On the Rail: Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup Brings Excitement to Show

With the innovative Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup class held as the finale of the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, trainer John Madden aims to make show jumping 'a household sport.'
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With the innovative Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup class held as the finale of the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, trainer John Madden aims to make show jumping 'a household sport.'

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"I wanted to make a championship in an hour and a half or two hours that would sell to the public," said John. Going to the World Cup finals requires "a huge commitment of time and money" from spectators, he noted. The Sporthorse Cup, in contrast, presents a compact package with a crucial come-from-behind element.

The four-bar concept is an integral part of the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup. | ? 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

The four-bar concept is an integral part of the Animal Planet Sporthorse Cup. | ? 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

"Riders have a chance to catch up," he explained. That increases the uncertainty about who will claim victory in the $50,000 competition and puts several riders in the running. This year Beezie won the speed class, but Great Britain's Ben Maher and the Netherlands' Harrie Smolders were right behind and had a chance to pass her until the end.

"They were close enough that if Beezie knocked a fence down in the last class, they would have been first or second and Beezie would have been third or fourth. You can be losing all the way and still win," said John.

Beezie, who wound up winning, feels the crowd's enthusiasm as she rides in the class, which allows every rider to use two horses.

"I think the fans are really starting to love it. I think it's catching on," she said.

Ben, who had never ridden at Syracuse or in the class before, was lucky he had enough mounts to compete in the finals, where he finished second. Canada's Ian Millar, who qualified but did not take part, had to save his horses for the following week's Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, one of his nation's premier shows.

While Ben noted, "For my horses, it was a lot of jumping all week to qualify and then go today," he added, "normally, I wouldn't like to jump my horses so much, but the show and the surface were fantastic."

The class includes only seven riders, all of whom qualify during the course of the show. Having a small field means fans can pick one rider with whom to identify. Interviews in the arena with competitors seconds after they complete their rounds add to the air of intimacy, and having all the riders remain in the ring following their trips in the four-bar high jump also heightens the fans' relationship with participants.

"This enables the viewer to get to know the riders and horses over the course of the three phases and really connect with them," said Vicki Lowell, vice president of Animal Planet.

"In a sport where awareness of the top players is relatively low, we are trying to build up the horses and riders as 'stars.' Seeing them compete several times within one program encourages viewers to get to know and root for their favorite horse/rider team," Vicki explained.

She noted the smaller field--compared with a grand prix that has anywhere from approximately 30 to 70-plus riders--is more appealing for TV, as are the visually different phases.

"We've got to give the crowd a chance to develop a relationship with the riders," John pointed out. "When you're watching 35 of them, it's kind of hard to do."

The Cup is always being improved. John noted that after the first few years he staged the competition he refined it with NBC sportscaster Tim Ryan while they were coming home from the 2004 Athens Olympics.

This year, the rules were changed to make it easier for the audience to understand.

Animal Planet

Animal Planet

"Steps were taken to simplify the scoring system for the event so viewers could easily follow the scoring, and the competition would come down to the wire," Vicki said. "Riders in the first phase received one point for every jump cleared in a set amount of time (45 seconds)--a 'hit and hurry' format. In the second phase, the four-bar competition, riders also received points for every jump cleared over four rounds. In phase three, for every knockdown, four points were deducted. This made for a very exciting finish that will keep viewers engaged throughout the show."

The TV commentator is grand prix show jumper Kim Prince, who has a special insight into the competition.

"She knows all the top riders and horses and has a unique ability to help the average viewer understand the sport," said Vicki, an amateur jumper rider herself. "She brings a perspective that educates and informs both the 'insider' equestrian fan and the average Animal Planet viewer--not always an easy task."

John would be happy to see the Cup concept spread, but he noted any show offering something similar has to make sure there are enough important classes during the week so that the qualifying process works, while the competition "has to fit into the bigger picture" of the show.

Looking into the future, John hopes the Cup and its television presence can be a springboard for show jumping.

"My dream is for this to be a household sport," he said. "All these little girls and boys who can't afford to ride or aren't exposed to animals, I hope they can have posters and watch it on TV and have it be part of their life and have some good things about horses rub off on them, even if they can't be directly involved with it.

"I'd like our sport to be something more than just horses jumping over sticks. For people as lucky as we are to be directly involved with the horse, I think there are huge benefits. With the discipline of this sport, and the subtleties and difficulties, it's a great learning tool."

His goals for the Cup include hoping that one day it can be worth $1 million, but he also takes a broader view about what the Cup can do for show jumping in general.

"It's a sophisticated thing to watch. We have to whet people's appetite for it, and I think this can do it," he said. John is convinced that "once people start to understand a little bit, they'll be passionate like we are."

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