Saturday 23 November 2019

Showjumping: Beginning of the journey

Robert Splaine tells John O'Brien that the future is bright for Irish showjumping

That Wednesday morning, Robert Splaine woke in his apartment in the Olympic Village and felt good about the coming day.

Cian O'Connor lay outside the top 35 riders who would contest the final two rounds of the individual showjumping competition, but a lifetime working with brittle, four-legged athletes told Splaine not to give up hope. A good vibe swept over him. He had a feeling about it, a gut instinct.

He blocked his ears to the negativity that swarmed around him, the casual assumption that the Irish showjumpers were a beaten docket, bound for home without the merest sniff of a medal. Even when O'Connor made it through to the final two rounds as first reserve, there was barely a ripple of excitement. Splaine grew more bullish as the day proceeded though. "I'm not a gambler," he says, "but I reckoned they were a good each-way bet."

He'd spent the first three days of competition feeling slightly vexed. It wasn't all O'Connor's fault, but his horse Blue Loyd wasn't performing the way Splaine knew he could. There was more there. He'd known Blue Loyd long before O'Connor teamed up with him and he knew what the horse could do. And he knew O'Connor too. In that arena, when the pressure was at its most intense, he sensed they were capable of delivering.

And so the day unfolded. O'Connor jumped second of the 35 riders, producing one of six clear rounds. Only that he strayed 0.02 seconds outside the allotted time in the final round, he'd have earned a jump-off with Swiss rider, Steve Guerdat, for the gold medal. He would have to settle for bronze. "How tiny the margins can be," Splaine sighs. "If he'd stuck his tongue out he'd have made it."

As it was, there were no recriminations. How could there be? A showjumping medal for the first time in the country's history. Redemption for O'Connor after losing his gold medal in a blaze of controversy in Athens in 2004 and, for Splaine, a sense of vindication for the tough decisions he had taken as Ireland's chef d'equipe. Such a dramatic transformation in eight years.

He takes you back just a year, though, to the European Championships in Madrid, August 2011, the final attempt to qualify an Irish team for London. The team fell short and Splaine immediately felt the bitter wind of recrimination. The problem, he says, is that he didn't have a broad enough base of riders to choose from back then. He went with the form riders and they failed. In hindsight, he insists, he'd have picked exactly the same team.

"We didn't qualify and that was a huge disappointment," he says. "But I'm not a person who succumbs to that type of pressure in a negative way. There was pressure to do better. Okay, we can't qualify a team, but the first thing in my mind was to do the next best thing. Make sure we qualify two individuals."

By virtue of their world ranking, Denis Lynch and Billy Twomey secured the two places. That didn't mean Splaine was duty-bound to select them but Twomey had been in excellent form all season while Lynch had recovered from injury to deliver an impressive display in the Nations Cup in Rotterdam just before the cut-off point for nomination. Splaine informed his superiors in Horse Sport Ireland that Lynch and Twomey would be his picks.

And then all hell broke loose. At a morning inspection the day after Lynch jumped at Aachen, his gelding Lantinus tested positive for hypersensitivity in his hind limbs. For Lynch, it was the third case of hypersensitivity within 12 months and the implications would be severe. At a meeting in Dublin the following week, with Lynch in attendance, Splaine recommended that the rider's Olympic nomination be withdrawn.

He relays the sequence of events in a cold, clinical manner, like a judge summing up a murder trial, but it is clear the decision caused Splaine a great deal of personal anguish. "It wasn't a happy situation," he explains. "We didn't want that controversy. It was bad for the sport. But in my position I have to make these calls. It was something I needed to do for the best interests of the sport. Denis is a tough guy and he'll bounce back. I'm pretty sure about that."

With Lynch out of the picture, Splaine faced a tricky choice between O'Connor and the US-based Shane Sweetnam. O'Connor and Blue Loyd were a relatively new partnership, still trying to gel as a combination, but Splaine had noted how they always improved in the second round of the Nations Cup events they'd competed in, while in Aachen, a severe test of both horse and rider, they had excelled themselves over "mountains of fences".

And it was hard to miss O'Connor's burning determination to make it to London and his devotion to the Ireland team's cause. Splaine sympathised with Sweetnam because the rider had done so little wrong, but he believed that if O'Connor and Blue Loyd continued to improve, if their partnership clicked, they could be a medal contender in London. He had to go with that hunch.

He sensed something else too. A lingering smell from the Athens controversy that, for many people, would never fade away. In choosing O'Connor, Splaine knew he was hitching himself to a divisive figure who tended to polarise opinion both within and outside Irish showjumping circles, a reasoned gamble he was willing to take. "I know that in the aftermath of picking Cian O'Connor, me and my two advisers were in a lonely place," he says.

Lonely? "Well, basically a lot of people didn't agree with my position. But I have long since given up wondering who's behind me or who's supporting me. I get on with my job to deliver results for Ireland. And I won't be making excuses for bringing home a medal."

That such a prospect could even be conceived is an illustration of how relentlessly political a sphere Irish showjumping can be. Splaine knew this before he took the job in 2005. He had ridden at the top for the guts of 20 years by then. He knew what was required to be a successful rider and had the eye to identify a young horse with the potential to go to the top, knowledge he felt he could put to good use as chef d'equipe.

He knew disappointment too. What it was like to miss out on a cherished dream. Back in 2003, desperate to qualify for Athens, Splaine had struck up a brilliant partnership with the mare, Heather Blaze, owned by Sarah Ferguson, then Duchess of York. The partnership had enjoyed huge success around the world until Heather Blaze broke her leg at the Dublin horse show and had to be destroyed.

For Splaine, it was a devastating blow, but life moved on. Ferguson found him another talented horse, Coolcorron Cool Diamond, and they jumped beautifully to help Ireland secure their berth for the Olympics. A shoo-in for selection, Splaine remembers examining the horse the following morning and discovering he was lame in one of his legs. The exertions had taken their toll. His Olympic dream was in shreds.

"Soon afterwards this job came up and I said, dammit, maybe instead of trying to get another Olympic horse, let's have a go at this instead. It was a new focus. I'd say it was always in me to do it at some stage. I'd been around horses all my life. It was my passion. I felt I had some knowledge and I had confidence in myself to judge a horse and a rider and to be a part of it."

Seven years on now, the complexities still intrigue him. People sometimes compare his job to that of a Premiership manager, but he doesn't think it comes close. For one thing, a football manager picks his team and the rest sit on the bench. Splaine selects a team and the other riders are still out there on the circuit, competing as rivals when not as a team. The potential for friction is real and ever-present.

He was smart enough to realise that a chef d'equipe could be many things, but he could never be popular. Earning the respect of the riders was the best you could hope for. "You cannot be popular when the majority of the decisions you make will involve dropping more people than you're picking," he says. "You just have to be fair and transparent at all times."

He took the job at a time when the fallout from Waterford Crystal's positive test in Athens still cast a long shadow over Irish showjumping and the sports pages were full of stories of back-biting and petty squabbles among riders. Then came Lynch's disqualification in Beijing and a public lambasting from Irish Olympic Council president Pat Hickey. The sport had reached rock bottom.

Splaine knew that for Ireland to be successful, those differences needed to be set aside. Riders didn't have to pretend to be best friends but, when they came together, they needed to be professional and share information that might help them as a team. If they weren't willing to support the team, he insisted, then they could remain as individuals.

"Those arguments between riders, I've no time for them," he says. "They have to get on with it. We don't have an over-abundance of riders that we can say, 'okay I'll keep you and you apart'. I wouldn't subscribe to that view at all. When you're in a team, you're riding for Ireland, the Irish flag is flying. People have to be polite and work together and that's what they're now doing."

If you doubt him, he says, check the results. O'Connor's bronze medal was the meat in a sandwich that included Nations Cup victories in Hickstead and Dublin. Ireland is now ranked No 3 as a nation in the world. There are more Irish riders than ever inside the world's top 100 and more young riders pushing on behind them. A force to be reckoned with on the world stage again.

So he sees a bright future ahead and he is keen to be a part of it. His contract expires at the end of the year and he has already indicated his desire to the HSI board that he would like to remain for the 2016 Olympics. In just two years' time the world championships take place in France, the first chance to qualify a team for the Games. The road to Rio starts right now, he thinks.

The job happily consumes him. The pressure of dealing with riders who live in various time zones barely fazes him, his phone often ringing as early as five in the morning, a fresh round of problems and queries to be dealt with. He fizzes with ideas about how to improve things, the need to embrace owners more and to keep broadening the base of available talent. Always hungry and wanting more.

In a way his own appetite surprises him. "I suppose there was a time I'd have thought once we won a medal in London, I'd say thank you, that's all I ever wanted, good luck."

Not now, though. He thinks of London again and how the thrill of O'Connor's medal was tinged with regret at Twomey not performing better with Tinka's Serenade. Before the Games he had tried to enlist help so that the mare could be rested and brought to London in peak condition. Those efforts were unsuccessful, though, and that disappointed him because he feels it compromised Twomey's Olympic chances.

And that small sense of what-might-have-been drives him on now. Of course, he knows there's a chance the board might look elsewhere, thank him for his efforts and decide they want new blood at the helm. So be it. It would gut him not to be involved, though, not to have the chance to consolidate what they have achieved. "I can see now there could have been two medals in London," he says. "We should have a team in Rio and we can have even greater success."

So he looks behind and sees only the beginning of a journey. No time to get off the horse now.

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