WE’RE very, very lucky with the show movement that we’re part of an organisation [Royal Agricultural Society] that can engage young people. They want to be involved, we’re doing things that they are interested in. It’s just a matter of finding the right ways to engage with them.”
It’s the second-last day of a marathon 12 days of 6,000 competitions held at the Sydney Royal Easter Show and John Bennett, chairman of its Horse Committee, has squeezed in 15 minutes from his packed schedule to share some words of wisdom.
This affable character is in his element as he talks away while keenly watching the Welsh pony, thoroughbred and show jumping competitions, all simultaneously taking place four levels below in the aptly named Giants Stadium.
Around the northern hemisphere, it’s show business as usual after two years of either sitting out or tiptoeing through and around a pandemic’s necessary regulations. By then, the Sydney Royal Easter Show was already nearing its own clear round to mark its complete return to the show calendar.
Cancelled two years ago, it was held in 2021 but now with travel restrictions eased across Australian states, the crowds, all 900,000 of them, were back in force.
Trains, running at 10-minute intervals, brought hordes of families from the city and suburbs directly to the showground gates.
Other show-goers and exhibitors thought nothing of flying or driving hundreds and thousands of miles to the iconic show, where the banter flowed daily along the barn aisles, set up with deckchairs, tables, picnic baskets and kettles by exhibitors.
“It’s been great just to sit here and chinwag with your old mates, been a bit rough in the world the past two-odd years,” one Charolais exhibitor remarked in typical understated Aussie fashion.
Between bushfires, floods, drought and record mice infestation, it has been rough for farmers around Australia since 2019. Add in a pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands, an event that has also dominated Australian news, to make for unprecedented times. This year’s Easter Show pilgrimage was a welcome sign of old normalcy and networking for many of these dauntless owners.
2020 wasn’t the first year the show had to cancel. “The time before that was in 1919 because of the Spanish Flu. So the same thing occurred 101 years later, which is interesting because these days, an organisation like this has no shortage of processors, risk registers and all sorts of things and the thought of a global pandemic in 2020 was not something that was flagged on our radar anywhere at all,” said Bennett.
“I think we’ve all realised that life is not as controllable and predictable as we all thought it was to start with and we’ve learnt to be a bit more resourceful, more flexible and all sorts of things.”
A glass-half-full character, John Bennett found there was a silver lining amidst the upheaval.
“For an organisation like this show, we’ve learnt to do business in different ways. We’ve got a Council of 54 that runs this organisation drawn from all over New South Wales and we come here for two days every two months to put the plan together.
“It’s hard often for people to leave their farm and make their way in to the city, so now a couple of times a year we can Zoom and it’s great to see a farmer, sitting on their tractor in the paddock, participating in Sydney RAS meetings. We’ve certainly learnt a lot over the last couple of years.”
Encouraging the next generation is a key aim and practical team-building missions are one way forward. “I’ve been involved with the RASC (Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth) since about 2004 and held the position of the Next Generation Facilitator, so I was looking at ways to encourage young people to be involved in the show.
“So we started an idea of the Next Generation Understanding and Assistance mission, taking groups of young agriculturalists and people involved in shows to a developing country and having both people from other developing countries and UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada work together to put on a show.
“The first mission we went to Zambia, we went to Papua, New Guinea, Malawi, India, to countries right through the Caribbean and so every two years since then, the RASC send a group of young people to help run agricultural shows.”
The payoff from both that initiative and a range of next generation finals has seen an upsurge in teens and 20-somethings keen to be involved in and qualifying for the Easter Show.
“There’s many other organisations that find it very difficult to find young people to be involved in any way. For us, they’re there, they want to be involved. The young auctioneer final, rural achiever and young woman of the year competitions, getting our young stewards and judges out in the arena, they’re just some ways we encourage that,” added John, who began his term as ringmaster in 2016 and handed the responsibility over to James Angus this year.
“I’m the chair of the Horse Committee, having just finished six years as ringmaster. We do a six-year term in our positions and so, every six years, we rotate roles.
“The ringmaster is in charge of everything that happens in here,” he added, pointing to the arena below where stewards, known as ‘green coats’, sitting on grey Australian Stock Horses, are dotted around the perimeter. One of their roles is to lead exhibitors to and from the rings within the stadium.
“In racing, I’d suppose you’d call them clerks of the course. Basically, they’re also there to assist with leading a fractious horse on or off the arena or a kid that gets a little nervous. It’s a particularly daunting arena here to trot into for the first time, particularly for the younger competitors; the sound of the booming microphone, the crowds, the atmosphere, is really something.
“You can’t describe the atmosphere, sometimes it puts the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. The green coats need to be excellent, excellent horsemen and women to do it. We haven’t had our first female green coat as yet but that’s not far away!”
“They’re all volunteers and bring their own horses which must be grey. The mounted stewards in Australia usually wear red jackets but Sydney Royal Show is the one place you’ll see green jackets and our ringmaster wears tweed.”
The prevalence and standard of thoroughbreds - class after class of picture-perfect examples - was another striking feature of the Easter Show.
“The thoroughbred is a breed that we have been investing in significantly over the past years. Of course there’s enormous public interest in the rehoming of thoroughbreds after racing and the welfare of the horse.
“Racing New South Wales have been investing heavily in that sphere, as we have here and it just goes to show… that class that we’re watching in front of us here is our premier event for thoroughbred geldings and we’ve 55 horses in that class. Six or seven years ago, if we had 20 horses that would be good. It does go to show that if you invest in certain sections, they will come.”
The reason for his interest in the breed becomes apparent with this Kalgoorlie-sized nugget.
“My father was an eventer, he competed for Australia in the Olympics in Montreal and the RAS used to run a three-day-event out at the old showground. Show jumping was basically what I was elected to Council to help with, so that’s how I started.
“These days we train racehorses, we’re country trainers so the thoroughbred is where my interest is. I was glad in the very first class this morning when I had a quick glance through it and said to the ringmaster, ‘I’d have that one’ and it was the one that won. Everyone’s an expert when it comes to showing, aren’t they?” he said with a smile.
Between Tom McDermott, who went on to win the show jumping Grand Prix that afternoon and whose father Greg competed at Seoul, this is the second time an Olympian father has been mentioned in the same day.
“Dad competed in Montreal with the Australian team where they won team bronze, that was ’76, then he was selected on the team for Moscow but the Australian team boycotted Moscow so they went to the alternative Olympics in Fontainebleau instead. He took two horses across there, one he sold to Lucinda Prior-Palmer (Green) and they went on to win the world championship.”
“Regal Realm?” I ask.
“Yes, Regal Realm,” answers Bennett.
“Your father is Merv Bennett?”
“There you go!”
Lucinda recently announced that Up Up and Away, her book about Be Fair, the horse that brought the British eventing legend from Pony Club to the Olympics, has been re-released as a fund-raiser for the Ukranian relief charity Stand For Ukraine.
Featured on the front cover of the book, available on Amazon, is the famous photo of the pair jumping the notorious Fence 2 on the cross-country course during the 1973 European eventing championships held in Kiev.
Another of Lucinda Green’s books, Regal Realm. A World Champion’s Story, is about that quirky little ex-stockhorse bought from John’s father. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Australian event horses brought over to Europe to compete often had ‘For Sale’ stickers to avoid the prohibitive transport costs home and Green’s lucky buy went on to win both individual and team gold medals for her at those world championships in Luhmühlen in 1982.
Not only that, the pair recorded the fifth of Green’s six Badminton titles, all with different horses, and also placed individual sixth at the Los Angeles Olympics where they were part of the British silver medal-winning team.
ohn Bennett, Chairman of the Horse Committee at Sydney Royal Easter Show, with the Princess Royal at the Sydney Royal Easter Show \ Susan Finnerty
Merv Bennett was selected for a total of three Australian Olympic teams: Montreal, the Fontainebleau alternative and Los Angeles, all on another horse with the same ‘Regal’ prefix: the ex-racehorse Regal Reign.
The Australian’s team bronze medal was huge news back home as the country’s Montreal tally of one silver and four bronze medals fell short of their usual haul.
Hailed as heroes upon their return, the team of Merv, Denis Pigott (Hillstead), Bill Roycroft (Version) and Wayne Roycroft (Laurenson) was inducted into Equestrian Australia’s Hall of Fame.
The original plan was for Regal Reign to be sold after Montreal, however Bennett’s home town of Nowra fundraised to bring the horse back to Australia, a measure rewarded by two more Olympic appearances.
Another Montreal Olympics competitor at Bromont was HRH Princess Anne and the British team horse Goodwill. The now-Princess Royal made another welcome return visit this year to officially open the Show’s bicentenary event.
“The Princess Royal was here at the time she was president of the FEI, that was back in the old showgrounds and she presented the FEI badges of honour to Australian Olympians and notable equestrians. The time before that was when she was here with her parents and brother Prince Charles.”
When did the Royal Easter Show switch to its present home at Olympic Park?
“The show moved here the year before the Olympics  as a sort of trial event and we’ve been here ever since. We rent the facility here to the AFL (Australian Football League), we have enormous pop concerts and events here, so it really is a 365-day business at Sydney Showgrounds.”
Which is good news considering that some former Olympic sites, stadiums and purpose-built hotels become white elephants after the Games leave town.
“Interesting you say that because that’s what the Princess Royal said in her speech at the dinner: the last time she was in the precinct was for the Olympics and it was wonderful for her to see an Olympic venue used with such enthusiasm and love. You hear all too often that they go to rack and ruin afterwards, because that can happen unfortunately.”
Instead, Olympic Park’s excellent transport links have been maintained and hotels on the showgrounds doorstep are constantly busy, between various events hosted at the showgrounds, the Park and tourist footfall.
“A show like this, particularly the horse section, is a very expensive operation. We run at a large deficit but that’s our business, that’s what the Royal Agricultural Society is here to do, to deliver agricultural exhibitions.
“Obviously we try to minimise losses as much as possible by renting the facility to the football league, concerts and everything else. The surface has to be ready to play for the AFL 42 days after the show is over. If we write the whole arena off and have to re-turf it, it’s more than a million dollars to do that, so obviously we have to mind the surface and spread the wear across the arena.”
There’s a 14-month lead-time to each Easter Show. “Most of the 2022 planning was finished two meetings ago by November of last year. Everything was put to bed for this show and from then onwards, if you’re coming up with ideas, then that’s all for 2023.”
As well as a love of thoroughbreds, both father and son were awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM). Google later reveals Mery received his for service to equestrian sports as a competitor, coach and event coordinator. What did John receive his medal for?
“My medal of the Order of Australia was for services to agricultural societies, mainly owing to the work I’ve done with the RASC, which is the organisation that the Princess Royal is President of and of course her late father before her, when the organisation started back in 1953.”
One of several stops made around the Showgrounds by the Princess Royal was to the Riding for the Disabled Association display where she met each of the riders, helpers and members.
After the royal party, onlookers, photographers and TV crews have moved on to the next port of call at the Show, there’s John Bennett staying back to thank each of the RDA team.
As they say, ‘Manners maketh man.’