William Fox-Pitt is of course a household name, and while Alice Fox-Pitt may be familiar to some as his wife, and to others as Channel 4 Racing Presenter Alice Plunkett, perhaps not as many realise just quite how phenomenal she is in her own right. Still the only woman to have ridden round Badminton and over the Grand National course at Aintree, Alice combines her television career with four young children, an active role in William’s career and as if she didn’t have enough on her plate already, she is an integral part of the team launching the Event Rider Masters series this year.
To come up with something this big and this brilliant is typical of Alice. Despite managing more in a day than many of us could juggle in a month, she remains one of the smartest, funniest and downright lovliest people you’ll ever meet. Her generosity is enormous — with her time, her humour, her expertise, and the sport is so lucky to be benefiting from all of the above by dint of this new project the Event Rider Masters series.
The Event Rider Masters has been an idea in the making for some years, but started to become real last March when owner Jeremy Skinner, an ex-City lawyer, asked Alice to a meeting with one of Mark Todd’s owners and ex-JP Morgan Director Di Brunsden. “We absolutely hit it off. She is an incredible woman and I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s incredibly structured and incredibly professional, and I just don’t think eventing has ever had the engagement of someone like that, someone who’s really systematic in their approach, who’s really crossing all their T’s and dotting the I’s.”
Di, in turn, brought American Terry Miller on board, a lawyer previously involved with sponsorship for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and currently working with the Invictus Games. Alice attests their help has already been invaluable and priceless. Although they are all volunteering she imagines, “Since we started they’ve probably done in the region of half a million pounds worth of work for us.”
The team, along with Bruce Haskell from the Eventing Riders Association (ERA), has been successful in bringing Chis and Lisa Stone on board. “They are the business brains behind this and have been absolutely extraordinary; they are passionate about the sport and they understand the sport obviously because they own Chilli Morning and support several riders and horses. But it’s their business acumen that’s really got them involved in this. To have two people involved with the business experience they have, this isn’t them patting us on the head, this is them saying this is a venture that we believe has commercial legs and we want to be a part of it.”
The first phase of the series is now complete. “The key was to set up a structure that worked for riders, venues, owners and fans alike. We wanted to set up a fail-safe system where the sport could benefit from the marketing and the media rights in a way that it hasn’t ever before. Racing UK is a vehicle by which the racecourses can market their media rights and then get a percentage of the profit from those rights. This was something I thought we could bring across to eventing. We set up a not-for-profit company called Eventing Live that agreed with British Eventing and the competition venues to market their media rights on their behalf for a period of three years, and if nothing came of it they would be handed back and they would carry on as before.”
“So with Di and Terry and everyone’s expertise we put together a package where we linked up six fantastic CIC3* and looked at a format of competition that would work for television. Bearing in mind the precarious position of Eventing in the Olympics we felt it was very important to stay true to the core sport and prove beyond all reasonable doubt that there is an audience, a global audience, for Eventing. We have huge confidence in the sport and we wanted to make sure that that was at the core of it. Support from the FEI was key to making this all happen.”
The Event Rider Masters will start in May at The Dodson & Horrell Chatsworth International Horse Trials, continue in June at The Equi-Trek Bramham International Horse Trials, head to The St James’s Place Barbury International Horse Trials in July, The Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park and Blair Castle Equi-Trek International Horse Trials in August, and culminates at The Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials in September; the prize money is already in place, £50,000 for each event, and another £50,000 for the series leading riders.
“We’re a start-up, there’s no guarantee this is going to work. I think it is. We have a fantastic team in place. The venues are iconic venues and have been so brilliant. We all know our sport is brilliant, we just need to showcase it. All the organisers are so great, they have really worked hard to make this a reality, and what they’ve understood is that their individual events are great, but together they are absolutely fantastic, and that’s the difference from a brand point of view. If you can get regional or global exposure by linking up events, then you become a whole lot sexier.”
Each competition will be limited to the top 36 riders according to FEI rankings at the ballot date, with a maximum of four additional special entries. The dressage on the first day will be seeded like pure dressage to music and drawn in order of the average of your last five runs. The show-jumping will take place during the morning of the second day, the cross country after a break during the afternoon. Both will run in reverse order of merit to make it easy to understand and exciting. The aim is to enhance the viewing for both the spectators on site, and viewers at home. Expect to see split screen times, new technology and reactive data.
EquiRatings have been very supportive of the project, and Alice confirms that co-founder Diarm Byrne will be contributing his fantastic statistical analysis to the commentary team to keep it interesting. Guest riders will also join the commentary team alongside Alice to provide a good variety of voices and nations. It’s got to be entertaining and meaningful, as well as good fun. “We want you in the U.S. to be able to watch your heroes in the UK and know that at least once a month in the U.S. you can log in and get great live eventing action in your home. What I hope is that the whole approach brings a value to the whole sport that hasn’t been seen before.”
If you bear in mind that upon entering the Event Rider Masters series the riders are essentially signing a media contract, this will be live streaming unlike anything we’ve been used to seeing, and it’s ridiculously exciting to contemplate it’s actually going to happen. “For the first time ever the television is a priority, so the riders know that when they enter they are allowing the TV access all areas, whether it be to themselves, their team, their owners, their lorry….whatever we feel best shows the sport. The riders have been really up for that and they really get it. We’re looking at all the different ways of show-casing that, whether it be through social media or through the live streaming.”
“I feel very strongly that television networks have always handed out the line that equestrianism doesn’t get the viewing figures. Yet we did a pilot last year with a very low budget but we got over a hundred thousand viewers and the live scoring was logged into in 82 different countries. What we’re doing, hopefully, by live streaming across all six events and collecting viewing data is proving that we have a commercial value. With a good product and good marketing we can drive viewing figures right up. We know that as a sport we have a very active social media community and we need to use that in a more effective way. When we did a study of other sport’s social media, our numbers are on a par with rugby players, which means that we have very strong marketing tools to work with.” (William for example has over 60,000 Twitter followers and over 50,000 Facebook fans.)
For riders that are less technologically savvy ERM will help develop their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and promote the Event Rider Masters series and the riders in a mutually beneficial relationship “so that we as a community have a dynamic social media profile.”
The idea is that the series will be live streamed through the Event Rider Masters website but there are also meetings underway with mainstream broadcasters about looking at whether ERM stream live through their platforms as well. They have obviously already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on development into the technology to make them really friendly for iPhones and tablet. “We all know now that the way people are watching television is changing; whereas historically streaming has always been a low-grade not very exciting product, now it’s potentially very interesting because people watch television so much more through their phones or tablets, or have the internet via their smart TVs, so streaming is something that is viable to watch.”
2016 is something of a trial period and it’s hoped to expand the Series pan-regionally and globally. “We would absolutely love to come to the States, and there have been many confidential conversations about how we bring in events from around the world because that is key. The FEI are hugely supportive and one of the things they’re very keen on is that it’s not a British based series, that it be international and we are too. We are very focused on it being an international series. We have to look at the schedule and look at how best to bring in the US. We’ve also talked to U.S. riders about keeping a couple of three-star horses in the UK, or staying over an extra week after Badminton or Burghley to do the Chatsworth and Blenheim legs.”
The events are structured so that it’s completely viable to contest them all on the same horse, or target one or two at the Series. “If you’re targeting the Event Rider Masters you’re not going to be abusing your horse doing an advanced one day event every three or four weeks, you’re really not, even if you go quick. I am absolutely confident there is no horse welfare issue here. That’s why it’s key that the show jumping is big — that it’s the individual phases that tests the horses, not going flat out round a cross country course, or any faster than you would do normally.”
With Sir Mark Todd describing Event Rider Masters as “the most positive development of the sport in modern times” and Paul Tapner telling the Eventing Radio Show he’d be earmarking one of his four-star horses especially for the series, it’s clear it’s already a game-changer, and Alice agrees.
“There are always going to be different horses for a CIC3* than there are for Badminton or Burghley, and when you look at William’s stable for example, this is made for something like Oslo. I think the series would certainly suit Oslo and Cool Mountain, and that’s definitely their target and William is really looking forward to that. Chilli Morning will probably do a leg, maybe at Bramham, on his way to trying to get selected for Rio. There are always going to be the specialists that you want for the Badminton’s and Burghley’s but if it helps the horse market, if it helps encourage young riders, if it helps us all have good fun at the events…..”
As many of the top riders continue competing well into their 40s and 50s, bringing their kids along to events with them is a fact of life, and not always an easy one as Alice will attest, but one that the series hopes to alleviate. “We’re looking at teaming up with a fantastic company who do really great outdoor based activities for kids ages 6-14. We’re looking at den building, orienteering, treasure hunts etc. Riders will be able to leave their children with a really dynamic team who’ll make sure they have a good time and engage them with what’s going on. Hopefully corporate hospitality will also benefit from it as well as their kids will play together with riders’ kids and then watch those parents competing, bringing another whole level of engagement.
“Historically we haven’t supported that side of it very well in eventing and I think it’s very important. Getting the kids to engage with where they are and allowing the venues to show off what they have — for example Chatsworth has a farm park with a huge sandpit, which I’ve spent a lot of time in (!), Blenheim has a butterfly garden — there’s so many wonderful things that we can take advantage of for our kids, and they can learn about where they are and hopefully it will make eventing a bit more enjoyable.”
— Alice Plunkett/Foxpi (@aliceplunkett) February 24, 2016
Alice still enjoys her day job as Channel 4 Racing’s presenter enormously, and a recent bonus, she assures me, saw her cleaning stalls for a change. “It’s been such fun because I’m a huge fan of a lovely horse called Cue Card who’s running in the Cheltenham Gold Cup today. I had the huge privilege of being allowed to do a feature on being his groom. So I went and mucked him out and brushed him and played ponies with Cue Card! I didn’t ride him but I rode out next to him.”
Back home at Wood Lane Stables in Dorset the Fox-Pitt Eventing Team looks better than ever. “William’s in really good form. He’s just been absolutely incredible in his recovery. He’s got an amazing team of horses — five four-star winners in his stable this year (Cool Mountain, Parklane Hawk, Bay My Hero, Chilli Morning and Oslo). Between them they’ve won 13 three-day events and I don’t think there’s ever been that calibre of a team in one place before, it’s just amazing. They’re all 14, 15 and 16 years old but they’re all looking great, and it’s just such a privilege to have those five boys, obviously alongside the rest of his team, but particularly those five together. He feels lucky to have these wonderful boys who are really helping his recovery. They know each other so well, it’s really lovely to watch them, they’re really helping William with getting back to his brilliant self.”
“I completely believe in William and I completely believe that when he decides to compete again it will be on his terms, and he will only do it if he’s absolutely at his best. He is only interested in being the best. He won’t compromise for his horses, for his owners or for himself so I feel very confident. He’s the master and he’s the maestro, but he’s also so sensible and he’s not going to take a chance or a risk, so I’m absolutely confident that he’ll be good.”
We look forward to seeing William back at his best, he is the best, and we can’t wait for the start of the Event Rider Masters series in May. What can you do if you want to help? “Talk about it, tweet about it, if you want to be involved in some way and think you can contribute: get in touch with Hannah Vowles ([email protected]). Get horses ready for it, come along to some events, come and see what’s going on. Let’s just get involved, let’s really push it and let’s hope that the venues benefit, the owners benefit, the riders benefit.”
Many, many thanks to Alice for sparing some of her precious time to chat, and wishing her the best of luck this season, and also to Cue Card in the Gold Cup!