The country's hopes of regaining its footing on the world endurance riding stage have faltered with the withdrawal of two-time national champion Jenny Champion from the country's World Equestrian Games endurance team.
The withdrawal of the Eketahuna-based rider follows the defection of 2010 national champion Sue Reid from the team two weeks ago. With two riders gone from the squad of five, it means that the three remaining riders must all complete the event for New Zealand to be in with a chance of success. Previously, one rider was to compete as an individual and the other four as a team.
Endurance is a sport with training and consistency at its heart. But New Zealand team riders have been told who will be grooming for them at the World Games. Each rider can have two, but Champion's number one groom, endurance stalwart John Stevenson - who, she says, "has a CV as long as my arm" - was considered "not good enough" by selectors. Her second groom, Shane Dougan, has also pulled out of the games as a result.
Stevenson, who was a member of New Zealand's gold-medal team at the World Championships 1998 in Dubai, is one of only two elite endurance coaches in the country. He was coach of the 2006 NZ endurance team in Aachen, the same year that Dougan represented New Zealand at the WEG.
"Basically the selectors wouldn't choose my number one groom, he's not good enough," Champion told Horsetalk today.
Champion, who has ridden her arabian mare Freckles to the national 160km title twice, and has twice been runner-up, has had the services of Stevenson as groom for about three years. Freckles, she says, can be temperamental. "In endurance riding you need people who know your horse. I don't want any outsider coming along and interfering, and causing her heart rate to go up. You have to be quiet around her. They (selectors) know this, of course."
Sue Reid, who pulled out of the team in mid-July, had also been refused her top groom, Pip Mutch, who owns Reid's mount Makahiwi Achilles. Reid and Achilles won this season's national and North Island endurance titles. She was not available for comment today.
"We had a big meeting in Wellington last week, to say we were a bit concerned and we need (our) people, but they didn't want to budge. The official line, Champion said, was that the top grooms she and Sue Reid wanted, "were not good enough".
"That's all they could say. John's not good enough, and (Sue's top groom) Pip didn't fill out her CV properly, and wasn't 'enthusiastic enough'. That's ridiculous," Champion said.
"I'm just disappointed in everything, really. Shane is pretty annoyed. He's been pretty hot on the phone trying to resolve all this, but no-one wants to budge. I've just had a gutsful of it really, it's a bit sad.
"I feel pretty poor, pretty let down and disappointed, because I've been training for this. But you've got to stand up for your principles. I'm not going to budge.
"I didn't want to have any other grooms that they selected to come along - in my eyes they're not as qualified as John.
"He was not very impressed, as you wouldn't be, not with what he's done in his lifetime."
There would be pressure on the remaining team members Alison Higgins (Twynham El Omar), Debby Worsfold (Northwinds Bradley McGregor) and Jenny Chandler (Lace and Fineness), and Champion wished them well. "Good luck to the three girls who are going, I wish them all well. It will be interesting to see how they get on. They've all got to get through now, no-one can go out."
Champion would officially notify her withdrawal in writing to Equestrian Sports New Zealand later today, but "they've known this for a couple of days", she said.
Equestrian Sports New Zealand High Performance Operations Manager Warrick Allan said today the organisation would be making a statement on Monday.
• Freckles is now 15, and Champion intends aiming the mare at the next New Zealand nationals. Their first big ride this season will probably be Labour Weekend, followed by the North Island Championships in January.
She also has a young horse, who is rising eight, whom she will take though the endurance grades.