A VIEW FROM THE RINGSIDE
OLYMPIA 2021 PREVIEW
The London International Horse Show is back but not at its usual Kensington venue. Due to refurbishment of the great halls at Olympia, the show has moved to the ExCel Arena in East London. Sarah looks ahead to what promises to be a great day out for driving fans - December 2021
Christmas wasn’t the same last year for lots of reasons, but especially so without ‘Olympia’. Except that this year, ‘Olympia’ has moved across London to the East End as the hallowed halls are being refurbished and it’s now being held at the massive Millennium Dome/O2/ExCel and rebranded as the ‘London International Horse Show.’ Which it always has been, but the name Olympia is the one which stuck.
While it may be a well-oiled machine moving into a cavernous venue and making it home for a week or so, it really is a monumental task to build a horse show from scratch – and then take it down again. Looking at the sped-up films currently on social media, showing the behind-the-scenes action of creating arenas, providing stabling, making walkways, constructing shopping villages and so on, the logistics are mind boggling and surely rather complex. But Simon Brooks-Ward and his team are well versed in what’s needed, and thankfully, despite the tumult we continue to live through, the show will go on – just make sure you have your masks on and your Covid passes to hand.
For those of us who have enjoyed relatively easy passage to the West Kensington venue to date, it will take a bit more planning to get to the other side of London (although Minta and her Essex gang are delighted). Added to which, the show’s press office has sent out the timetables and venue plans, with a reminder that there will also be a tube strike on the Friday and Saturday which compounds the travelling challenges. How very British to throw a spanner in perfectly good works. Simon must be lying in a darkened room listening to whale music at the moment.
But what really interests us, of course, is the FEI World Cup Driving, which feels like it’s coming home for the London leg of the tour. How far the spectacle has come since those early days when Olympia hosted those first ‘Extreme Driving’ classes. We were immediately riveted and almost unable to breathe as we watched the likes of Boyd, Dan, Pippa and Karen steering their teams of big horses as breakneck speed over the course. While the crowd ‘ohhed and ahhed’, did they really appreciate the danger, the margins and the extraordinary skill of this new event?
The Driving World Cup is now an established part of the FEI calendar and has earned its place at the elite events in Europe, alongside the superstars of the show jumping and dressage spheres. There are now world rankings, world titles and a huge rule book alongside the competition. But this 2021-22 season, for obvious reasons, the list of usual events has been depleted due to cancellations and the concerns relating to changeable international travel restrictions. But we are so lucky that the technology plays its part, and we can sit in the comfort and safety of our own homes and watch the action live via FEI TV. My only gripe is that I wish they would provide a more informed commentary which elaborates on how complex and finely tuned the event is. Our friend and usual commentator Phil Ghazala should be in place for the London event, but we have missed his informed and infectious accompaniment at some of the events this year.
The season so far has been absolutely gripping and one can draw parallels with the nail biting Formula 1 climax. Boyd Exell, who was so instrumental in the inception and governance of the new discipline, has to date been largely dominant and the one to beat. He can, and has, been beaten but as the ultimate competitor, he remains the one who sets the benchmark by which others place themselves. A previous champion, the Dutchman Bram Chardon, looked extremely impressive this last weekend in Geneva at his first competition of the season. Wearing a new green and yellow livery thanks to sponsorship from John Deere, with a magnificent team of greys, he was untouchable. Not only was he fast, although not necessarily the fastest, he drove the cleanest rounds and didn’t rack up expensive penalties, with the balls all staying where they should. Also, on the Geneva leg there was a water phase in the middle of what is one of the larger arenas on the tour, and it really added to the drama watching the teams splash through at top speed. The crowd always gets behind its local competitor and the shouts were the loudest for Jérôme Voutaz driving a team of bay Swiss Freiberger horses. Although his first round was heavy on the penalties, such was the electricity of the atmosphere that he took it to another level for the second round, he found another gear and ended up with a podium place.
To date, Boyd won at the opening event in Lyon, came from behind to clinch Stockholm and was pipped by Bram in Geneva. Although not strictly a ‘homeboy’ in London, he will inevitably garner some of the biggest cheers of the event. But the loudest support will surely go to Daniel Naprous who, like Boyd, will compete with a wild card ticket. The others in the line-up are Ijsbrand Chardon (NED), Dries Degrieck (BEL), Koos de Ronde (NED), Mareike Harm (GER) and Jérôme Voutaz (SUI). All of them are capable of toppling the king from his throne and it promises to be a fantastic, floor thumping showcase for driving at the highest level.
The London event is boosted by an additional day of the competition, which Dan did so well in last time in 2019, which is still termed ‘Extreme Driving’ on the Thursday. This is sponsored by long term supporters of driving, the World Cup and indeed integral members of Boyd’s team, Hugh and Karen Scott-Barrett. As Hugh said, ‘London is the highlight of the FEI Driving World Cup season. The new venue at ExCel makes this year even more exciting. Karen and I are delighted to be supporting the Extreme Driving which provides an opportunity to showcase driving over three days of the show. We wish Dan Naprous the very best and hope he makes the podium again, although, as Team XL, we will be doing our best to provide some tough competition.’
The driving opens the afternoon programmes on the Thursday and the Friday, and the evening’s performance on the Saturday. This opening slot in the proceedings, rather than being amidst the jumping and dog agility as it once was, is a nod to the more technical courses which take a lot of building and sorting out, plus allowing the drivers enough time to walk them properly out of the spotlight. The FEI ranking competitions per sae will take part on the latter two days and are being overseen by Andrew Counsell who is ground jury president, supported by other familiar names such as Barry Capstick and James Rooney as ground jury members, plus Philip Bateman as chief steward and Jeannie Lane as technical delegate. The course is being designed by the experienced Dutchman Jeroen Houterman who is currently on his FEI cycle in the role.
Although the number of competitions in the 2021-22 FEI World Cup Driving season has been halved, and the list of competitors and frequency of their outings is much reduced, the best we can do is appreciate the wonderful shop front that these talented drivers, highly trained horses and their devoted teams provide. We all acknowledge that the ‘Dome’ will be better for the competitors who will have much more room to move around and exercise their horses, without having to negotiate the crowded and narrow streets of West London. It’s also significantly easier for the big convoys arriving from Europe by road to access. And of course, we all hope that the atmosphere in a bigger arena with lots more seats to fill will match that of our beloved Olympia, where we all rather hope the show will return.
As Andrew says, ‘It is really exciting to be heading to ExCel for this year’s FEI World Cup Indoor Driving Competition. This is a new venue for the sport, and I am sure it will provide excellent facilities. Great credit must go to the amazing team from Hpower for putting the event on in challenging times. The competitors always look forward to coming to London and this year we have a very exciting group of top drivers. It’s good to see Daniel Naprous representing the UK and I hope all who come will give him an added cheer.’
But we really mustn’t forget that driving usually plays another important role at the London International Horse Show, in the festive closing slot after each programme. For many years, John and Pebs Brown have provided the horses which convey either Santa and Mrs Claus, or Charles Dickens, or a clutch of elves, depending on the theme of the entertainment. Horses Bullet & Floyd, leader and wheeler from the Brown’s original grey team, will be driven and managed by Lee Bonnell and Mandy Hannam, who always embrace the fun, dress up (Mandy makes a great elf) and throw themselves into character. With the pizzazz of the occasion and shower of streamers which flow from the roof, providing that spectacle for the crowds really isn’t a task for the faint hearted.