THE 2021 Eventing Ireland campaign got under way at the scenic Co Wexford venue of Blackstairs on Saturday, March 20th and concluded on Saturday, October 9th when 16 classes were run as Punchestown staged its third fixture of the season.

In all, 51 national events were held during the year, which is the most ever staged by EI, but this was due to events running over a costly two days because of continuing Covid-19 restrictions on the number of people allowed onsite. Forty-five events are planned for 2022. At over 1,400 for both, memberships and registrations in 2021 were up on last year.

A stand-out winner at that first Blackstairs event was Arthalent who was ridden to victory in a division of the EI100 by Clare Abbott for her mother, and Northern Region chair, Catherine who bred the bay. The Valent gelding was to go on and win three EI110 classes and a brace of CCIYH2*-S for six-year-olds at the two international events in Millstreet.

An automatic selection on his results, Arthalent was considered very much a medal prospect for the world breeding championship for young event horses at Le Lion D’Angers in October but was sold shortly beforehand to Britain’s Alison Swinburn and, in future, will be partnered by Piggy March.

That first event at Blackstairs was extremely successful but, unfortunately, the second, over the weekend of May 1st and 2nd, was not. Following a dry spell, the organisers had been unable to carry out remedial works on the cross-country tracks after the season’s opener resulting in a large number of withdrawals, particularly in the higher graded class on the Saturday.

“This is a fantastic venue,” said senior rider Paul Donovan in Sally Parkyn’s report which appeared in the Irish Horse World seven days later. “But a representative of Eventing Ireland should really have been ahead of the game and taken action earlier. It was a real shame we had to pull our horses, but the way it is today, the potential for jarring is too great. We wanted to run – it costs a lot of money to come and the courses looked wonderful.”

Inside a week, the governing body issued the following statement on the matter which, hopefully, will ensure that a similar problem will not arise again.

“Eventing Ireland regrets the circumstances that occurred on Saturday at the Blackstairs one- day event, and we recognise that many of our members, owners and riders felt let down. We are fully supportive of the decision to approve and run the event, but we do recognise that the Board of Eventing Ireland did not give adequate support to the Blackstairs organisers as a new, and much appreciated venue on the Eventing Ireland calendar in South Leinster, in understanding and communicating the needs of our members.

“We are committed to supporting the Blackstairs venue in hosting future events, and also the other new venues added to our calendar in recent years.

“We are undertaking positive steps to ensure that it does not happen in the future, and the Board has agreed we have a mentor in place with experience as both an Event Organiser and course designer, to work with the recent new venues such as Blackstairs, future new venues, and to offer additional support to these organisers.”

“We also recognise that the ground conditions generally are currently hard after an extended early season of dry weather and to give further confidence to our members, we are reminding our organisers of the availability of the aggravator and water grants to assist in ground preparation during this period of time.”

Northern Region

With a new variant of the Coronavirus emerging and an increase in case numbers locally in the New Year, the Northern Region of EI postponed and then cancelled their popular Flexi Eventing series. They also cancelled their seasonal pipe-opener of a two-phase event Tyrella and the scheduled first event of the campaign at the Corbett family’s seaside estate.

Following three one-days at Tyrella, action in the Northern Region moved to Maddybenny where landowner Philip White and his team had worked hard on the ground during the same length dry spell in the run-up to their event. Very sadly, and unknown to most at Maddybenny on Saturday, May 1st, Philip was taken to hospital that day and died in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The equestrian world was stunned to learn of the death of the event organiser, former event, show jumping and point-to-point rider who was a colourful character and full of enthusiasm for everything he tackled.

Three other events were cancelled in the Northern Region this season (Ballyvannon for lack of support) but the remaining Regions didn’t fare as badly. However, the Northern Region also got to stage a new event at Andrew and Laura Napiers’ Hazeldene Farm near Ballynahinch, where most competitors were delighted with the new cross-country challenge.

It had been hoped to return to Castle Irvine, Necarne in the spring but this was cancelled because of very heavy rain. Thankfully, the landowners were happy to see the Northern Region reschedule to August when the weather was perfect, adding to the wonderful atmosphere at the Co Fermanagh Estate. While those attending the event had to go through the now usual contact tracing, etc., members of the public just walked, ran or cycled in other gates as the venue is open 24/7.

All involved in the organisation of this year’s event at Castle Irvine, Necarne hope that it will host an international again sometime soon but even at national level, the well-placed fences and terrain were challenging if welcome.

“It’s a three-phase sport so it was good to see the three phases having an effect on the result and people knew the cross-country would be strong,” said riders’ representative Jonny Steele who had visited the venue in advance of the event. “There was an emphasis on fitness and riders had to be fully committed.”

Having come through the finish on Diamond Fusion, winner of the Irish Sport Horse EI100 for five-year-olds, Tokyo Olympian Sarah Ennis commented: “I know I fell with my first two horses in this class but these are exactly the type of tracks we need in this country.” Ennis, Steven Smith and young rider Tara Dixon rode two winners apiece.

Smith’s 1,000th ride

Speaking of Smith, and thanks to information compiled and supplied by EquiRatings, the Gilford rider marked a major milestone at Frankfort Stud in September when he notched up his 1,000th ride since the start of the 2011 campaign.

Given the opportunity to comment on the sport, the 57-year-old highlighted the change in the FEI rider classification system and MER qualifications, the poor prize-money on offer presently in Ireland and the clashes between advanced classes in the Northern Region and others on a Saturday.

“An example was running an advanced class in Kilguilkey against the return of Necarne. If we want to get, and keep, these brilliant venues, we all have to work together for the benefit of the sport,” Smith stated.

Asked how he kept himself so fit, Smith replied: “Mucking out in the mornings and general yard work alongside riding horses every day keeps me fit. I also enjoy playing football most evenings with my grandkids Troy, Harris and Theo. We have recently had two more grandkids, Lewis and Seth, but I might be in goals by the time they are ready to play! I also play badminton with my daughter Hollie.

“For me to do what I am doing, it wouldn’t be possible without having the backing and understanding of my wife Jenny, who takes care of everything else for me so I only have to concentrate on my horses,” concluded Smith. “In life, there are not too many people who can have their hobby as their job and I am lucky to spend my days working with horses.”

In April, EI announced that it had teamed up with EquiRatings to launch a new Stats Centre, based on EI results at Irish national and international events, on the organisation’s website.

At the end of the season, Steven Smith topped two categories well clear of his rivals, those for number of wins (33) and cross-country clears inside the time (77). Michael Ryan just prevailed when it came to number of runs – he made 109 starts, just one clear of Smith who, in turn, was one clear of Ian Cassells. The last-named narrowly topped the leaderboard for cross-country jumping clears, 99 as compared to Smith’s 96 and Ryan’s 86.

Although nowhere as high in any of those four categories, Clare Abbott nevertheless enjoyed an excellent campaign as from 35 runs, she recorded 15 wins, jumped clear across the country on 32 occasions and was inside the time on 13 of these.

As in the season just gone, the 2022 Eventing Ireland campaign is due to commence at Blackstairs in mid-March but, before then, Horse Sport Ireland is sponsoring an eight-leg combined training challenge taking place at seven venues throughout the country. Run by EI, it’s due to start at The Meadows (which is hosting two rounds) on January 29th and is open to members of all organisations affiliated to HSI.

Read all the 2021 national eventing reviews here.