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Memories of showing at the Royal

SO Grandstand Media is taking over the management of the Royal Show Ground at Stoneleigh Park: I wonder what it will mean for the equestrian community if anything at all?

The news was announced in a press release issued at the beginning of January and as yet there is no information forthcoming on the company's intentions and no wonder as the ink on the contract is barely dry.

The best-case scenario will surely involve a blossoming of equestrian activity given Grandstand's involvement with the Horse of the Year Show; the worst-case scenario will be the company's diversification into the agricultural sector and equestrians will be kept out in the cold.

It was a tragedy that the Royal Agricultural Society of England ever got itself into the mess it did over its annual show, for the show community sorely misses it. It was one of the highlights of the show season for everyone involved in the livestock industry and I for one have very fond memories of attending.

My first experience there was way back in 1974 when I had not long taken up a job in teaching. It meant an after-school exit for the Royal, where we were showing some Welsh ponies for Wyn and Deirdre Colville, and an arrival at an unfamiliar show ground at midnight in the pouring rain.

Funnily enough, in the intervening years I don't remember many 'wet' Royals. In fact, the glorious weather normally experienced there is one of my abiding memories. (Incidentally, walking through the cattle sheds with their hanging baskets and troughs of bedding plants is another.)

I remember that Raymond Brookes-Ward, whom I recognised from television, was in the stable foreman's office enjoying some liquid hospitality. I also remember the water-logged stables and mucking out before the ponies could go in for a well-earned rest.

The best of memories from that experience was earning a reserve championship with Persie Concord, a pony later destined for Australia. It was the first taste of success for David Blair and me at a 'big' show other than the Royal Highland and we were completely made up.

Little did we know that within 10 years the same rings would afford us one of the best ever success during our showing career when our home-bred yearling Welsh mountain colt, Waxwing Herod, took his breed championship before going on to qualify for the Lloyds Bank in-hand qualifier at the Horse of the Year Show in 1983.

He was unplaced at Wembley but he had the distinction of being the youngest pony or horse ever to have qualified for this prestigious title.

It was one of those shows where the best ponies competed and the ringside was always busy with overseas visitors as well as many interested breed enthusiasts.

In those early days, I had no idea about the judges, their preferences but more importantly in the case of one judge, her eyesight, which obviously presented as a disability during the course of the morning. I had already taken up my position in the ring with a well-known stallion, which we were showing at the time, when I noticed that the judge kept swapping over two pairs of spectacles.

On and off they came as the ponies trotted out and the level of uncertainly of how well she was seeing them rose. As the handlers set off round the edge of the ring, it was difficult to know if and when their exhibits came into the judge's focus.

My solution to the problem was to trot my stallion across the diagonal ensuring that at some point he had to come into focus. He won, although I will never know how much of him the judge actually saw that day.

The poor surface of the main ring at Stoneleigh and what seemed like an eternal wait there during the grand parade were negative memories of the Royal. However, the organisers did improve the former and did away with the latter.

The best move they ever made on behalf of equine exhibitors was the construction of a large all-weather surface capable of housing several rings on which it was a joy to show.

Although some people had reservations at the time, I absolutely loved it both as an exhibitor and a judge because it ensured the best opportunities for ponies to show off their paces. Let's hope that the day for a similar facility at Ingliston isn't too far off since it sorely needs one.

It would definitely help to take much of the uncertainty out of staging the Royal Highland equestrian competitions in wet weather and it may well attract organisations to make use of the facility outwith Highland Show time.

With the continuing rising cost of fuel, it makes sense that major competitions are staged somewhere in central England and, with motorway connections near at hand, Stoneleigh provides a perfect site.

It is within a two-hour drive of a huge number of equestrian competitors in England and Wales and a five-hour drive from those living in Central Scotland. What it currently lacks are facilities for equestrian events, especially indoor facilities, which have become the norm for equestrian competition venues.

With the knowledge that a horse-orientated company has taken over the running of Stoneleigh Park, surely it is time for the many equestrian groups to gather support to make sure that the equestrian facilities at Stoneleigh are extended.

I am confident that it would not fall on deaf ears, as Grandstand Media will do what every other private company does, look for ways to make money, a goal not necessarily shared by those outwith the private sector.

Although no southern venue is satisfactory for the Scottish exhibitor, we have to admit that the best competition lies south of the Border and if we wish to compete with the best, it is there that we have to head. Stoneleigh, in my view, is considerably better situated than many places in England and this move is the initiative needed to give major equestrian events a home there.