June 21 2011
There was a time back in the 1960s and 1970s when showjumping was one of the most popular televised sports in Britain. The distinctively horsey tones of Dorian Williams would guide rapt BBC viewers through the climactic stages of the Horse of the Year Show and, if there was a nail-biting jump-off, the main evening news might even be put back. The sport’s popularity declined sharply over the next few decades, a slump that has now happily been reversed. However, in mainland Europe, showjumping, dressage and four-in-hand carriage driving have never been more popular.
Next month, equestrians and their supporters from all over Europe and beyond will make their way to Aachen in north-west Germany, home to the renowned Concours Hippique International Officiel, or CHIO for short. The prestigious show, which runs from July 12 to 17, is often described as the Wimbledon of equestrianism and is one of Germany’s biggest annual sporting events. More than 300,000 people attended last summer, from farmers and breeders to bankers, industrialists and politicians, including chancellor Angela Merkel. A trawl around the lavish hospitality areas suggested that the spectators are among the most prosperous of any sport in Europe – and Rolex, Mercedes-Benz and Deutsche Bank, the principal sponsors, clearly agree. The outdoor showgrounds, which include a 30,000-seater stadium for the showjumping and a 5,000-seater arena for the dressage, brim with atmosphere and the socialising is full-on throughout. If you are a connoisseur of the finest German beers, such as the deliciously dry and golden Warsteiner lager, you’ll be pleased to hear that the on-site bars stay open until the early hours.
International competitions started at Aachen in 1927, and on the walls of the director’s office are wonderful old black-and-white photographs of some of the great names of 50 years ago. Pride of place goes to Germany’s five-times Olympic champion Hans Günter Winkler and Piero and Raimondo D’Inzeo, dashing Italian brothers who used to ride in peaked caps and hacking jackets, disdaining such modern accoutrements as helmets and body protectors.
CHIO culminates on the Sunday afternoon with the Rolex Grand Prix, a showjumping classic featuring most of the world’s top riders. It’s followed by an extraordinary ritual called the Farewell of Nations in which all of the show’s participants return to the stadium for a grand parade and the crowd wave white handkerchiefs to bid the contestants goodbye. Helpfully for those who may not have brought their own, clean white handkerchiefs are available to buy; and when 30,000 well-dressed and well-disciplined German spectators are told to wave their hankies in unison and not to stop until directed, they do exactly as they are told.
There is no gambling allowed on-site in Aachen, but there will be a vigorous betting market on the showjumping and dressage competitions at next year’s Olympics. The most impressive performer I saw at CHIO last year was the resplendent Dutch dressage champion Moorlands Totilas – and if you can get better than even money about this black stallion winning the dressage gold medal in London, I’d say it’s the equivalent of money in the bank.