A Love Letter to Badminton: Journo Notes and Behind-the-Scenes Photos

Jonelle Price and Classic Moet check out their new piece of silverware. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Another Badminton in the books, and what a week it was. From the tension and excitement of a Grand Slam attempt through to the incredible conclusion, in which we saw Jonelle Price and Classic Moet finally join the “elite club” of four-star winners, it was a non-stop, action-packed week which required everyone involved to fire on all cylinders from Tuesday until the sun set over Gloucestershire on Sunday night.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends: Lauren Kieffer and Veronica head into the prizegiving after finishing in ninth place — a fantastic finish for the Americans. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

For all our best efforts, there’s so much that we as journalists take in throughout a major competition that simply can’t make it into the write-ups — there’s space to think about, and relevance, and the swiftly diminishing braincells we find ourselves wielding as we write up the reports at the end of another 12-hour-plus day.

When dreams become reality: Foxwood High looks back at the main arena moments after completing his test and setting the ball rolling on a week that would bring owner John Rumble’s long-held aims to life. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But it all gets under our skin — the magic of the place, the stories we hear, and the people and horses we meet through the week. EN Lead Writer Jenni Autry pioneered the idea of the reporter’s notebook a couple of months ago, and today I’d like to respectfully borrow the idea to share a little bit of my Badminton with you, and take you into the places you don’t get to see on the livestream.

Will Coleman celebrates a brilliant test with OBOS O’Reilly, before being whisked into the mixed zone for interviews. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The collecting ring is one of those places. From our second home in the mixed zone, where we interview riders after they dismount, we can see the whole spectrum of human emotion unfold, from the conquering of fear on the way to the start box, to the joy and relief after a successful cross country round.

Ireland’s Padraig McCarthy — the highest-placed first-timer in eighth — demonstrates the difference between heading to the start box…

…with game faces firmly in place…

… and the joy and relief of coming home from a fast clear around your first Badminton. Photos by Tilly Berendt.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and if so, it must take a minor metropolis to produce a horse to the four-star level and have it finish one of the toughest tests of its life healthy, happy, sound and satisfied. We see just a small fraction of this when we watch a horse canter down the centreline, or clear the final fence — for every horse and rider combination, there’s an enormous and varied support team scarcely breathing as they watch their charges tackle each phase of the competition.

All hands on deck as Classic Moet finishes her lightning-fast cross country round, coming in just one second over the optimum time despite taking the long route at the Lake. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Lesson learned: you’re only as good as the team around you, whether you’re riding around Badminton’s formidable course or clocking up the hours in front of your laptop in the media centre. A glimpse into the collecting ring saw many things: laughter, tears, enormous hugs — the proper ones, of course, the ones which leave both parties with aching ribs and silly grins — and always, without fail, an F1-calibre support crew, ready to aggressively cool horses, remove boots, offer water, and give endless praise and kisses. Grooms are often the unsung heroes of the sport, but they really are the cogs that the machine requires to function.

Freelance groom David Burton takes his charge for the week — Kirsty Short’s Cossan Lad — for a leg-stretch. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

On my end, too, a great team was key. I was lucky enough to be supported once again by top tog Nico Morgan, who snapped all the incredible photographs which accompanied my reports throughout the week and who always provides the sort of good-natured, merciless bullying that is absolutely required in a CCI4* week. I was also stabled (or tabled) with team EquiRatings, helmed by lead Numbers Nerd Diarm Byrne and ably assisted by the glamorous Nicole Brown and Georgia Patrick. We were joined by rookie event reporter Rachel Dyke of Horse&Rider magazine, who, poor soul, was thrown well into the deep end with us and kept on swimming.

Note to self: don’t save the team selfie for Sunday evening.

We laughed ourselves stupid, spent hours perfecting(?) our rider impersonations — I do a mean Michi Jung — and availed ourselves merrily of the media centre’s open bar as evening set in. As Jenni mused about the boys in one of our many overexcited WhatsApp conversations through the week: “It’s one of those things where you know you’d be SO much more productive without those goons, but you can’t imagine doing it without them.”

I’d say I miss them already, but they’d never let me live it down.

Emerging from the beautiful old buildings that house Badminton’s meticulous stableyard. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One of the (many, many) pinch-me moments I had last week was granted to me by Badminton’s media director, Julian Seaman. Under FEI rules, access to the stables is restricted to grooms, riders, and their immediate team of owners and family, but because of Julian’s generosity in helping me to get the stories I was chasing, I was able to visit not just once, but twice — the second time, spending a blissful half an hour getting to know Michael Jung and his wonder horse, La Biosthetique Sam FBW. I’m so excited to bring you the full story later on this week.

A good time for a snooze — Tom Jackson’s Waltham Fiddler’s Find takes it easy as the finishing touches are put in for the first horse inspection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The stables are a special kind of magical — helmed from old, golden stone, set up in two long aisleways and a number of nooks and crannies around a vast, meticulously swept courtyard, there’s a palpable frisson of excitement in the air. You get the feeling that no one is immune to that flutter of butterflies in their tummy as they walk through the clocktower archway — but for all this, and for the fact that the narrow aisles are constantly filled with the hustle and bustle of support and horsemanship, each stable houses a supremely relaxed, dozing athlete.

Good luck cards, addressed to both horses and riders, are delivered to the stable managers office and pinned to a notice board, ready for collection. Here, first-timers Kate Honey and Fernhill Now or Never display some of their spoils. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As it turns out, the magic never quite wears off: “It’s so special,” Michael Jung assures me when I ask him about it. “Almost a second home, but so special.” Bittersweet, too, because this was to be the last time we’d get the joy of seeing King Sam at the competition he won in 2016 — Michael announced several months ago that 2018 would be the horse’s final season at the top level.

“I’ll be having that, then” — Michi Jung’s dog does what we’ve all thought about doing, and gives stealing Sam a jolly good attempt. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“I can’t believe this is the last time we’ll see him here,” I say to him, as we watch modern eventing’s most-medalled horse graze in front of the house.

“Maybe,” he replies, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Maybe.”

Ireland’s James O’Haire performs perhaps the most important role in the trot-up prep routine — offering up bribes to encourage his mare, China Doll, to stand still. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Many of the grooms are housed in small chambres des bonne, and Selena O’Hanlon‘s head girl Anne-Marie Duarte tells me that, although they may be basic, the novelty of staying in what is essentially an annexe of Badminton House doesn’t pass her by. “Although the last time I was here, there was no hot water,” she muses. “I hope they’ve fixed that!”

The number one mode of transportation around the sprawling Badminton estate. Just watch out for British team coach Chris Bartle, who has replaced his exceptionally squeaky bike of last season, and is now a liability on wheels. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Riders, grooms, owners and supporters zoom in and out of the stables on pushbikes, followed by a bevy of stable dogs, and there’s a cavernous canteen for them all to dine in, too, lined with hundreds of antlers of indeterminate age.

A family affair: baby Charlie and dad Will Coleman supervise as OBOS O’Reilly is plaited for the first horse inspection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It all feels like a grown-up version of summer camp — laughter everywhere, as old friends catch up, selfies with equine charges in front of the house — until the first horse inspection gets underway. Then there’s the feeling of passing through a threshold — quite literally — into something rather bigger than oneself.

Once you’ve stepped through this archway, your Badminton begins. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

From then on out, it’s all systems go. The stables are a constant hive of activity, a walk around Little Badminton village drums up endless encounters with horses and riders stretching their legs, and the Media Centre — the best, in my opinion, of any event — absolutely thrums with adrenaline and high-speed content production. Well, it thrums until the WiFi buckles under the pressure — then it’s filled with a cacophony of noise, mostly from me, and mostly unfit to print.

When the media cracks: four-star eventer Ben Way makes himself useful for Radio Badminton. Some of his interviews, like this one with Ivar Gooden, are … less eloquent than the rest. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Throughout a long week of reporting, you learn to adopt every available resource as a means of recording a story. It all starts out in a very civilised manner — a dictaphone shoved in a back pocket, a reasonably organised notebook, a few different coloured pens (an idea pinched from Horse&Hound editor Pippa Roome — because you can never stop learning, nor adapting your craft) to try to keep the riders and phases separate. A few days in, it all starts to fall apart at the seams, and you find yourself scrawling notes in an almost indecipherable shorthand on just about anything that stands still for long enough to be written on. Inevitably, you find something like this a few days later, having completely forgotten that you took notes on your phone, too:

The stuff that (mostly) logical event reports are made of. The glam life of an eventing journo.

Keeping a camera to hand is always helpful, too — until you’ve tried four times to get the shot, only to realise you never took the lens cap off. Whoops. Sometimes you actually get there in time, and think you’ve snapped something really elegant and special, only to purge your memory cards and find something else entirely.

Black Beauty: Lydia Hannon’s My Royal Touch at the final horse inspection, apparently feeling the effects of one too many drinks at the Outside Chance the night before. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The number-one cure for end-of-day eventing insanity? Zooming in on the riders’ faces in jumping photos, of course.

Ireland’s Jonty Evans gets a pep-talk from BBC presenter Clare Balding on the way to the start box. His sleeve reads ‘#artsamazingfamily’ — an homage to the 6,800 donors who helped him to secure his horse of a lifetime last season. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Eventing, of course, isn’t always the easiest sport to report on — it has more ups and downs than a sunken road complex, and the heartbreaks are felt as strongly as the victories. It’s a mad, nomadic lifestyle that we all — grooms, riders, owners, and journalists — embark upon, and we form friendships that cross all of those divides. At the end of the day, we do what we do because we love the sport and, most intrinsically of all, we love the horses.

Team work really does make the dream work: Mark Todd congratulates Selena O’Hanlon on a great round. Selena and Woody have been based at Mark’s Badgerstown yard while in the UK. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

There are two rules to journalism: you must never comment on the weather (something I fail rather spectacularly at!) and you must strip your own emotion and opinion from your work and report only the facts. Sometimes, this isn’t easy. Sometimes, it feels nearly impossible. Often, we have to take ourselves out of the situation for a moment, find somewhere quiet, and deal with our own emotions when we see a friend fall on course, a controversy unfold, or, the very worst, an irreparable injury.

Cheers, pal: Imogen Murray and Ivar Gooden performed one of the best rounds of the day on Saturday, finishing in 11th place overall in the competition. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But then, the magic of the sport puts us all back together again. It’s seeing Jonelle Price‘s enormous grin as she tells you that dreams do come true, while her young son Otis tries his best to cram the chinstrap of her helmet into his mouth. It’s seeing young, up-and-coming riders stunned into silence by the magnitude of their gratitude to their horses, who have showed them that they’re capable of everything they ever imagined. It’s watching the children watching their favourite riders, their wide eyes and small faces pressed against the fence of the mixed zone, hoping that they might get to meet real life, actual Mark Todd. It’s the incomparable sportsmanship of the collecting ring, as riders, friends, grooms, everyone in the vicinity is swept up in a whirlwind of well-wishes and teary hugs.

The Kiwi takeover: Andy Daines, on Spring Panorama, and Ginny Thompson, on Star Nouveau, get the obligatory house photo in the bank. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s the stories, too, that don’t make the headlines — that of New Zealand’s Ginny Thompson, for example, who sold her entire yard so that she and Star Nouveau could come to the UK for two years to base themselves with Blyth Tait and chase their dreams. It’s her fellow countryman, Andy Daines, who quickly became every interviewer’s favourite rider with his easy charm and token one-liners: “I was riding around in the warm-up ring with Michael Jung, and I was just like, ‘Can I touch you?!’ No, that’s weird!” and “I’ll stay here until my visa runs out — and then I need to find myself a rich husband!” King of the one-liners, too, is Ireland’s James O’Haire — to which I need only offer you this:

Michael Jung, he's coming to get you!!

James O'Haire – the one liner of Badminton today!!! 🇮🇪

Posted by Irish Eventing Times on Friday, May 4, 2018

Full support: eventing fans wait at the perimeter of the mixed zone in the hopes of catching up with their favourite riders. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Above all things, it’s the horses. It’s almost too obvious to say that we’d be nowhere without them, because, well, of course — but their strength, their intelligence, their fortitude, and their loyalty never ceases to inspire a profound sort of awe in me. I hope that I never reach the point in my career when being in proximity to them loses its sparkle. I hope I always maintain a childlike glee in heaping cuddles on Classic Moet, or giving Nereo’s nose a final stroke, or having La Biosthetique Sam merrily blow his nose down my arm.

A shared victory — the Prices’ head girl, Lucy Miles, celebrates her charge’s win. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

After talking to my fellow media louts — many of whom have been in the game for far longer than I have, and whose work I admire and learn from constantly — I don’t believe I ever will. Inside all of us — those in the saddle, and those on the ground — are still the horse-crazy children who dreamed these lofty dreams in the first place.

It really is real — Jonelle Price and Trisha Rickards, owner of Classic Moet, tick the four-star box together. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s easy to fall victim to the post-Badminton blues — a combination of exhaustion, perhaps a bit too much sun, a feeling of distinct anticlimax in the absence of those vibrant characters who have made the prior week so special. But the sun is shining, my own horse is waiting, and it’s back on the road on Friday for the first leg of the 2018 Event Rider Masters series at Chatsworth. Thank you for turning to EN for all your eventing news and reports — it’s a special and indescribable privilege to be able to bring you these stories. Here’s to you; the eventing fans who keep this mad world turning.

Until next time — go eventing.

Tx

The real deal. Jonelle Price and Classic Moet finish their winning showjumping — a first international clear in four years — to a tumult of celebration. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

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