Sunday 24 March 2019

Balancing priorities is elementary for Watson

Sam Watson and Horsesware Ardagh Highlight, one of two horses he rides at the Tattersalls International Horse Trials this week Photo: Jenni Autry/Eventing Nation
Sam Watson and Horsesware Ardagh Highlight, one of two horses he rides at the Tattersalls International Horse Trials this week Photo: Jenni Autry/Eventing Nation

Aisling Crowe

A galaxy of stars will converge outside Ratoath in Co Meath this week as some of the world's greatest equestrians compete in the Tattersalls International Horse Trials.

An important competition in its own right, Tatts takes on an even greater significance in this World Equestrian Games (WEG) year and with the championships a little over three months away, the best in the world are converging on Meath to fine-tune their preparations.

For the Irish riders who have secured their qualification for the world championships, it offers a brilliant opportunity to test themselves and their horses' preparations for the North Carolina event, as well as the possibility of winning a coveted title against world and Olympic champions, including eventing legends Mary King, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson.

Carlow's Sam Watson has qualified two of his horses for WEG and will be competing with both at Tatts this week to ascertain their readiness for the championships in September.

"Tatts is a vital part of the build-up to the worlds and we don't run our best horses very often - maybe five internationals in a year - so Tatts is a big opportunity as part of our preparations," he says. "A large majority of the WEG field is competing at Tatts so it's very convenient as a rider to have that opportunity at home and as an eventing fan it is very exciting to see the best in the world competing in Ireland."

The 33-year-old has amassed a wealth of experience already in his career having represented Ireland at world and European championships since he made his international breakthrough on the wonderful Horseware Bushman in 2010, representing Ireland at the World Equestrian Games.

With one eye on those games, this week at Tatts will be an important seven days for Watson's horses.

"I am old enough and wise enough to know that I need to focus on trying to get the best performance out of me and my horses. But I'm constantly looking for new information all the time, whether that's trying a different warm-up or modifiying the training regime and it varies from horse to horse. At Tatts with the large crowds who turn out, you are simulating a championship environment so you're looking for ways to gain extra points in dressage or improving technique in the jumping ring in front of these large crowds."

It's a different approach for the humans on the team.

"On a personal note as I have become more experienced I have learned to concentrate on what's important and I try to make things as normal as possible at an event. So Hannah, my wife, who looks after the horses and I try to keep our heads down and pretend we aren't at a major international competition."

Eventing is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, with the obstacles of the cross-country phase presenting the greatest risk to both horse and rider. As in any sport, with that increased element of danger, the frisson of risk increases the exhilaration for competitor and excitement for spectator.

Watson and his friend Diarmuid Byrne established Equi Ratings in Carlow three years ago, the rider utilising his degree in statistics from Trinity College to benefit the sport by improving safety for riders.

"It's not every sport where you jump into a lake and then jump over two pick-up trucks reversed back to back! To keep growing as a sport we need to manage the risk and what we do with Equi Ratings is to manage the risk on an individual basis and it goes hand-in-hand with the sport. We use analytics on an individual level for each horse and rider to determine their risk and operate a system that's a bit like penalty points," he explains.

His twin roles benefit each other.

"I am a horse rider by day and a computer programmer and data analyst by night but that's start-up life for you!" he smiles. "My focus is on the horses for the first part of the day but they complement each other because I learn things that can help me improve through it. As a competitor I always want to improve and my ranking to be higher and analysing data helps me to do that too."

As well as partnerships with Eventing Ireland, the FEI and USEA, the company is investigating adapting their systems for horse racing too.

On top of training horses and competing, many eventers need to be proactive business people, sourcing finance and funding to hold on to their horses when they reach international level. Ireland's reputation as one of the best countries in the world at producing event horses ensures that Irish horses are highly sought after by the world's leading riders, making it difficult for our own eventers to hold on to the horses they have produced as they also have to earn a living.

"We are one of the top nations in the world and producing and exporting horses from racing to showjumping and eventing. It is difficult to balance that as an athlete who wants to win medals and championships that when you have the right calibre of horse produced to international level with another Olympic cycle in them, that they are sold." One way Watson has approached this dilemma is to have a smaller string of horses with the emphasis on quality but having fewer horses in his yard is a higher risk.

Marketing the chance to be part of the Olympic Games, by owning all or part of a horse, is one way to attract people into ownership, which is less of a financial risk than owning a racehorse.

"Horses do compete right up until their late teens and there is the opportunity for people to have a share or stake in an Olympic horse that could compete in two Games and two or three worlds as well as European championships," he says. "People could buy into a horse now who will take them to Tokyo in two years' time. We have to look at ways to get people involved in owning horses from a marketing point of view."

His active brain has always been searching for ways of securing his horses' future with him. When his career began to take off, Watson approached Red Mills with an idea and he is now a brand ambassador for the global brand which is local to him.

"We have used Red Mills all our lives and it got to a point where I was starting to produce results so I went to them with a plan for sponsorship and they listened and I'm very grateful they have supported me," he adds.

Retaining Ireland's best horses to compete in the green and gold at Tatts, WEG and Olympic Games is vital for the sport and attracting owners into eventing so that someday in the near future that galaxy of champions at Tattersalls will include Irish Olympic and world champions.

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