, the UK returned to the LGCT in 2017. Its recent omission has perhaps been an oversight, considering that the UK is the home of the always sold-out London Olympia Horse Show at Christmas and the prestigious All England Jumping Course, Hickstead, while Team GB rider Nick Skelton won individual gold at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics after the hosts had taken a team gold at London 2012.
London’s return to the calendar this year was staged in the beautiful Sir Christopher Wren-designed Royal Hospital Chelsea, the historic home of the British military veteran community known collectively as the Chelsea Pensioners. Past iterations were held at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Horse Guards Parade and Syon Park, all with varying success.
British rider Ben Maher clears a London inspired fence
The red-jacketed Pensioners are accustomed to their peaceful existence being interrupted by the annual Chelsea Flower Show but a three-day show jumping event in their 325-year-old home, which was founded by King Charles II, was a new experience to the retirees. Nevertheless, the residents were ever-present in the crowds over the weekend of 4th to 6th August and appeared to be enjoying the event as much as the show jumping aficionados and the wide-eyed newcomers to the sport.
It is not only the British public that has been seduced by the picturesque setting and the contemporary feel to the competition. Ben Maher, who was part of that gold medal-winning team at London 2012, believes that the LGCT’s format is “modern-day show jumping” Despite organisers’ past “struggles” with a location in London, he is of the opinion that “they have got that figured out now” with Chelsea.
The LGCT is the 2006 brainchild of Dutchman Jan Tops, who won the gold medal in the team jumping event at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. After just one year of competition, it achieved elite five-star status from the sport’s governing body, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), although it is not part of the organisation’s annual series like the World Cup.
Running alongside the LGCT, for the first time this year, is the Global Champions League (GCL), which is an innovative 18-strong team event. The competition boasts franchises with names like the London Knights, Moscow Bears, Miami Glory and the Mexico Amigos, but riders are not restricted to ride solely for their nationalities. There is talk that a transfer window for competitors may be included in the near future.
Maher concedes that although this arrangement is the “future” of show jumping, “the format needs some tweaking because it is such a change within the sport” and running the two separate tours together could potentially be “confusing for the public”.
The Briton is needless to say grateful to the financial stability that the LGCT offers to the modern show jumper.
“The money is the biggest change,” says Maher. “Going back to when I started on the senior tour - 15 to 16 years ago - the biggest prize money on offer was UK£25,000 (US$32,185) to the winner, whereas yesterday [in the five-star event] we were competing for a total of €500,000 (US$585,658) in one day. That has, of course, in turn that increased the value of the horses and the riders’ sponsorship deals.
“Show jumping is a very expensive sport. People can look at yesterday and see that I won UK£120,000 (US$154,491) but that is an incredible day at the office for me. It doesn’t happen every week.
“Nevertheless, the amount of people and effort that goes on behind the scenes to give me that perfect 60 seconds is huge. I have seven or eight staff looking after horses, as well as a secretary looking after the logistics to get around the world.
“The horses are not owned by myself, they are owned by sponsors primarily. Some because they love the sport, whereas others see it as an investment opportunity: the two horses that I rode yesterday will have probably increased in value from their performances.”
As it is for Maher, sponsorship is, of course, vital to LGCT’s existence. Its title sponsor and official timekeeper is Swiss watch brand Longines, while other associated sponsors include luxury brands and organisations like Massimo Dutti, Gucci, BMW, Glock, HSBC, Merit Capital, Taittinger, Audi, Volkswagen, VDL Groep, Airbus, Maybourne Hotel Group, Sapinda, Icuras and LGT.
The Chelsea Pensioners enjoy the track-side hospitality in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Maher, who admits that he “never wanted to be at school because I just knew that riding was what I wanted to do”, thinks that organisers have got the ticket pricing correct for the nascent event in London. There were walk-in tickets available for as little as UK£5 (US$6.40) on some of the days, which has encouraged fair-weather fans and families to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
“What can you do in London for UK£5 (US$6.40) anymore?” he asks. “You can’t even by a pint of beer for that price. I guess in time, when this venue builds up, the ticket prices will get slightly more expensive and I’m sure they probably had higher-priced ticketed seats. I think that the way forward is to really publicise this event and get it out there.
“A staggered ticketing system should be put in place so that it is accessible for everyone. Show jumping is perceived to be an elitist sport but I disagree with that notion. I think that there are more kids - whether they are inner-city or outside - that have something to do with horses or ponies, one way or another. Not everyone can pick up a tennis racket and play at Wimbledon.
“I know many people that have not had the financial step ladder to get to the elite level of the sport. If you work hard then there are there are channels that you can take, you may have to work slightly harder but if you want it then the chance are certainly out there.”
British rider Scott Brash won the five-star grand prix, beating compatriot Ben Maher by just six hundredths of a second
Pan-continental broadcaster Eurosport shows LGCT on its linear channels in a very traditional studio and live action presentation. In order to improve its coverage, Maher feels that further strides must be taken in experimenting with over-the-top (OTT) platforms and additional on-screen live data fed to viewers.
“We can really try to modernise the sport,” supposes Maher. “There so are many changes that go on behind the scenes: tactical changes, going from one horse to the next, how fast we go, which equipment we put on which horse, the warm-up. There are so many interesting sides to show jumping that I think our sport misses out on showing to the fans.
“In time there will be a way to get this across to the show jumping public and it will make for great TV in the future.”
To make great television, one must have a great product. There is certainly a feeling that the LGCT continues to be superb sport the year round, and in the Royal Hospital Chelsea it looks as if it has finally found a suitable venue in London.
Not only do the historic buildings, which are surrounded by seemingly endless manicured lawns and ancient oak trees billowing in the wind, create a wonderful English backdrop but, according to Maher, the “location is very symmetrical” with “room to move so that the horses can walk about; they are not just stuck in a stable”.
Maher adds: “There is also good access for the public here and in time they will struggle to keep up with the amount of people that want to come to the event. I think that it will get bigger. If you look at other competitions, such as at London Olympia, it is sold out many months in advance.
“So, they may even have to go as far as adapting stands and the venue to pack as many people in as they can.”