HAVING previously spent three years as Development Manager of the Irish team, Co. Clare’s Michael Blake landed the biggest job in Irish Show Jumping in 2019, when he was named High Performance Director of the senior team. It looked as though 2020 would be a hectic year for Blake, with a packed schedule of Nations Cup competitions leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in July. The global Coronavirus pandemic has of course thrown all those plans out the window, however in his typical no-nonsense fashion, Michael Blake is focusing on the positives.
“I have been at home now for over 50 days, which is very unusual for me. I would have been in Mexico this week, Le Touquet the week after, La Baule, St Gallen and so on – we were just preparing to get into a very busy season, but it’s the same for everybody else. Obviously, this being my first year as High Performance Director, I was keen to get going. I am very thankful to Horse Sport Ireland for this opportunity and the support that I have received since taking up the role has been really fantastic. It has always been my burning ambition to manage the Irish team. It’s a bit unusual in the first year you get your dream job that the world stops, but the world will restart. It gives us a good opportunity for reflection. I know my subject reasonably well and I learned much from my predecessor Rodrigo Pessoa and I am now ready to press ahead.”
With many countries around the world, including Ireland, now setting out a roadmap to recovery as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, Blake sees Equestrianism as one of the first sports that can resume some form of action when it is deemed safe to do so.
“There is a bit more hope for our sport to get back up and running in that it is non-contact like golf and tennis, so I suppose we are lucky. It is not fully reliant on spectators. Of course, you always would like to see a large crowd of spectators at a competition as it stimulates atmosphere, but at least if we could get some form of sport running again we would have something to keep us going, but it will have to come back in a controlled fashion. Of course we are more than just a sport. We are an outdoor economic activity creating huge employment and hugely contributing to the economy.”
With the decision having been made to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until next year after months of uncertainty, did it come as somewhat of a relief to Blake to finally get a decision?
“At least we now know where we stand. It’s very difficult to prepare for something when you don’t know if it is going to be on or when it is going to take place. At least we know that it’s not on this year and all going well will take place in July 2021 and we can change our plan, perspective and goals for the coming year.”
So does he feel a 12 month delay will help or hinder Ireland’s chances of success in Tokyo?
“It certainly won’t be a disadvantage to us. We have some horses who are a little older, but it’s not so much about the age it’s about the miles on the clock and those riders with the older horses are very professional and they will be thinking about the bigger picture and keeping those horses aimed at specific targets or maybe they will have other horses coming along. In addition to that, we have some other riders with some new mounts, which are very interesting, so we probably have more choices going forward than we had for July 2020.”
Michael was asked how long he feels it will take for horses and riders to get back to the top level once competitions resume?
“These horses are all being produced by very professional people, who understand what they will need to do. I would think that things will start firstly with some national shows, graduating to two-star shows and building from there. You can’t go directly back in the ring at 1.60m, no matter how good you are. Combinations will be a bit rusty, but many of the horses jumped the winter circuits in Florida and in Spain and were in very good shape. They have been eased back now but most of them are still in work, doing medium work and gymnastic exercises to keep them supple and active, waiting for the nod and itching to get back in the ring. So when we get the go ahead, it would only take them five or six weeks to be back up to a high level again. I am in contact with our riders and receive videos of their horses in work, so I am very happy with how they are adapting and keeping ready. We don’t want to do too much with them at this stage, because we still haven’t a clear plan going forward with timelines.”
Michael Blake was involved with Horse Sport Ireland in setting up a hugely popular series of training tips videos from Ireland’s top riders, which has been nominated for The Irish Field/ GAIN Equine Nutrition Star of the Month Award for April.
“It looks to have been very successful. The lads now seem to be competitive amongst themselves in their production of the videos, which is great. They take a bit of time to put them together. We are hoping to end up with maybe 20 videos overall and have them all in one file, so people can easily refer to them. It shows that our international riders remember where they came from and they are willing to give something back. They are very specific in the training and they give the different distances and reasons for the various exercises. What I really like about these videos is that there is no big jumping in them and they are giving the right message to our up and coming riders that it is not about big jumping, it’s about how you jump not what you jump.”
Blake feels that fielding so many Irish teams in Nations Cup competitions has had huge benefits.
“When you give people opportunities at Nations Cup level, their owners really appreciate it. For us, we try to ensure that the riders and owners know our plan in advance and that I believe is very important. For us, almost 90 percent of our horses are owned by patrons who don’t come from Ireland. In the main, they are successful business people and if they are to travel from Europe to America or vice versa to see their horses jumping, they need sufficient notice. They have busy schedules and appreciate prior knowledge and, because we do so many Nations Cups, we can give opportunities to a large number of riders and give them six to eight weeks or maybe more advance notice of the shows that they are going to. Possibly as a result, owners are more inclined to keep their horses as they see a definite plan going forward.
“We also have many people in America with Irish roots and they enjoy being part of our team. We have riders that went out to places like America, Europe and the UK with very little guaranteed opportunity. They worked really hard, understood the business, acquired owners and made a successful career for themselves. I believe we have almost 30 Irish riders in the USA with an FEI licence and a similar number in Europe and the UK.”
Michael Blake has been involved in Irish Show Jumping for many decades, including pony and young riders, spending five years with the under age squads. In 2013, he started a bursary system for young Irish riders to get opportunities in the USA and Europe.
“Several Irish Young Riders are now doing extremely well in America, Europe and the UK. Jenny Rankin, Cormac Hanley, Oliver McCarthy, Stephen Moore, Eoin McMahon, Michael Duffy, Michael G Duffy and many others – they are all very successful and we also have many other Irish people, who might not be riding at the top level abroad, but have set up excellent careers as trainers also sourcing horses for our riders.”
While Michael Blake is keen for sport to resume as soon as possible, he is cautious that it can only happen under the correct conditions.
“Health has to come first. We have to plan it out correctly, because the worst thing that could happen would be to start up and then to have it shut down again a few weeks later. The recent submission from Horse Sport Ireland to Government on restarting our sport is very comprehensive, with safety a priority. We are so long without shows now, if it takes another few weeks so be it, lets get it done correctly and with a definitive plan.”