A True Five-Star: Riders React to Bicton’s Cross-Country Course

Captain Mark Phillips, British Eventing CEO Helen West and Bicton organiser Andrew Fell peer over the first element of question 19, the Burghley Brushes. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We’re less than an hour away from the start of the inaugural Chedington Bicton Arena CCI5* cross-country, and the venue is abuzz with excitement for what’s to come. The consensus? While some of the single fences — those beefy tables and logs that look so frightening at this level — are generally smaller, the terrain is hillier and tougher than any five-star course in the world, and with its mix of strong stamina challenges and twisty tracks that criss-cross a relatively small swathe of land, it’s going to be an all-round test of horses’ and riders’ skills. Oh, and that optimum time of 11: 16? It’s going to be very, very tricky to catch.

You can dive into an overview of the course with designer Captain Mark Phillips here, or walk the course virtually with eventing legend Lucinda Green, who’ll talk you through every combination, here. Or, keep on scrolling to find out what the competitors themselves think of the challenge to come — and then sign up for your viewing pass and get involved with all the action on-demand or on catch up, starting from 12.30 p.m. local time/7.30 a.m. EST.

Pippa Funnell after her leading test on Billy Walk On. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Pippa Funnell (overnight leader on Billy Walk On, 8th on Majas Hope): The course is tough — every bit a five-star, and obviously made tougher by the factor of the terrain. This horse came here in the spring, and anyone who remembers what a Bedford TK was like, he’s a bit like that — as soon as he gets to a hill he slows down and then he goes roaring off down the hill. He’s not a real Thoroughbred in the way that he gallops, but he got the trip in the spring and he’s scopey.

We all have huge respect for Mark. He always builds a decent course that tests horses and riders, but he always builds fair tests in that horses can read the questions, so it’s just up to us to ride them in a way that they can read them. It’s every bit a five-star course, for sure, and we’re incredibly lucky that Bicton has stepped in to put on a five-star here. I, for one, have got a nice team of horses at the moment and it’s been incredibly sad not to [be able to get them out] at this level — and for me, personally, everyone’s aware of my age, and I’m not sure it’s the best thing for me to have two years without a five-star! I’ll wait and see if I’ve still got the mojo, and the guts, and the bravery, but I’ve got two very good jumping horses and hopefully I’ll have fun.

Piggy March chats through her test. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Piggy March (2nd overnight on Vanir Kamira): I think — I hope! — she’ll love the hills, because she’s designed to put her nose down and gallop flat-out up and down. For her, little things like at 6, where you’ve got these big oxers and it’s on an open, big stride through there, and then you gallop downhill, still fresh, to a really tricky thing [as you come downhill into the arena] where I’ll just have to get her back. She’s brave, and she’s galloped all the way up to there, and she might just be thinking very forward. She gets very on her forehand.

Every time I ride her, I’m interested in starting out, because I’m always surprised that she’s got to five-star and feels so good, when at a one-day she doesn’t. So I’m just sort of hoping that she gets here and feels the occasion, gallops and gets into a rhythm and shows her scope at the jumps, rather than get unsettled with her head low and quite hurdle-y. There are plenty of places that I think will be quite tricky if she’s hurdle-y and a bit quick and not really waiting, so I just hope she’s back to what she was two years ago.

It’s definitely got a different feel to Badminton or Burghley. You walk it with a lot of respect, because there’s plenty of places you could be a problem easily. With Badminton and Burghley, you learn the terrain and how to get them into the rhythm, and you sort of know what to expect of how they feel, but here is very different. It’s very intense for the first five minutes, and the terrain is a lot quicker, sharper, and feistier. Badminton and Burghley aren’t so intense at the beginning, so she settles into a rhythm — so that might be interesting for me tomorrow.

On friend Pippa’s round to come: We were last on a team together at the European Championships at Luhmühlen, and Pipsy was first out. She was like, ‘I’m going to be too slow!’ So I was like, ‘I’m going to shove a sparkler up your [redacted] and light it, and you’ll have eleven minutes and eight seconds to get to the end before it goes off.’ She got home inside the time — so I’ve got two sparklers ready!

William Fox-Pitt after his test with Oratorio. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

William Fox-Pitt (6th overnight on Oratorio II): I think Mark has done a brilliant job. I like the route, but I don’t like the downhill first minute that much because [Oratorio] is quite a keen horse, and I think I’d rather be going uphill. But apart from that downhill first minute, I think the lie of the land is much better this way around [than at June’s four-star] — there’s a little bit less camber. [Helen West] has really thought about the camber, which is a big issue in Bicton park, snd she’s really worked out where the better camber is for the horses.

The distances are encouraging us to go forward all the way, but with accuracy questions — corners, arrowheads, turning, downhill — but all on that forward stride. I think the water [at 22ABCD] that caused so much trouble in the spring is quite late; maybe it’ll ride softer than the one in the spring, because we don’t have the two angled brushes coming out, but the skinny will come up quick. You have to land in ready — you can’t land tired, because there’s no time to recover, so that’s interesting. I’m not as scared about the coffin as I thought I was going to be, but I could be wrong. I think he’s been kind to given us tree wings — I’m sure he hasn’t lost his nerve, but I wasn’t expecting those. I hope, as they come in, that it’ll just look like a parallel fence to a ditch. Optically, horses don’t judge things — in that last minute, they won’t judge things like that, and with the trees to hold you in, the bounce [distances] are just there. I’m a little worried, maybe, about the [frangible] pin going in; you can never trust a pin, so you’ve got to come in quietly enough, and yet you want to be riding forward enough to come out. It’s quite a combination — it’s a downhill approach, a tricky approach, which is interesting. But I’m not as daunted by it as I thought I was going to be. Lucinda [Green] was quite outspoken about it, but Mary [King] was very relaxed, and you don’t quite know who to listen to! You have to draw your own opinion.

[I hope the yellow MIM at the corner won’t affect my approach], but I mean, it’s just so sad — you watched several horses have that clip in the Olympics when they’d hardly have knocked [it if it were a] showjump. Michael Jung had a tiny peck on landing, but did it save him a fall? Of course it didn’t. I don’t love MIMs; sometimes they can be too relaxed, sometimes they can be too tight. I don’t know that that’s always a good thing. Pins were introduced to save lives, not to give you 11 penalties [and influence the competition] — and now they’re becoming a big factor in eventing. They’ve already cost someone potentially the Olympic gold, and for me, that’s the worst thing that could have happened in our sport. I’m a big advocate of pins only counting if you have them in front — if you have them with a back leg and manage to stand up, well good on you, that’s eventing. But if you have it in front, maybe that’s saved your life, and you should be penalised. But can a fence judge decide whether it was a front or back leg? That’s quite a lot of pressure. I know the FEI eventing committee are quite black and white, and they want there to be fewer decisions [to be made], but you know, we’ve got a lot of people who can make decisions, so I don’t see what’s wrong with having people on the job. But that’s just my opinion, and I know it’s a factor in eventing that we’re all concerned about — and you do hope that on the upside, it might save a life.

Gemma Tattersall (9th overnight on Chilli Knight): It’s definitely longer [than the CCI4*-L in June], and I would say he’s made even more of the hills this time, which I think is going to be the main factor. There are some serious combinations: the one in the arena [9AB] is serious, and you’re going to have to have serious control to come down this bank, which is really steep — [my boyfriend] Gary actually rolled down it yesterday like some sort of idiot! I think the water at 22ABCD is tough, and the corner before the water [at 20AB] is a proper five-star question — that’s a big old oxer on a really tricky line to that corner, and it certainly invites a run-out. It may not be Burghley, but there’s enough to do!

Oliver Townend (10th overnight on MHS King Joules and 14th on Tregilder): I can’t take my hat off enough to the team. It’s a proper five-star; it’s an incredibly fantastic job that’s been put together. I was slightly blown away by the presentation, and the ground is A1 — I know they’re planning to do more work in places, but for me, it’s very, very safe ground. If I had to run around last night, I’d have been happy to run any horse on that ground; it’s good to firm in places, but it’s very good ground with good grass cover. The presentation of the fences is fantastic, and it is constant — it’s a proper five-star, with narrow after narrow and corner after corner. He’s encouraging you to go on long distances to accuracy questions, which, when they get a little tired seven or eight minutes in, that’s where the problems start occurring.

The camber’s tough. There’s a lot of sharp inclines that probably won’t be as seeable on the TV — it’s going to be a proper stamina test, and the wiley old course designer has used the camber in a lot of special places where the fences look pretty straightforward, but then the camber will throw you about a bit.

Felicity Collins (overnight 16th on RSH Contend Or): It’s massively different [to my first five-star at Pau]. I sort of thought I was getting the easy way out, coming here, because I was always like, ‘I never want to do Burghley, it’s too big!’ But then I came here and was like, ‘great, Mark’s brought half the Burghley jumps and basically built another Burghley!’ And with the terrain, as well, it’s big enough. I learned [here in June] that the course walks very different than it rides, so I won’t be taking anything for granted out there. There’s some sneaky accuracy questions as well. I’m very glad I came here in the spring, because now I know the terrain, and if I hadn’t I’d have come here and had a massive shock.

The feeling I got in June was that he was super fit and I was being tanked with through the finish flags. Admittedly I didn’t ride super fast, because I’d have a silly 20 early on, but I went all the straight routes and just didn’t have my foot massively on the gas. But he felt really good, and that gave me confidence more than anything that I was doing the right thing. It sounds strange, but now I know to do less — the bigger the course, and the longer the course, I need to conserve his energy by not fighting him, and let the course back him off a bit instead. Hopefully he won’t come out of the start box like a Tasmanian devil, because it’s hard not to pull when he wants to go flat-out!

Richard Jones (overnight 19th on Alfies Clover): It’s a really good track — it’s definitely not Burghley, just dimensionally, but given the undulations here it makes Burghley look fairly flat, which it’s definitely not. I think he’s built a very sensible track with some proper five-star questions, but the let-up fences are a bit easier.

The combination in the arena is a very serious question — you’ve got to jump the little cabin and then come down the hill in some kind of control, and then turn hard and jump the double of corners. For me, that’s a standout fence. Personally — and it’ll probably ride fine — I hate the pair of stumps at 21AB. I think the second one is bloody awful, but the guys who rode it in the spring tell me it should jump well. I’ll take their word for it!

All the way around, you do struggle for the flat ground — and that’ll be a big test even for my horse, who’s a good galloper.

Francis Whittington laughs with stewards after his test. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Francis Whittington (overnight 22nd on DHI Purple Rain): I think there’s not a person here who’s not nervous of all the hills. They’re quite daunting. I think it’s an amazing track, a very exciting track, and I think there’s a nice flow to it. But there’s questions, like the one coming down the bank into the main arena with the corner to corner — that’s an extreme question. And there’s a lot of those out there.

I saw Mark and said, ‘Jesus, Mark, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen something like [the double bounce question at the coffin]’ — it’s rather old-fashioned. Have I been doing it that long?! Yes, I have…! The terrain here, too, is proper cross-country terrain. That’s what it used to be — not all these flat tracks.

The look of eagles: Padraig sternly surveys the ring. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Padraig McCarthy (overnight 23rd on HHS Noble Call): The terrain here is always a huge question, so I don’t imagine we’ll see many inside the time. You have to set out keeping in mind that it’s very intense, and you’re getting the heart rate up very early, and the questions keep coming. So you have to ride with your head and your feel and make sure you have enough horse coming home. You need a horse here that’s got a good engine and good balance. Coming down into the arena requires the horse to be really controlled and really balanced and really focused with you, and then there’s plenty of places where they have to stretch and go on a forward distance.

Malin celebrates after her test, which puts her in 26th place overnight. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Malin Josefsson (overnight 26th on Golden Midnight): I really hope he will enjoy it a lot. The bigger it is, the better it is for him, because then he works a bit more with the fences — otherwise he just wants to run. I’m a bit afraid of the downhill thing, because he can get too strong, but normally he’s always brilliant and thinking very clever, and he’s fast when he’s thinking even if things are coming up quickly.

I wanted to do a five-star with him, because we’ve been struggling so long to get to the Olympics, and for that we didn’t need to bring him out to five-star — last year, he just competed once because he did dressage instead. But then they didn’t need him for [the Olympics or] the Euros, so I said ‘I want to go to Bicton instead’.

David Doel (overnight 18th on Galileo Nieuwmoed and 30th on Ferro Point): It’s certainly going to be a test. It’s not the biggest five-star track, but the undulations where the fences have been placed are really going to test the horses. There are a lot of galloping stretches and some really intense moments, so it’s going to be fun — it’s going to be a little bit like a rollercoaster going up and down and up and down the hills. I’m excited for it!

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