Monday 24 June 2019

'I knew who was making the decision so it wasn't any big surprise to me' - Bertram Allen on Olympics omission

Two years on from his controversial Olympic omission, Bertram Allen is as driven as ever

Bertram Allen is in action at the Dublin Horse Show this week. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Bertram Allen is in action at the Dublin Horse Show this week. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Cathal Dennehy

When the call arrived, Bertram Allen had a hunch about its purpose, not that any fatalistic foresight could cushion the blow that it delivered.

It was June 2016, two months before the Rio Olympics, and Allen heard the voice of Robert Splaine, the show jumping team manager with Horse Sport Ireland, who told him that he and his horse Molly Malone V would be overlooked for Ireland's individual spot in Rio.

It was a berth Allen had won for Ireland earlier in the year via his world ranking, but he then had to sit back and watch on TV as it was utilised in Rio by Greg Broderick and horse MHS Going Global.

"I knew who was making the decision so it wasn't any big surprise to me," says Allen, referring to chef d'equipe Robert Splaine. "We won't get into the politics of it but he's..."

Allen's voice trails off, his feelings about the decision still clear.

"It was disappointing, especially after I'd won the spot and Molly had been so good through the years. She was an experienced horse, she could have gone and put on a good show, but that's the way it goes.

"I wouldn't have a chip on my shoulder. I knew from the way it was going all year that it was a possibility but it wasn't nice to take. I wasn't going to get anywhere sitting at home and feeling sorry for myself."

He got the call on a Tuesday, and two days later he was back competing - and winning - at a Global Tour event in Cannes.

"It was a matter of putting the head down, going on and showing them that they made the wrong decision."


He watched the Olympics alright, and though the anger had long since filtered out of his system he couldn't help wonder how Ireland hadn't managed to qualify a team.

"There was absolutely no question that if everything had have been done properly, we had a good team," he says. "We had a lot of experience, a team that should have been in the top five, and because everything wasn't done properly we were all at home watching it.

"It's been said loads of times how the Irish have such good riders - 20 years ago we used to win every Nations Cup and for the last 15 years it was a bit of a joke how good our riders were.

"We had more riders in the top 100 than any other nation but we never won any Nations Cup, but thankfully that's all turned around now."

In March last year Rodrigo Pessoa was named as the new chef d'equipe and Allen is in high praise of the Brazilian, a former Olympic gold medallist and world champion.

"Thankfully we've a new system and it seems to be much better," he says. "We won't have to be picking one to go because we'll have it done properly and we'll have a team qualified a long way in advance."

Under the guidance of Pessoa, Ireland won team gold at the European show jumping championships in Sweden last year, evidence to Allen that things have changed for the better.

"We've a great team spirit and everything seems to be working smoothly, everyone is in a good frame of mind," he says.

"We want to be on teams now to go to shows and win the Nations Cup - and it's not like you want to do that for prize money because there are plenty of other shows with better prize money, but there's nothing like representing your country."

That European gold was a curious kind of success for Allen as he didn't start the final stage of the team competition after being eliminated in an earlier round.

"Even though we won, it wasn't a show I'd have liked, being in an awkward position of us winning the medal but it wasn't thanks to me. But that's teams, there's no point giving out - go on and try to be the one who's the best next time."

Allen turned 23 last week, but his evolution into a world-class show jumper has been 17 years in the making. Born into an equine-obsessed family in Enniscorthy, Wexford, he was sitting on ponies at the age of six and riding them out at the age of eight.

In 2011 he spent Transition Year in Hunxe, Germany, working at the international breeding arm of the family's Ballywalter Farms, which is 20 minutes up the road from the yard of Marcus Ehning, an Olympic show jumping champion with Germany in 2000.

Allen was first introduced to Ehning by Billy Twomey, who had been his chief mentor on Irish soil, and as he rapidly progressed under Ehning's tutelage his planned year abroad became permanent.

Older sister April now heads up their yard in Germany, with Bertram juggling riding with all the other tasks required of a world-class show jumper.

"That's the hard bit: it's not just riding the horse," he explains. "It's trying to find horses, getting in with different people, buying young horses and developing them into Grand Prix horses. It's so much more than just going into the ring."

Last year Allen travelled to 48 international shows, a schedule that wouldn't be possible if he was still based at home.

Success has come early and often, Allen winning the prestigious Longines Grand Prix in Dublin at the age of 19 and playing a key role in Ireland's Aga Khan-winning team in 2015 aboard his brilliant chestnut Romanov.

This week, he will be back at the Stena Line Dublin Horse Show at the RDS, looking for more glory in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup; for Allen, competing in front of a home crowd always adds a dose of adrenaline, a welcome asset.

"That brings out your best," he says. "If you're not anxious and hungry to do well you're not trying hard enough. To win and be on the edge you have to be a bit brave."

Allen is ranked 24th in the world, and having once been as high as fifth his long-term goal is to get back there and then climb even higher.

"I'd love to be No 1 in the world, to be someone who's won as much as everyone over a long period. Everyone says they want to be Olympic gold medallist so that's a pretty obvious one too."

Ireland has five riders in the world's top 30, so things bode well for next month's World Equestrian Games in North Carolina, USA.

For all their successes, though, few in Irish sport with such world-beating calibre are less well known than our show jumpers, though Allen isn't bothered by his relative anonymity.

"I don't mind keeping a low profile, but the more success we have the more it gets in the public knowledge - if we can keep winning more medals more people will get to know it," he says.

By the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around, he figures his beloved mare Molly will be kicking on a bit, so the wheels are turning fast to find her replacement. Do that and Allen thinks anything is possible in two years' time.

"We just need to get our hands on a horse good enough because you don't want to be going to participate, you want to be going with a chance of an individual or team medal," he says.

"I've done a few championships, World Equestrian Games, Europeans - I've done all them except the Olympics and I know what it's like to have them go good and bad. So if I was in the right form and had the horses, I'd love to go to Tokyo and go to war."

The Dublin Horse Show starts at the RDS tomorrow

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