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A new way of looking at things from Down Under

Despite the euphoria expressed in last month's column about my incredible trip to the Cheltenham Festival, I can't say that it wasn't a hassle getting there and back.

Not so for the Grand National Championships held at the Sydney International Equestrian Centre from March 26-29 when all I had to do was pour a cup of coffee, pull up my chair and watch it via a live stream brought to me courtesy of the Internet in my kitchen. It certainly beat a 26-hour flight to get there.

Organised by the well-established Show Horse Council of Australasia, to quote the show secretary, Leonie Roberts: "The Grand National is a massive undertaking, getting bigger and better every year, to become the most recognised Show Horse event in the Southern Hemisphere."

The Show Council certainly pulled out all the stops to stage an event somewhat akin to our own Horse of the Year Show, which it may well become sometime in the future, although meanwhile it more resembles an evening performance at an early Ponies UK Summer Championships at Peterborough.

Staged in the main arena at the Sydney International Equestrian Centre, the purpose-built complex for the 2000 Olympics, the nationals featured a 'Night of the Stars' on the third evening which was a showcase for the the event's three major championships.

The event had style, characterised by the themed backdrop of a French garden created three dimensionally on a blank canvass, with extravagantly furnished pavilions in the corners of the ring for judges and stewards.

Organisation was slick and it was a mark of their progressive thinking that it employed the services of LHMTV to live stream the four days of competition for an audience both national and international, capturing some 50,000 viewers.

With only one ring operating throughout the event, the staging was relatively easy and it did provide excellent exposure for advertisers during the mandatory breaks. Incredibly, it was an e-mail from a friend watching the show on his mobile from Bondi Beach which alerted me to the live stream.

I have to say it confirmed my worst suspicions that showing can be boring, as each championship class took approximately two hours to judge, a long time by any standards but, thankfully, interspersed with comments from the TV company's host, Jeremy Roberts, who struggled at times to find novel things to say.

Some of his guest speakers were interesting and the production team reminded me of a watered down version of the S4C (Welsh TV) coverage of the Royal Welsh Show, which goes out daily on the Welsh-speaking channel and the Internet.

We are so used to well-honed professional TV productions that we tend to forget that sounding knowledgeable isn't as easy as we think. Could it be on the cards for the Royal Highland - I wonder? If it is, remember you read it here first.

Ponies and horses had to qualify for the nationals, so there was a high quality field in each of the classes which came before three English judges, Lucy Killingbeck and Bridget Ensten (who had judged for the council in 2007) and Lucinda Haines, a new name to me. In a tradition away from our own in the UK, all exhibits, including hunters, performed individual 'workouts' following an initial go round together in heats before a final line-up of 10 or so came before the judge for conformation assessment.

Due to the single judge system, it naturally took a long time for each class to be placed, a practice which we left behind years ago. However, there was no question that the winner was the definite choice of the judge and not the compromise we often witness in our current two judge system for HOYS qualifiers.

There were several aspects of the show worthy of comment, including the high standard of riding by the jockeys, particularly youngsters whom British riders would do well to copy.

They were effective and purposeful in their approach and looked as if they could be equally at home in a dressage ring. Individual performances included one-handed extended canter and relaxed loose-rein walk across the middle of the figure of eight. Easy transitions and a soft contact were features as well as free moving ponies, not one of which went over bent.

Interestingly, there seemed to be no compulsory standing before and after each show, with some riders simply saluting to the judge as they trotted in and out of the ring. It was a bit different, but what's wrong with that?

The production of the exhibits and riders was to a high standard, although I was amused to see the big, full, false tails which seemed necessary for every exhibit.

Young riders have abandoned their 'old-fashioned' long-skirted riding jackets for the short variety to which we have long been accustomed in Britain. It has been and continues to be a tradition of showing 'Down Under' that numbers are worn in neck straps and not round the waist of riders, a feature which flatters the long-fronted exhibits while accentuates the shorter fronts.

As in Britain, there were few boy riders and small adults rode in all pony classes other than those specifically for children, a tradition which we have come to expect in all our mountain and moorland classes.

The classification was by and large the same as the UK, however there was an acquired taste in the interpretation of the term 'hunter' for both horse and pony. Bone and substance seemed to be lacking although admittedly it is difficult to assess this watching a screen.

That apart, what appeared to be lacking was that workman-like quality which goes alongside the term and one picked up on by the judges, particularly Lucy Killingbeck, in her informative post-class commentary.

There were some beautiful thoroughbreds which had come from the race course through a government-sponsored retraining scheme, which was obviously effective, and the influence of the European Warmblood was evidenced throughout the classes. The overall hunter champion, France, a beautifully mannered 17 hh five-year-old horse with exceptional movement was by an Advanced Australian dressage stallion.

If I was pushed to select one special feature of the show, it would have to be the championship garlands which were so 'over the top' that they were amazing even to my conservative eye.

Philippa Harcourt, of HM Garlands, spent months fulfilling the contract, using for each approximately 5m of seven different fabrics, more than 100 silk flowers, sparkling manufactured jewels and fairy lights - yes, they lit up!

Her creative flair was evident and there's no doubt that the proud winners took away something to treasure other than just memories of a great show. And it was a great way to gear up for our own forthcoming season.