Curtain comes down on unfortunate controversy

THE announcement of Eddie Macken as Olympic team trainer by the Show Jumping Association of Ireland (SJAI) selectors this week, will, hopefully, bring the curtain down on the unfortunate controversy that had sprung up around the position.

Macken's ascension to the post came after Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Mullins, the selectors' original choice, magnanimously stepped aside, following representations by some of the 17 long-listed riders on behalf of Macken. A positive view would have it that those involved in making the decision gave due eminence to the riders' opinion. Realistically, however, the controversy tarnished what should have been a positive move, particularly in the wake of record Irish Sports Council funding for equestrianism.

The naming of show jumping legend Macken to the position was made at a deferred meeting of the selectors last Tuesday and sees him joined on the sidelines by:

* Tommy Wade as Olympic show jumping chef d'equipe;

* John Ledingham as equestrian team manager (his brief also covers the eventing and dressage teams);

* Lt Col Mullins, who will continue in his previous capacity as chef d'equipe at nations cups where Wade is unavailable.

While Vancouver-based Macken will not receive a salary for his valuable input, his inclusion will not be cost-free, with the SJAI facing an expenses bill of approximately €40,000 for his attendance at seven Samsung Super League shows and the Athens extravaganza. It would be churlish to argue against this outlay, however, particularly if the benefit of hindsight sees us winning a medal. Ultimately, we have shown we can beat the best and, with a professional approach, we can lay our hands on the holy grail.

All concerned, not surprisingly, poured oil on the troubled waters heretofore surrounding Macken/Mullins, opting instead to focus on the primary goal.

There never was any controversy, said Macken. "The original appointment [of Lt Col Mullins] was made, but when it was reviewed it was decided that it was best to have us all on board," he said. "Myself, Tommy Wade and Gerry Mullins are all happy with the outcome and now it's just a case of getting on with the job.

"I firmly believe that with the riders and horses available, we have an excellent chance of bringing home a medal in 2004," said Macken, who, crucially, has yet to have his Olympic accreditation arranged.

Army Equitation School Commanding Officer Mullins was not at Tuesday's meeting, instead, welcoming Britain's Princess Anne to McKee Barracks. He, however, was singing from the same hymn sheet as Macken, saying he was happy with the outcome. Selectors' chief Peter Leonard was also upbeat. "The riders will have no excuse now, as they have the best possible back-up with Eddie, Tommy and Gerry, along with the support of the SJAI and the Sports Council," he said.

Macken, meanwhile, said his training experience in the Canada, the US and Mexico in recent years, along with his previous role as chef d'equipe notably to the winning nations cup team at Calgary made him perfectly suited to the trainer's post.

A further meeting on Tuesday involving 11 of the 17 riders on the Olympic long list saw the naming of a provisional team of five riders: Cian O'Connor (Waterford Crystal), Robert Splaine (Coolcorron Cool Diamond), Billy Twomey (Luidam), Kevin Babington (Carling King) and Peter Charles (Pershing, It's Magic Max). With injury and loss of form always a possibility, the make-up of the team is subject to change in the run-up to Athens, with riders such as Jessica Kurten bidding to steal one of the four places available.

The seven Samsung Super League shows prior to the final in Barcelona which is post-Athens are: La Baule, Rome, Lucerne, Rotterdam, Aachen, Hickstead and Dublin.

Teams will also compete at non-Super League shows in Copenhagen and Falsterbo, while Helsinki is also a possibility.

With the Games opening on August 13 and the equestrian events running from August 15-27, the selection of a team for Dublin (August 4-8) could prove problematic. Horses will need time to acclimatise in Greece. Accordingly, a weakened team could line out in the competition for the Aga Khan trophy, but Leonard says this will be discussed with the riders as the date approaches.

BILLY TWOMEY'S mother Jill will have more than the exploits of her son to distract her in the next few months, with major interests in Cheltenham and Aintree race meetings.

The Cork woman bred Lord Atterbury, who is entered for the Foxhunters' Chase in Cheltenham and is also to the fore in the betting for the Martell Cognac Grand National in Aintree. Out of the dam Tammyiris, he his by Mr Lord.

Another Cheltenham distraction will come via Keen Leader. Bought by Twomey as a three-year-old at the derby sale in Fairyhouse, he went on to win a point-to-point at Knockanard before being sold as a five-year-old through Ger Hogan to David Nicholson. Now trained by John Joe O'Neill, he is prominent in the Cheltenham Gold Cup market.

EVENTING IRELAND are joining up with Navan Races on March 6 to raise funds for their Olympic bid. Tickets are priced at €100 for the meeting, which will feature the Eventing ireland Olympic Maiden Hurdle.

VIP treatment for ticket holders will include access to the Boyne Hospitality Suite, four-course lunch, a celebrity tipster, bar facilities, cabaret entertainment after the races and an auction of fundraising prizes. Table bookings of 10 are also available. For reservations, telephone John Swanton: 046/9555306.

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