Preview Gallery: Get to Grips with Aston’s CCI4*-S Course

She might not be on the four-star track, but this artistic representation of all of us in lockdown is happy to stick around on spectator duties at Aston this week.

When offered the task of designing the inaugural Aston-le-Walls CCI4*-S track, Captain Mark Phillips had a couple of challenges on his hands: he had to start effectively from scratch, and he had to turn a venue known for its inviting move-up courses across the levels into something that would do the job of Chatsworth, the consistently tough competition it was to replace. But you don’t amass the wealth of experience that the Burghley designer, four-time Badminton winner and Olympic gold medallist has without laughing in the face of a few challenges.

“Fortunately, cross-country is cross-country; it’s not on a racetrack, and most spaces give you the opportunity to ask similar questions,” he says. “Chatsworth, of course, has plenty of terrain — whereas Aston doesn’t have hills, it has mounds. But I wanted to create a proper four-star track, because by now, riders will be using this to prepare for bigger things to come — not Burghley, now, but Luhmühlen, and Tokyo, and the European championships.”

Phillips remains vocal about the fact that its the riders’ responsibility to assess the suitability of courses for their longer-term goals, rather than simply choosing the easiest routes to qualification for the next level up. And with his Aston track, his intentions are clear: this is a track that, if jumped well, will assure a rider of their mount’s readiness for whatever major goal looms over the horizon.

THE ESSENTIALS:

Length: 3615m

Optimum time: 6:21

Fences: 24

Jumping efforts: 34

How do you make a four-star track fit? You open up more land, stick in an arena segment, and use every last inch of open space as cleverly as possible.

So what can you expect from tomorrow’s competition? A time that’s likely to be influential, for one thing: while Phillips has ensured that each question is clear and easy for horses to read, they’re by no means going to be a walk in the park to ride. To accommodate that — and to allow less experienced horses and riders a chance to plan an educational, rather than competitive, round, there’s scope for straight, direct approaches at each, but also always the option to add a stride or two and ride a gentler, curving approach to the second elements. At 12AB, the tricky water complex just after the main arena, there’s also a black flag alternative for those who suspect the direct route — a left-handed hairpin turn from 11 to 12A, followed by a skinny that comes up fast in the water — might be a bit too risky. Those riders will be able to splash through the water, turn right, and jump a different skinny for their 12B — but the price they’ll pay will be the expensive seconds spent circling back around to find their way to 13.

It’s a course that’s a joy to walk, because it’s so spectacularly untrappy without being an easy track — jumping penalties accrued will likely prove educational, showing off some weakness on the part of horse or rider’s approach (particularly if they struggle with corners, which are plentiful here). That the dressage scores are so extraordinarily tightly-bunched will make time a significant factor, and while it doesn’t feel colossal, there’s plenty that’s quite big enough — such as the airy, dimensionally massive angled trakehner at 15A, which is swiftly followed by a beefy left-handed corner. And the ground? When I came here to find out how the course would make use of the available space back at March’s Elite event, a jubilant Harry Meade had galloped past and shouted, “this is the best ground we’ll see all year!” Through sheer force of will, the team at Aston has bettered even that, and the springy, well-nurtured footing will be a pleasure for horses and riders to cover.

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