Reporter’s Notebook: Beyond the Burghley Headlines

It’s been a week since the exciting finale of the 2018 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, but it’s not been far from my mind since its conclusion — after all, reporters, riders, grooms and supporters alike immerse ourselves into what is effectively a bubble for the week at these major events, and finding ourselves back on terra firma, with all the mundanity that comes with it, can be a jarring transition.

Tim Price and Varenna Allen, owner of Ringwood Sky Boy, quietly celebrate their horse’s success before the world joins in at the prizegiving. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

I’m guilty of writing the occasional emotionally-charged event report — and I’m sure there are those who would argue that what I produce isn’t the real deal, the classic reporting of someone with the rock-solid willpower needed to turn off the superlatives and stick to cold, hard facts. But that’s fine — from where I stand, part of what makes eventing so special is the stuff that deviates from data on a page, whether that’s the raw emotions that abound at a competition, the internal and external battles fought to get there, or the performances that crest the waves of probability and send the stats into a tailspin.

And that, too.

EN’s own Jenni Autry put it best, and most succinctly, when she tweeted that you can’t quantify the will to win. Because who, really, was putting their money on Tim and Oz to lift the Burghley trophy?

I’ve been crossing my fingers for a big win for Tim all season, and was characteristically shouty and unabashed in voicing my support for him through the week — but had I been backed into a corner and asked to put my money where my mouth was, I admit I would have faltered. We know so much more than we ever have about the statistics of the sport, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of EquiRatings, who have somehow managed to make this sort of thing fun and captivating. We’re able to analyse form and probability so easily now, and when you see showjumping form like Oz’s, you begin to prepare yourself for disappointment.

“The joke’s on all of you. Every. Last. One.” Ringwood Sky Boy, or Oz, after his superb cross-country round. Photo by Peter Nixon.

But we did that at Badminton too, didn’t we — after all, Classic Moet hadn’t had a clear showjumping round in an international in four years then. It just wasn’t going to happen. Except that it did, and did again, and somehow, the numbers, the predictions, and the statistics were cast aside in favour of that irrepressible bit of magic that can’t be quantified in any way — that sparkling something that makes this sport equally special and damning.

Putting a Price on love

I wrote at length about the power of love in my final report from Burghley, so I won’t rehash it too much here — suffice it to say that Tim and Jonelle have created the sort of power couple dynamic that most Netflix original series can only dream of. Only one couple prior to them has done a four-star double in a year — that was Burghley course designer Captain Mark Phillips and his then-wife, Princess Anne, who won Badminton and the European Championships at Burghley, respectively, in 1971.

These little moments of synchronicity weave multiple narratives together and can almost make you believe in fate. Want another one? Ringwood Sky Boy’s ownership is split a few ways – though he’s primarily owned by Varenna Allen, and Tim himself retains a small share, it was by selling a leg to Robert Taylor a few years ago that Tim was able to buy an engagement ring for Jonelle. Nope, get out of my way, guys — I’m calling dibs on writing the novelisation of this one.

Lucy Miles videos as Tim Price leads the victory lap around Burghley’s main arena. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As an aside — we rightly hail Tim and Jonelle for their incredible results this season, but it would be amiss not to mention their head girl, Lucy Miles, who is the lynchpin in a programme that’s consistently producing phenomenal results at the top level. Getting one horse to the final day of a four-star is difficult enough — to captain a ship that ferries three to a win in one season is mind-boggling. Her horses have recorded five international wins, thirteen national victories, and two flights to the World Equestrian Games so far in 2018. We need to celebrate the astonishing amount of hard work and dedication that makes these things happen (and maybe not put grooms in a tent — here’s looking at you, Tryon).

A coup for the Captain

We spend so much time — athletes, journalists, and clued-up eventing fans alike — speaking up when someone gets it wrong. Often, that someone is a fellow rider. Frequently, it’s an organiser or course designer. Should we keep quiet for the sake of keeping the peace? Not always — after all, by voicing our convictions, eventing’s inner sanctum has created a catalyst of change that has propelled safety and sports technology far further than we could ever have foreseen.

But we owe it to the sport to shout just as loudly when people get it right — and oh boy, did they ever get it right at Burghley. I’ve worn a number of hats in this industry — not least that of lifelong eventing enthusiast; the sort of, well, nerd that watched and rewatched and slowed down and analysed a single combination on course long before it was ever my job to do so — and I will happily climb aboard the well-worn soapbox to declare my uninhibited adoration for this year’s course.

So what did course designer Captain Mark Phillips and co. get so right? A lot of things — some down to forward thinking and meticulous planning, others down to a little sprinkle of jolly good luck (thanks, Eventing Jesus, your contribution to the weather and the ground’s moisture levels were much appreciated).

Andrew Nicholson, a man who has ridden more cross country rounds than most of us have had hot dinners, and who has never shied away from speaking his mind, put it best when he asked us in the mixed zone if anyone through the day had picked up 50 penalties for missing a flag.

“I bet they haven’t,” he said, without missing a beat. “Mark has got the measure of this flag rule. It was clear to the horses the whole way around where the flags were. They either jumped or they didn’t.”

He praised effusively, too, the scope for adaptability the course provided, citing examples — such as the Trout Hatchery — where you could change your mind about your route part of the way through without adding on 20 penalties. What he loved, he told us, was that there were no hidden traps to catch the riders and their horses out.

Harry Meade and Away Cruising jump the egg boxes at Clarence Court, the final combination on course. Photo by Peter Nixon.

This has never been a safe sport, and until the IOC forces a rule change that sees us strapped into harnesses and boinging around on trampolines with hobby horses between our legs, it never will be — not totally, anyway. When it comes to course design at the top levels, there are so many fine lines to negotiate that it must feel a bit like that classic diamond-heist trope — can you cross from the doorway to the gem without touching any of the criss-crossing laser wires? Can you cope with the fallout if the lace of your shoes breaks one of those laser beams, and a competitor is hurt, or worse?

What Phillips got right in his Burghley design was, as Andrew pointed out, a test that didn’t trick or trap horses. It didn’t encourage riders to take unnecessary risks to avoid clocking up 20 penalties — instead, they could see a safe path out of each question and reroute, rather than trying to stuff their horses over fences on a half-stride or an uncomfortable line.

The aftermath. Photo by Peter Nixon.

Sure, it was still a fiendishly difficult track, and it certainly separated the wheat from the chaff, but it worked in an almost miraculous harmony with this year’s dressage-sans-multiplier to create an enormous stamina test in which seconds in either direction could send you soaring or tumbling on the leaderboard. We saw a 66% completion rate, a 55% clear rate, and just a 6% double-clear rate on Saturday, with nobody faulting in the latter, single-fence heavy part of the course. Add to that the most perfect ground you could ask for — thanks to sunny days, dewy nights, and an endlessly dedicated team working tirelessly behind the scenes — and you create the sort of four-star we’ve all been sitting on our hands for for so long. You know what’s (absolutely miles) better than free wine and cupcakes at the evening press conference? Free wine and cupcakes that you can enjoy without a statement landing on your table about an injury to horse or rider. What was, perhaps, most heartening of all was that less than an hour after the conclusion of the cross-country phase, the Captain had already analysed and critiqued his own track, and was perfectly willing to declare where he had gone wrong — the Clarence Court combination at 21 didn’t see any faulters, but, he told us, it could have done, and will be changed for next year.

Oliver Townend and MHS King Joules jump the Gurkha Kuhkri fence that later dislodged Mark Todd and Kiltubrid Rhapsody. Photo by Peter Nixon.

One of the most important aspects of a successful competition is its watchability, too, and in particular, its ability to draw in casual or uninitiated spectators. On a personal level, we all felt our hearts break all over again for Mark Todd, who, for the second consecutive year, fell on cross-country while leading after dressage. But he was unhurt, Kiltubrid Rhapsody was unhurt, and, two fences earlier, he’d given us one of those heart-stopping and fist-clenching thrills-and-spills saves that ends up defining the sport in three minute video edits for years to come. If we take our own long-standing affiliations with the sport out of the equation, how does that serve the weekend’s television coverage? Spectacularly well, I should think — you might struggle to get your non-horsey partner, for example, to sit and watch a day of cross-country, but imagine how he or she might react if they turned over onto the BBC’s red button coverage, saw Toddy and Raps somehow get the job done at the Leaf Pit, discover from the commentator that they’re not just leading, but that Toddy is a veritable legend of the sport — then, two fences later, that legend comes unstuck. It’s fast, it’s furious, and the two leaders are very soon to start — suddenly, you’ve hooked another casual viewer, who might even tune in the next day.

Oh, and those eagle-eyed fans among you might have noticed something serendipitous — the optimum time was 11 minutes, 11 seconds. I know I made a wish.

All hail the Sons of Courage

The celebrations must have been rife at Ireland’s Kedrah House Stud, where the late stallion Courage II stands (in semen stock, if not in body), quietly asserting his continuing dominion over the eventing world. There are certain bloodlines we all pledge fealty to — one American trainer and former Olympian I know adores the talent and quirky nature of a Master Imp baby, while several friends swear by a bit of Jumbo to add quality to a blood horse. Me? Find me something sired by the late Holsteiner Courage II (Capitol x Cor De La Bryere), and I’ll be a very happy girl indeed.

Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Courage II not only sired winner and runner-up Ringwood Sky Boy and Ballaghmor Class, he’s also responsible for Jonty Evans‘ Cooley Rorkes Drift and Yoshi Oiwa‘s WEG mount The Duke of Cavan. Elsewhere in the Burghley field, he sired Proud Courage, the mount of Nicholas Lucey. While he doesn’t stamp particularly consistently in terms of looks — would you have guessed that Oz and Thomas were half-brothers? — he does pass on an almost preternatural ability to think on the job, jump from just about anywhere, and dig endlessly deep. The 1990-vintage stallion passed away a few years ago, but there are still a few straws left of his own particular love potion no. 9, if that’s the sort of impromptu purchase you’re into.

More characters than a Jilly Cooper novel

One of the most difficult things about reporting on a major event is balancing the need to tell the main story — who conquered, who crumbled, who did something so truly remarkable as to change the course of the entire competition — with the endless desire to delve into the incredible stories of fortitude and tenacity that some of the other riders are sitting on. And believe me — you don’t get to four-star without tallying up some pretty remarkable stories along the way.

There was, of course, the irrepressible Julie Tew, whose story I was able to tell when she delivered a brilliant dressage test with Simply Sox and strode into her rightful place on the leaderboard. Unfortunately, their weekend would end early — Julie opted to withdraw before the final horse inspection after delivering a clear round on Saturday that had a mixed zone full of hardened media types surreptitiously dabbing at our eyes — but for me, and for many others, Julie’s is the stand-out story of the week, the one so purely and simply Burghley that Joules ought to think about printing her face on their commemorative scarves next year.

Julie Tew and Simply Sox defy the odds on day one. Photo by Peter Nixon/Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.

Eighteen years ago, Julie was diagnosed with a tumour on her spine and told that the best-case scenario she could hope for was to walk with a stick, but certainly not to ride again. Despite this, she pushed through and continued to campaign a string of horses. Five years ago, following a sudden recurrence of debilitating pain and depression, she sought the help of a psychiatrist, who referred her to a neurologist.

“The neurologist took one look at me and said, ‘you’ve got 90% nerve damage in both your legs, and you really shouldn’t ride again,'” explained Julie, who, despite doctor’s orders, ‘fought immensely’ to keep doing what she loves. Now, she’s cut back on her string and manages her fitness levels carefully — the more exercise she does, the more pain she’s in, and so, she joked, she made it to Burghley on the back of months spent snacking on her sofa.

Her horse, too, has had his share of setbacks: he tore a ligament when he tripped on the horse walker, and injured himself in myriad ways in the field. Now, he has chronic arthritis in both hind fetlocks, presenting a further challenge to his already complicated management regime. But Julie and her team, through endless tenacity, and an enviable inability to take no for an answer, not only got the horse to Burghley, but got him round clear, too. They might not be our winners — hell, they’re not even on our short list of completions — but their story of grit, guts and glory is quintessential Burghley, and we’ll be following them closely (with our cheerleading pom-poms only just concealed behind our backs).

Richard Jones and Alfies Clover produce a career best. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Richard Jones and Alfies Clover produced the best result of Richard’s career, climbing from 33rd place after dressage to finish seventh in the competition. Last year at Bramham’s CCI3*, the pair looked set to achieve their best result yet, when a freak accident ended their week early: Richard slipped as he stepped out of his lorry’s living and, catching his wedding ring on the door as he tried to hang on, ended up losing his finger. He rode around Burghley last year with Alfies Clover, despite being in constant pain and lacking a huge amount of strength in his left arm, but this year, he’s put it all to bed, finishing seventh at both Bramham and Burghley. Also worth mentioning? There’s a serious back-catalogue of songs about him. Sort of.

“Pass me a bottle, Richard Jones.”

There were new faces, too, who made an impact — Burghley first-timer Camille Lejeune (not a girl, just French) was one of those huge characters who bowls into a room and leaves everyone grinning. At every juncture of the competition he would happily effuse, “it is a dream of a kid, no?” about his Burghley experience, and his incredibly Gallic, expressive face and smiling ease in front of a swarm of journalists was admirable. He and Tahina des Isles were the first combination to manage a clear round over Richard Jeffrey‘s seriously influential showjumping track, and once they did it — as cool and casual as you can imagine — everyone else started to see that it was possible. It’s always a fascinating domino effect to watch; over and over, in so many ways, we see the Bannister effect trickle through eventing. Anyway, more importantly, Camille and his plucky mare finished 16th and left us beaming in their wake.

The name’s Glynn. Ciaran Glynn. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Ireland’s Ciaran Glynn took home the prize for best first-timer, riding the talented Irish mare November Night to 14th place. The mare is named for the November night on which she was bought at the Goresbridge sales — “quite a drunken one,” recalled Ciaran with a laugh. The mare has an enormous amount of jump in her, and more than one person has WhatsApped me asking me to photoshop Ciaran as James Bond, so for both reasons, keep an eye on this pair.

Esib Power and Soladoun make nothing of Burghley’s stamina test. Photo by Peter Nixon.

Esib Power‘s Soladoun was one of my stand-out horses of the weekend. The four-star first-timer was successful on the racetrack, and it absolutely showed as he produced the fastest round of the day on Saturday. He romped home eight seconds inside the optimum time, pulling up fresh as a daisy and looking rather bemused about why he’d had to stop at all. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Esib at this level, but it’s not for lack of talent — the tough-as-nails Irish rider also showjumps at the top level, contesting classes like the Hickstead Derby. Instead, it’s a lack of horsepower that’s kept her out of the spotlight — but with an impressive climb from 37th to ninth place, and the opportunity to base herself in the thick of it all at partner Oliver Townend‘s Gadlas Farm, hopefully we’ll see some more equine talent go her way. This season, we’ve seen her take over the ride on Oliver’s four-star partner Samuel Thomas II, too — and no doubt, with an extra horse or two to allow her to mount a committed campaign, she’ll be riding with Tokyo in her sights.

Pick your poison: a liberal top-up from Lucinda Green, or a healthy pour from former England player David Flatman. Photo courtesy of Pol Roger.

Party predictions

For the second year in a row, Pol Roger hosted their Bits v Balls charity shindig on Friday night, in their teepee-esque Lodge alongside the collecting ring. In aid of the My Name’5 Doddie foundation, which funds research on Motor Neurone Disease, the evening pits eventers against rugby players, ably compered by TV presenter Clare Balding and helped along by innumerable bottles of the bubbly stuff.

Interestingly, one of last year’s eventers was Oliver Townend, who won the squat challenge and went on to win Burghley. This year, Tim Price and Harry Meade went head-to-head in a plank challenge, tying for the win as they hit three minutes on the trot. Tim, for his part, went on to win the competition, while Harry produced what must be one of the best rounds of his career the next day, ultimately finishing sixth. We don’t want to say that Pol Roger picks the winners, per se, but if once is a fluke and twice is a coincidence, we’ll be keenly anticipating next year’s Bits v Balls to see if we can pin down an early winner once again. (Also because very, very good champagne tastes best when accompanied by the acting prowess of a Price, of course.)

Getting the fashion fix

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I’m not really equestrian journalism’s “fashion person.” I appreciate a bit of effort, I like to dress up for a cocktail party, and I enjoy seeing what everyone wears at the trot-up, but I can’t abide the endless stream of articles that flood social media in the lead-up to a major event, all of which focus entirely on what to wear (and all offering the exact same advice). Look, it’s a nice, horsey day out; the odds are high that the weather will fluctuate between all four established seasons and probably a couple that only currently exist at the far reaches of our solar system, and really, no one cares what you wear to spectate. As long as you don’t fall victim to #jodhpurwatch, obviously.

But for all that — and for my endless griping — I do pay attention to what goes on at the horse inspections, and something caught my eye this year at both of them. The perennial and ever-popular Fairfax and Favor boots, ordinarily adorned with tassels to match an outfit, or to nod to the wearer’s cross country colours, were overwhelmingly going pink.

Lydia Hannon goes pink for British Cancer Care at the first horse inspection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Now, if there’s one thing the eventing community is marvellous at, it’s making charity a fun and easy thing to fit into our busy and broke lives. We saw it earlier in the summer, when #weargreenforJonty wristbands could be spotted on every arm in the country, raising money for the David Foster Injured Riders’ Fund, and we’ve seen it sitting in the window of every single horsebox in Britain, in the form of a bescarfed Willberry Wonder Pony. This time, the beneficiary of choice was breast cancer awareness, and Fairfax and Favor, who officially launch the pink tassels in October, have been quietly making an enormous financial impact.

Since their first year supporting the charity, the British fashion house has raised a huge amount of money for British Cancer Care, which works to support breast cancer patients and their families. This makes the company one of the leading commercial donors to the charity — not too shabby, for a brand in only its fifth year of life and competing against huge corporate entities.

A new way to wear tassels, demonstrated by this errant rodent. A Chinchfluencer, if you will.

Chinch demanded that I outfit him with his own set of tassels (unfortunately the shoes didn’t quite run small enough) — you can get your own next month through the Fairfax and Favor website. 100% of proceeds go to the charity, giving us yet another reason to feel seriously warm and fuzzy about the power for positive change our eventing family demonstrates.

Team GB chef d’equipe Chris Bartle had made one “pull my finger” joke too many. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

A stiff upper lip

One of the hottest topics of conversation was the British WEG team selection, which was notable in its exclusion of World Number One Oliver Townend. Oliver, who led the first day of dressage but couldn’t attend the evening’s press conference, was ably represented by Team GB chef d’equipe Dickie Waygood. Poor Dickie. He must have known he’d walked into the snake pit. But the former Riding Master of the Household Cavalry is well-versed in the art of keeping mum, and he handled the question with aplomb. So does Dickie know why Oliver was left off the team?

Waygood for President 2020?

I could keep rambling on all night about all my wayward opinions and happy little memories of this year’s Burghley, but the world keeps turning, and the eventing world keeps moving, and it’s on to WEG and Blenheim next — thanks for indulging me in one last stroll down (recent) memory lane. Until next time, chums.

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