It’s been a long old time that Captain Mark Phillips has been at the helm of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials: over the course of three stints, he’s designed more than twenty courses here across 30 years. In that time, he’s put a real stamp on the place, and Burghley’s reputation as the biggest and boldest of five-star tracks holds fast across the sport — but variety is the spice of life, and this year, we’ve got a new chap in charge. Derek di Grazia certainly isn’t short of experience; he’s been the Kentucky course designer since 2011, and he designed last year’s Olympic track, too.
Of course, there are unique challenges that come with taking on a new course — and plenty of pressure to hit the right tone, too. When a designer has dealt with a piece of land for as long as Phillips did, he brings to each new course an innate understanding of every dip and knoll available to him; for a first-time designer, this is vital intel that’s gained with every track he lays over that piece of land. So for all of us, Derek included, today might be something of a fact-finding mission, but already, we can see his stamp on the questions asked.
To start with, let’s take a look at the overall ‘feel’ of the course. Here are the vital stats:
Speed: 570 mpm
Optimum time: 11:20
One of the major talking points on this year’s course is the sheer length of some of the early questions — two of which have options up to F. Of course, if you choose to take a straight route, this doesn’t mean you’ll jump five separate fences in a combination — those direct fences have two or three letters apiece, so you might pop a corner that’s lettered as a BC element, for example. The potential for confusion comes if you opt to go long at, say, the Leap Pit at 7ABCDEF, because there’s a very real opportunity to get the lettering wrong and effectively jump a letter twice, which would result in elimination. We’ve already seen the lettering changed at one point on the course: the Trout Hatchery water at 10ABCDEF was deemed confusing and verging on unfair by some riders, and the organising team, ground jury, and Derek himself worked swiftly to rectify the options there so that any rider who runs into some trouble can safely navigate out of the question.
From the first turn through Defender Valley (formerly known as Discovery Valley) at 5ABCDE through to the Trout Hatchery at 10ABCDEF we’ve got the bulk of the course’s technical intensity, and this is where we’re expecting to see many of the problems on course today. After that, the fences are typical Burghley: big, bold, and replete with iconic rider frighteners such as the capacious Cottesmore Leap at 20. The Dairy Mound at 18ABC features a sharp incline to the a smallish timber corner at the first element, and though none of the three elements here are particularly big, there’s an interesting striding question, with longish distances to the next elements. This has been a bit of a head-scratcher for riders, and the huge white oxers and open corners at the Joules at the Maltings combination at 14ABC doesn’t look any smaller than it did in 2019, when it was one of the most influential questions on course.
Prior to the Defender Valley question, we shouldn’t see any problems. The first few fences are typically friendly — or as friendly as five-star fences can be, anyway — and they’re designed to get horses and riders into a confident rhythm. The first combination, 4ABC in the main arena, isn’t particularly tricky either, but will give riders the chance to get their horses listening and adjusting ahead of the very intense section to come.
Once they reach the first spin through Defender Valley at 5ABCDE, they’ll need to make sure their horses are listening enough to commit to a line: the direct route, a beefy brush corner numbered 5AB and a hefty skinny brush numbered 5CDE will save their horses two valuable jumping efforts, but they’ll need to be on the ball and focused.
The Leaf Pit comes up fast after that, with just a colossal open oxer in between and enough of a gallop to take seriously en route — and once they get there, they’ll be faced with the beefiest set of questions we’ve seen here in a long time. The distance from the famously big drop in has been shortened slightly, so there’s less room to regather the knitting than there once was, and riders will be hoping to nail their plan A, because this is the first time we’ll see alternative routes up to F on course. Three efforts are always preferable to five when you need to save some gas for later on, and the alternative routes here are confusing enough to be intimidating in their own right. Still, there’s an alternative option for those who don’t fancy facing the drop — though whether five-star competitors should be allowed to avoid this iconic question is a contentious point in its own right.
Then, it’s back through Defender Valley for the questions at 8AB, which features a pretty serious right-handed turn but doesn’t look like it’ll cause quite as much chaos as it has in previous years.
The Trout Hatchery always poses a serious question, and this year is no different, even after the wise relettering of the alternative routes. Riders will need to tackle the A element, a trailer with a timber rolltop, with gumption, because their horses won’t have got their feet wet yet — and there’s not a lot of room for hesitation once you get into the drink and en route to the brush corner at 10B. Then, they’ll pass over a strip of dry land before jumping another rolltop into the second part of the water and heading straight out over a brush skinny. The alternative route, which serpentines through each point and features a drop into the second part, will add serious time, and features a step out of the second part of the water, which has always historically come up on a bit of a half stride, disrupting the rhythm.
The wide white oxers and brushes at the Maltings question at 14ABC are still big enough to stop your breath for a second, and there’s a choice of routes here this year that’s rather reminiscent of a spin in a tumble dryer, but there’s a choice between oxers and brushes and riders will be able to make a plan that best suits their horses, which should avoid some of the issues we saw in 2019 when several horses met maximum dimension spreads on slightly skewiff strides, paying the price with a tumble.
We’ve seen plenty of riders walking and re-walking the Dairy Mound at 18ABC and looking a bit puzzled, because the stride patterns here are variable, even though the fences are among the smallest on course. This spot on course has some of the sharpest undulating terrain — a bit of a difference from the long pulls prevalent elsewhere on course — and we could well see a number of good horses darting out to the right of the small, very angled log at 18C, which is on a long stride and will take some agricultural riding. Fortunately, agriculture is kind of the theme of the day at this combination, which is inexplicably decorated with… lots of pigs.
Once you’re through the Dairy Mound, the Fairfax and Favor Boot Rack oxers at 19AB act as something of a gateway to the latter part of the course, where the technicality eases in favour of big, bold jumps the whole way home. This year, we’re going down Winners Avenue, rather than up it, which takes out the bruising pull that can really sap those last bits of energy late on course.
In a funny sort of way, the Cottesmore Leap at 20 — arguably the most obviously frightening fence in the world, and large enough to park a Land Rover in — will be a bit of a relief for riders, because it’s a real kick and fly sort of question that doesn’t require the mental acrobatics that the prior parts of the course did.
At 22AB we’ve got an interesting new question in the form of a bank to a triple bar, where we’ll probably see a wide variety of approaches. Who’ll touch down, and who’ll try to jump that A element in one? Whatever they do, it’ll define their approach to the long, skinny triple bar at the B element — but if they run out of room to get it right, there’s an alternative B element further away.
There’s another interesting question posed at 26AB, which features a choice of two houses at A to a brush-topped fence into the water at B. The question itself should be straightforward enough, but depending on what the weather does, they might have to make a quick call about which A element to choose: there are willows planted close to the fences here, and their long fronds blow right in front of the fences when the wind picks up.
From then on out? It’s single fences all the way, baby, including the stunning Lion Bridge at 27 and 28, right through to the final question at 30 — but these are Burghley fences, so complacency be damned: they’ll need to ride each and every single one. To get a closer look at every fence, you can check out the course preview on the CrossCountry App here.
Here’s what some of the competitors have to say about the challenge to come:
Kitty King (1st on 21.2 with Vendredi Biats):
“It’s very intense at the start, much more like a short-format, really. It comes up thick and fast, and there’s not much galloping. You kind of think, ‘oh, it’s Burghley, I’m going to be galloping loads’ — but actually, you’re whipping around and heading back on yourself through loads of combinations and with lots of jumping. But I do think if you can get through the Dairy Mound, then it kind of calms down and you can regroup and cruise home. There’s a lot to do out there.”
“There’s so many elements to them, so I really want to know all my ways out if something goes wrong over A or B, that if I pull right or left I’m going to the correct fence to make amends. I’ll have a plan A and hopefully we can stick to that, but it’s cross-country riding and that doesn’t always happen.”
Tim Price (2nd on 21.3 with Vitali, 16th on 29.8 with Bango, 21st on 31 with Polystar I):
“By the time you get up and around the Maltings area, you’ll definitely know how your day’s going. I don’t think I’ve seen the leaf pit as intense as that since before I was riding here and saw people race down there on four or five strides to something. Since then we’ve had a bit more time, so it’ll be exciting. The Trout Hatchery is a real sequence of finding your way through. There’s a lot of places you have to have a good reaction. He’s been clever with the ground in places – he loves ground, you can tell he’s a bit of a merchant for an interesting bit of ground to do something stupid on! It’ll be interesting to see what he does over the next few years as he gets more in sync with the place.”
Sarah Bullimore (3rd on 22.5 with Corouet):
“I’ve been around in a buggy [Sarah injured her knee on Monday by getting studded by a horse at Wellington Horse Trials], and there are big jumping efforts, but so far Corouet has tackled everything with great gusto and almost plays with fences. Here, I’m hoping he won’t be playing with them quite so much — he’ll need to just get on and do the job and save energy. It’s big and bold, and there’s serious questions early on. I think Derek has been really clever with making you commit to a line, and if you’re going straight, you’re going straight. You can’t change your mind halfway. If you do decide to go straight, there’s very few places where you can change your mind and get out of jail by going long.”
Piggy March (4th on 22.6 with Vanir Kamira):
“It’s definitely Burghley. A lot of people have come back to me and said, ‘oh, it’s very clear; it’s all in front of you’, but I think there’s a lot more places where it might be in front of you, but there’s definitely different bits that you’ve got to take note of, like the terrain. They’ve used that slightly differently, and obviously there’s a different course designer this year — and actually, there’s some really sneaky places where you’ve got to think so quickly. I don’t love the Dairy Mound; that’s a sneaky little thing. I don’t like the distance to the log there — I think it walks quite long, when you’re going to have to come up and pop the corner. But it is what it is. I’ll be scratching my head a lot of times walking that. And the fences are enormous – some of them, you walk up to them and think, ‘I hope I get a good shot to that!’ There’s plenty out there to do.”
Pippa Funnell (8th on 26.2 with Billy Walk On; 10th on xx with Majas Hope):
“You come out of the arena and then it’s quite serious between Defender Valley and up to the Leaf Pit — there’s a lot of very big jumps. The Trout Hatchery is always big, too. But it invites us to get out there and attack it, and to be brave and bold, and I think once you’re through the Trout Hatchery, hopefully you can settle into a bit of a rhythm. The Dairy Mound is a little bit of a tricky question up there, and then there’s a lot of big jumps coming home. We’ve always got to remember that the terrain is hugely important as well. Hopefully their minds are on the job and not looking at the crowds — and that the jockey’s feeling younger than ever!”
Rodolphe Scherer (19th on 30.4 with Song du Magay):
“It’s big, technical, and hilly — it’s a tough course. The beginning is twisty, with many combinations, I think — the beginning is very tough. The rest of the course is tough too, but the beginning has so many combinations and fences close together, it’s a little bit like a short-format. After, I think if you make it through well and don’t lose too much energy, you can go into sixth gear.”
Richard Jones (23rd on 31.2 with Alfies Clover):
“It’s a brilliant track, I’d say — it’s very horse friendly. It’s a big track, and it’s always hilly here, and even when you’re on a good galloper like mine, it does take it out of them. It’s a good test. I wouldn’t say it’s more or less technical, but I do think it’s fair to the horses, and whether that relates to it being a little easier, I don’t know. I certainly don’t think it’s easy, and I think the good horses will go well and the rest will be slow. I think it’ll be a good day for the sport.”
“The Leaf Pit is a really big test. It’s not unfair, but it’s a very decent fence. The Dairy Mound is a real test, too, and I think at that stage in the course, even the good ones will feel quite tired. It’s a funny little run up a short slope to a corner that’s not very big at all, but it’s a very serious question.”
Jonelle Price (25th on 32.2 with Classic Moet):
“You never want to say it’s soft, but I think the run home, in my opinion, is a little bit too soft. Once you’ve jumped the Dairy Mound and the oxers thereafter, there’s really nothing that should stop you from getting home if you’ve still got some gas in the tank. I think the first part, from the main ring to the Trout Hatchery, is going to be the action zone. There’s not any real let up — so if you have a good round through to the Trout Hatchery, you’ve got a pretty good chance.”
Alice Casburn (30th on 33.6 with Topspin):
“I was actually sick at the Joules combination! But there’s no change there, because I was actually sick next to the Vicarage Vee at Badminton, so I’m hoping if trends follow, I’m going to have a lovely day! He’s a fantastic jumper, and it’s big, but there’s nothing that I don’t think he can do. He’s phenomenal, and I saw all the horses at the trot-up and thought, ‘well, I’d rather be on mine’. They’re all fantastic horses, but when you’ve had a horse for a long partnership, you know them and they know you and you’ve got to go out with that mentality. I know what he’s going to think four strides before he gets there. He’s a high percentage of blood, too, and he loves to gallop, and he loves hills — so he’s in the right place, it’s just whether everything comes together on Saturday! But I’m feeling good about it.”
Francis Whittington (33rd on 34.1 with DHI Purple Rain):
“He’s built a strong track out there, and it’s definitely not one you can go out there and take lightly. You want a good night’s sleep the night before, and you want to make sure your head is really clear, because there’s so many options and alternatives in there. Before, you could adjust when things didn’t quite go as planned, and now, you have to think, ‘where am I within this combination?’ A couple of years ago when I was last here with Evento, I made an adjustment in a combination and ended up re-jumping a fence I’d already jumped and ended up eliminating myself — and they have something similar in the Trout Hatchery this year. There’s been a bit of discussion between the riders and everyone else, because I’m not entirely sure that the question and the option they put in is fair for the horse or the rider or anyone to understand. So we’ve got to be clear-headed and thinking about the options.”
[Author’s note: since this interview, the numbering on the Trout Hatchery has been changed to reflect the concerns of the riders and provide clearer alternative options.]
“Without being too controversial, it’s not what I’d put down as being our traditional Burghley track. It’s a different twist to it — but that’s the point of having different course designers, so we’re not just riding around similar tracks every time. But Burghley is Burghley — it’s meant to be big, bold, and scary, with rider frighteners and undulations. You’ve got the hills, you’ve the terrain, which creates enough of a question, and that’s half the task: riding the horse at the beginning so you have enough at the end to finish.”
“I’m not a big fan of this whole ABCDEF thing — I run out of fingers for the alphabet when I’m thinking! It all comes up really quickly, so when you’re trying to react when you’ve had a stumble, and find the alternative, you’re assessing the situation, creating a new plan, and enacting the new plan in a second and a half. You don’t have time to think about it, but now we’ve got to think ‘was that a B, a C, or a D?’ You’re not just learning the route that’ll go straight, you’ve got to learn the alternative route from that point for maybe six different scenarios. When you’re trying to assess all that and stop yourself from having a serious injury, all in a second and a half… that’s a lot.”
Padraig McCarthy (45th on 38.5 with HHS Noble Call):
“The last time I walked the course here was in 2018, and it’s a different kind of an animal to then, I think. My feeling is that it starts quite big — the Defender Valley and on to the Leaf Pit is every bit a five-star, but the feeling and philosophy is a little bit different than when Mark designed it. Derek has been very clever about it in how he’s used the stride patterns and the angles. There’s maybe less of the big, bruising jumps that we’ve seen in the past — but that could also be flavoured by the fact that I have a horse who’s a really, really good cross-country horse, and I think that always changes your opinion of how a course walks.”