Firstly, apologies for the lack of blogging this year. Truth be told, looking back is not a strength of mine – whether things go well or not, the lessons to be learned are usually done so within hours and thereafter the moment is history. Finding spare time is also a difficulty with our two kids under two years old, our yard which is thankfully busier than ever, and the imminent launch of EquiRatings, my new eventing analytics company. Today is our first quiet Sunday since….eh, can’t remember, so it’s a good opportunity to put finger to keyboard.
Not dwelling on the past. That may sound positive and constructive, but I remember driving home from Camphire International last year having won the top three star class by a huge margin on a young horse who had just announced himself as a serious 2016 Olympic contender – by the time we got back to Ballybolger (our county Carlow home) the high had passed and I was tossing up what his next target would be. The overwhelming feeling now (just three hours after winning the class) was how do we ensure that we improve from here? The win had transformed from a very brief celebration to a daunting new benchmark – the pressure cooker was back on full power.
The Yard and Year So Far
2015 eventing is shaping up well. Horseware Lukeswell showed a tough side at Camphire again this year, producing a very quick cross country round in wet conditions. The horse hasn’t had a cross country jumping penalty since he was a green seven year old in 2012 contesting a very strong two star international in France. He hasn’t knocked a single show jump all season, although we did land impossibly short in a combination in Saumur and had to circle – picking up four penalties plus some time. The bottom line though, is that horse looks an incredibly strong contender in both jumping phases, and while our dressage scores have been a little off where I want them recently, his potential in that phase makes him one seriously exciting Rio prospect.
He has been named in the European Championship team for Blair Castle next month. He’s the youngest horse at ten years of age – four of the others are five years older and they bring a wealth of experience as well as some brilliant four star form. Fellow RED MILLS Ambassador and Horseware rider, Austin O’Connor, has another four star campaigner in Balham Houdini and Austin himself has never looked in better form.
Blair will be a proper championship. Course designer Ian Stark will likely take the opportunity to announce himself at this level. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge and he doesn’t do soft. I’m lucky to have ridden a seriously tough four star horse in Horseware Bushman – four Badmintons, Burghley, three Europeans and two World Games, as I said, TOUGH! Lukeswell, also by Puissance, has shown me an identical hunger to gallop at fences and to do so with the same relentless enthusiasm and love for his job. I can’t wait for Blair, I’ve thought of little else this past week. I can’t thank those around me enough – my family, our team and our owners and sponsors who have all contributed in a huge way. This will hopefully be my 6th senior team eventing appearance for Ireland in seven years. One man doesn’t make that happen, an absolutely brilliant and dedicated team does. Let’s keep it up, keep the focus, and keep getting better!!
Blair has changed a few plans. Firstly I made a quick call to withdraw Lukeswell from Aachen. That was a tough decision as I desperately want to compete at Aachen, and I still don’t know if it was necessary, but my gut said focus on Blair and while I may not always be right, I never have regrets if I go with my instinct. Secondly, and again another very tough call, I have decided not to aim Bushman at Burghley. It’s the week immediately before Blair and for a yard our size it will compromise my Blair preparation. Of course it could and would have been done if it was essential, but Bushman has given so much to us that a nice CCI3 star run will be enough to round off his 2015 season and give him every chance of taking on a fifth Badminton next spring.
The two exciting younger horses to come out of Camphire are Imperial Sky and Tullabeg Flamenco. Both performed beautiful dressage tests, scoring in the 30’s, and both were very confident in the cross country and completed within the time to finish fourth in the CIC2* and CICYH* classes respectively. They were amongst many to pick up penalties over the coloured poles in the soft ground conditions last week, but going forward both have the ability and potential to be special. Millstreet (end of August) will be the next significant target on their radars.
My dressage score of 37.1 on Flamenco was a new career best at international level, but the achievement rather pales in comparison to the outstanding score posted recently by my good wife, Hannah ‘Sparkles’ Watson. At Grove (June) she scored 12.3 on her gorgeous eight year old, Kings Fionn. On the Wednesday before, for the first time in my training career, I said the words “that actually can’t get any better” – in normal circumstances I would find something smart and cheeky to say, but Sparks really did deserve a special mark given the effort and talent she puts in to everything she does.
How To Get An Owner And Sponsor
My final thought I want to leave with you goes back to teamship. I was recently asked about how to attract sponsors and owners. I’m quite different to many in both respects. I don’t chase owners because, for me, it isn’t sustainable in this sport. People have to enjoy and love the sport and given that we play such a long game in getting a horse to the top, it is essential that they really believe in you as a rider. Talking the talk might earn you a few bob in the short term, but my objective is a gold medal and that doesn’t happen overnight. I also turn away horses that will jeopardise riding standards (and safety!) and (without sounding too scary!) I don’t do favours on prices. Again, I could earn more in the short term if I didn’t make those choices, but they are key decisions for the greater good.
It isn’t a case that we can afford to think like this, things are and always have been very tight since I started eventing full time. My philosophy is that I can’t afford not to. I can’t have anyone around me who thinks I’m worth less than I do. I can’t have horses that make me question why on earth I do this job – they have to have some glimmer of hope or talent that can contribute towards that gold medal. I need owners that support, encourage and believe – not ones that I am desperately clinging on to. I am extremely lucky that we have a small team of people around us that are just like that. I whole-heartedly believe that this small team can achieve great things, and if the team grows, it will do so because success attracts success.
Sponsorship – Essential Horse Tack and Feed
Sponsorship is slightly different. Especially when starting out, if you don’t ask you don’t get. But who you ask is crucial. The same principle applies – surround yourself with the best if you want to be the best. It would really knock me if I was tied to a sub-standard product for the sake of a few pounds. Would a true champion ever jeopardise their performance in that way? Horseware have been a huge support to me from day one. Wherever I go in the world that name is recognised and promoted as the brand for horse rugs and now many other products too. The lift I get in being supported by that is priceless.
The same goes for Connolly’s RED MILLS. We were using their feed long before they sponsored any riders. I’m not going to turn this into a marketing plug by elaborating on why we use RED MILLS – if you’re reading this you’re most likely a believer already. The point is what matters. We’ve had bigger offers from other feed companies but it would have meant a drop in quality. We are programmed to survive, we’ll always find a way. The question is at what level do we want to survive? If we accept mediocrity, we will be mediocre. If we set the bar at elite, then that’s where we’ll end up. So think about your team. It can impact you far more than you realise.
- Blair Castle
- Sam Watson