One of the nice things about my job is I get to see the sport at all levels and all around the country. This gives me an opportunity to spot trends and notice changes, and several things have caught my attention this spring.
The Classic Is Alive and Well
First, it looks as if the Classic format will survive and flourish. (A Classic includes roads and tracks and steeplechase, in addition to cross-country.) This is a change in my thinking. (However, I am not alone in my renewed optimism. John Strassburger had some interesting comments in his recent blog post on the same topic at www.horse-journal.com/john-strassburger-blog/.) For several years I have been quite concerned about the loss of Classic Preliminary events, several of whose organizers dropped the competition for the simple reason that Classic events in their area were not drawing entries.
In the past, Classics were organized as a labor of love. We were so fortunate that Neil Ayer fell in love with eventing in the early 1970s and put on the legendary Ledyard Horse Trials at his farm in Wenham, Massachusetts. He went to endless trouble and expense to build and host a world-class event there, and the sport is forever in his debt.
However, for the Classic to survive as a sport into the 21st century, it must find a business model that works.
The first thing that has to happen is that organizers need entries. The following statistics from our ever-efficient U.S. Eventing Association office explains the relationship between entries and competitions offered.
This table shows the total number of starters at Training Classics over the past four years:
Contrast those with entries at Preliminary Classics over three years:
2010: 20 (7 CCIw-Galway Downs)
2011: 20 (7 CCIw-Galway Downs)
The "CCIw" designation signifies that the competition was held under the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) rules as both a short format competition (with no steeplechase or roads and tracks) and a Classic (thus the "w" denoting "with steeplechase"). Due to a change in FEI rules, riders can now qualify for further FEI competitions while participating in a Classic. This has helped maintain the number of Preliminary entries, but it has not proven to be a panacea for maintaining entry numbers. The reason is that many participants in a Classic are not involved in climbing the FEI qualification ladder and are drawn to the Classic by the inherent challenge of it. They view the Classic Preliminary as a destination, not as a stepping-stone to further competition. At the same time, many riders with upper-level aspirations do not want to compete in a Classic because that format is no longer used for Intermediate and above. This is the natural outgrowth of the dichotomy in the sport I mentioned in my earlier column on a professional/amateur split that is forming in eventing. (Read it online here or in the August 2010 issue.)
The Training entry numbers are interesting because they show a steady involvement in Classics during some extremely difficult economic times. The number of Classic participants represent roughly 2 percent of USEA membership. It is worth noting that USEA is gratifyingly and completely in favor of the Classic format, and indeed my worst fears would have come true without USEA's support and the vision of the few remaining Classic organizers.
To support the efforts of our organizers, the USEA committees involved might consider encouraging entries at higher but attainable numbers over the next few years. If riding in a Classic is going to become part of the résumés of USEA members, then we would hope that at any time about 5 percent of our members take part in a Classic every year. Naturally, the makeup of those entries would change from year to year due to new horses, changed circumstances of jobs, school and so on, but 5 percent would be the overall goal. This does not seem to be a very large number, but it is more than double the current participation.
It will be interesting to watch the future of the Classic develop. Short-term, I think we will see a plateau of entries at Preliminary level and a slow, steady growth at Training level—there are 12 Training Classics currently scheduled for 2012. The new Novice Classics are a step in the right direction, and they seem to have found quite a clientele. We also still have several Preliminary Classics scheduled, despite low entries over the past few years. It may well be that in years to come we will realize that, just as the Irish monks preserved civilization during the Dark Ages, our organizers will have preserved the Classic format with their persistence.