‘There’s More Terrain Than Any 5* in the World’: Take a Tour of Bicton’s One-Off Track with Captain Mark Phillips

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 now just a scant fortnight away from the start of the Chedington Bicton International CCI5* (2-5 September), and already, the event has made history: it’s the only one-off five-star that’s ever been held. That also makes it one of the few positive legacies left by the pandemic, which has forced the hand of many established events and put them on the shelf until normalcy is returned. After the sad cancellation of both Badminton and Burghley for the second consecutive year, Britain faced the unwelcome prospect of an achingly long 32-month stretch without a five-star on home turf — but Bicton Arena’s forward-thinking team, helmed by new British Eventing CEO Helen West, had other ideas. They’d already managed to turn their popular venue, which is based on the Devon coast and hosts competitions across the disciplines, into a CCI4*-L so they could step in to fill the void left by Bramham back in June. Taking the next step would take significant resources — as well as some seriously savvy use of the space available — but they were determined to get the job done.

“We’ve always wanted to run at the highest level, and the opportunity came around this year,” says Event Director Andrew Fell. “We did think, ‘should we? Can we?’ but we decided you know what, we need to do it. If you don’t go and try, you never know if you can do it. And we proved it by putting the four-star in seven weeks — and the five star, we’ll be doing it in 11 weeks. Most people have 11 months to do it.”

For the Bicton team, running a five-star isn’t just the fulfilment of a long-time dream — it’s also a chance to give Britain’s eventing scene a necessary push in the right direction, something that Andrew sees as particularly important after the British team’s recent success at Tokyo.

“The last five star was in 2019. I mean, to be honest, we need to turn around and actually produce it because if we don’t have the big competition, we won’t be challenging the riders, and then we won’t be on the podiums. The only way of going out and winning is if you’re competing against the best, week in, week out. And that’s why they do have the great advantage in this country: we’ve got so many riders who are based here from so many different countries. We have great competitions, but we need to have the highest level, not only for the competitors, but also to keep interest in this sport from the spectators and sponsors, the owners, everyone like that.”

It’s a big job, but it’s clear they’re tackling it with aplomb. We headed down to Devon on Monday for the official unveiling of the new CCI5* course, and as we toured its expanse of hills and questions with course designer Captain Mark Phillips, we were surrounded by a buzz of activity: tractors circled us, tending to the ground and the grass, and small teams were hard at work applying first coats of paint to the fences. What we were able to see was something of a skeleton version of the challenge to come: there are plentiful fence decorations and dressings to be added, and many of the brush fences will look dimensionally different at the event itself, but by touring the course as a whole, we were able to get a sense of the challenge to come.

Most notably? As we saw in June’s CCI4*-L and CCI4*-S, the hills are Bicton’s crown jewel. There are long, upward pulls and shorter, intense bursts to and fro, but what makes them so influential is their consistency. Unlike Burghley, which is a comparatively flatter stamina challenge with long galloping stretches and the upward pull of Winners’ Avenue, or mountainous Blair, which feels as though it takes you straight up and then right back down again, Bicton will require regular readjustments to even the most balanced horse as they navigate the undulating terrain. There’s only one truly flat part of the course, and that’s a short — though intense — skip through the main arena. Everywhere else, horses and riders will be travelling uphill, downhill, or on a camber, which adds a unique challenge to the track. To compensate, some of the fences around the course seem almost — dare we say it? — welcoming.

“There is more terrain on this five-star course than any other in the world, therefore some of the let-up fences are more forgiving and there is less intensity than say Badminton or Burghley,” says the Captain, who was due to step down as long-time Burghley course designer last season.

Captain Mark Phillips and his assistant.

This means that many of the single fences, be they tables or timber questions, don’t look quite as dimensionally jaw-dropping as, for example, Burghley’s Collyweston Slate Mine with its nearly 2m spread. Instead, they’re slightly smaller, with slightly more forgiving profiles, and designed with the intention of truly allowing horses to cruise over them without expending unnecessary physical or mental effort.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Bicton will be an easy or unspectacular track, though. We saw its CCI4*-L counterpart earlier in the summer exert extraordinary influence over the competition, with just over a third of the starters finishing the course without jumping penalties, and nearly 40% failing to complete at all. The course was widely praised in the aftermath for providing the first real test since the 2019 season, though Phillips and the team have worked hard to take all feedback in their stride and use it to inform their five-star design.

The first major change is the direction: this time, the course will run the opposite way around, which means that the tough uphill slog that came from around the seventh minute marker in June will feature in the early stages of the course instead, and in reverse, which should ease some of the pressure on horses.

The course map for Bicton’s CCI5*.

Fences one through four shouldn’t cause any issues: they’re simply designed to give horses and riders a chance to get in the air and fine-tune their communication before they reach the first combination, the EHOA Dewpond at 5AB, which features two brush elements on an angle with water between them. Then it’s onwards to the Chedington Oxers and Triple Bar at 6ABC: “the first five-star question on the course,” Phillips tells us. Made of imposing rails painted stark white, it’s rather reminiscent of Burghley’s famously wide Maltings oxers. The first element — a 2m wide oxer — is followed by a curving, forward four-stride line to another oxer. After that, they’ll bowl on down in three strides to a skinny triple bar.

“It’s a five-star question, but not overly difficult for this level. The triple bar is a little bit difficult to get back to, so there’s an alternative [if needed],” explains Phillips. The approach to the question will help competitors, too — after a reasonably long gallop from 5, they’ll ride quite a tight turn into the first element, which will help to balance horses and get them off their forehands if they’ve become heavy in the hand.

There are two further single fences after this question, though they come up in quick succession and the effort over 7, the Voltaire Brush, will affect the jump made at 8, the Berenberg Cabin. The Voltaire Brush will look colossal at 1.40m, but the ability to brush through it will make it a reasonably forgiving fence — but riders will need to ensure their horses are attacking and bold, rather than cowed by the dimensions, so they can land on a suitable line to get to the bright cabin. They can’t freewheel here, as the landing side of the cabin takes them directly downhill, so they’ll need to ensure their horses are jumping slightly out of their hand so they can regroup and make a tidy effort of the getaway.

Why’s that downhill so steep? Because now, we’re entering the arena — and to do so, you have to navigate the derby bank. Don’t get carried away, mind you — it’s nothing on Hickstead’s famous bank, but it will be easy to careen down the slope if a horse is particularly fresh and strong. If that’s the case, riders will find it quite hard to regroup in time for the first part of 9AB, the TopSpec Brush Corners, with their relatively narrow jumpable area. These can be tackled on a forward four strides or a conservative, curving five, but the first element is a left corner and the second is a right-handed one, which means that this is the first real test of rideability. We’ll see some early frustration here, as the door is wide open for run-outs and some riders may even need to circle for control before coming to the first element, which will waste valuable time.

The Chedington Arena Table at 10.

After that, though, horses and riders alike will get a reward for their hard work with a couple of straightforward single fences, which will give them a chance to make up some ground and find their rhythm again. They’ll pop the expansive Chedington Arena Table at 10, with its large groundline, and then the Bicton College Monkey Puzzle at 11, followed by two further tables at 12 and 13 — the furthest stretch of the course.

“You have a very intense minute from the white oxers [at 6ABC] through the corners [at 9AB], and then you’ve got an easy minute after that,” says Phillips, pointing out that riders who intend to be competitive will need to make best use of those ‘easy minutes’ to catch up with the clock.

The A and B elements of fence 14ABC, as seen from the landing side.

The easy minute ends as riders reapproach the main arena for their second loop through. 14ABC, the Clinton Devon Estates Cliffhanger, looks every inch a top-level question, and we predict more than a few firmly clenched buttocks as horses and riders tackle an upright rail followed by a huge drop to a brush arrowhead. With just one stride between the rail and the drop, the quality of the approach will be key — and those who get it wrong will risk picking up 11 penalties, over the A element.

“If they come too quick and leave the hind legs, it’ll break the frangible,” says Phillips, who is replacing the current MIMclip configuration with a frangible pin for the event. “The clip breaks very easily with horizontal pressure, whereas the pin doesn’t — so I think the pin will be fairer for the horses and riders at this particular fence on the course. But after going flat chap for a minute, they do need to come back to 350, or maximum 400 meters per minute, or they will hit this and get the 11 penalties.”

Looking through all three elements of 14ABC from the take-off side of the initial rails.

How horses land from the drop will help to dictate whether they tackle the triple brush on three or four strides. This question will be a familiar one to anyone who followed — or rode around — Bicton’s four-star; the crucial difference is that on that occasion, there was just a drop to a triple brush. This time, there’s that pesky rail — and the triple brush has grown, too.

“That’s a Burghley triple brush,” says Mark with a grin, pointing at the former brush over to the side, where it acts as a black flag alternative, so we can marvel at the size comparison. It’s true: the Burghley brush is as beefy a thing as you’d care to imagine, though by this stage of the course, horses who aren’t eating up big, bold fences probably aren’t ready to be running a five-star.

“This is,” concedes Phillips, “a serious question.”

The Burghley Table at 15A.


The low rails at 15B.

The final arena question is 15ab, the familiar Burghley Table followed, upon landing, by a right-handed turn to a low set of rails that will take horses and riders out of the ring and back into Bicton’s parkland.

The Ariat Challenge at 16ABC, with short white poles marking the future placement of flowerbeds to funnel horses to the take-off point.

Prior to the running of Bicton’s CCI4*-L, the most contentious fence on course was the coffin question at 15ABCD. Then named the Course Designer’s Conundrum as a cheeky nod to the hubbub surrounding it, it featured an airy rail on a bounce stride to a ditch, followed by a one-stride line to an achingly narrow jumpable window through an angled hedge. But for all the discussion about it, it jumped remarkably well through the day, and was only the fifth most influential combination on course with just eight faulters. Now, it’s back as 16ABC, renamed the Ariat Challenge, and featuring a minor change to the final element, which will now require horses to jump the arrowhead section of the hedge instead of its furthest arm. Small flowerbeds will be placed between the ditch and the hedge to stop riders from veering left or right and attempting to jump on the half-stride.

Like the rails at 14, the first element here will be pinned, rather than clipped, and Phillips has offered up options to anyone who runs into trouble at some point in the combination: the white flag for the ditch element is generously placed well to the left, so if a horse stops at the ditch, the rider will be able to turn and get a sensible approach to the left-hand side, which snakes back around the rails, and then they can go on to jump the angled hedge at its leftmost arm, rather than trying to find their way to the arrowhead.

“Jumping into the arena with the step down is a little bit of a set-up for this,” says Phillips, explaining that they’ll need to moderate their canter just as significantly on the approach. Only once they’ve cleared it can they begin to think about making up the time lost in the previous slow minute.

“No one’s won the competition until they’ve jumped the coffin,” he says.

The Tall N Narrow at 18 looks innocuous now, but will be dressed with brush for the event itself and will be 1.45m (4’9) tall.

After leaving the coffin, we enter a segment of the course characterised by its long galloping segments between questions, and sure enough, there’s a big one before we reach fence 17, the W.H. Bond Sawbench. Though the fence is a simple let-up fence, every stride before and after it will count, because they’ll all need to be used to catch up on the clock. After another, shorter gallop, we come to the Western Counties Tall N Narrow at 18, which gives the slower option of a trakehner and then a second element on a turning line, or a single element, which is a very narrow six-foot wide upright over a nine-foot ditch, designed to mimic the iconic Cottesmore Leap but with something of an accuracy question included.

“This question is a little bit more interesting,” says Phillips. “The [Cottesmore Leap] at Burghley has a [nearly 10-foot] base spread but it’s considerably wider up top. The tests whether they’re brave enough to come down at 600mpm and jump the skinny, or whether they’d rather take one of the trakehners and then jump the gate. They need to decide if they have their big person pants on.”

Looking down the line from element A of question 19ABCDE, the Burghley Brushes.

“They won’t have seen anything like this before,” says Phillips with a grin as we approach 19ABCDE, the Burghley brushes. The direct route is formidable: the four skinnies are set over a 100m line, with variable speeds required between each. A to B is set on five strides, while B to CD is a forward three. CD to E is technically an unrelated distance so some variation will be seen in the striding. Horses are unlikely to get above 450mpm here, making this a slow, technical stretch. If they opt to go long, they’ll need to jump an extra element, though the route itself isn’t circuitous and may be a safer option for some tiring, inexperienced horses.

The oxer-to-corner question at 20AB.

After completing that major question, horses and riders will bowl on into a busy segment of the course: running parallel to their question at 20AB is the NFU Water at 22ABCD, and just beyond that, the start and finish of the course. But by this point, horses should be totally focused on the task at hand, and that task is the yawning open Vardag Oxer to a corner made from a tree offcut. This can be ridden on a straight four strides or a more curving five strides, which Phillips anticipates as being the more popular option at this stage.

“It’s not easy,” he says. “When you look at the line from [the take-off side of the oxer], it looks almost impossible — so you have to jump it left of centre. If you’re going on four, you need a right good shot at this one, so I think most people will be more conservative, and stay out for the five. It’s definitely a five-star question, not a four-star one.”

There’s a long stretch out to one of the furthest points on course after that, and when they reach the end of it, competitors will tackle the HTSG Wilma and Crumble Stumps at 21AB on their way back around the tight bend to gallop back to 22. Named for Phillips’s dogs, including the late Crumble, it’s made up of two big, skinny tree stumps on a curving left-handed line with a moderate quarry between them. It doesn’t look like one of the most intense five-star questions we’ve seen, but coming at this late stage in the course, and given that horses have had to leave the sight of the finish to come tackle it, we could see a few errors at this point.

The NFU Water at 22ABCD. The A element is out of shot, but you can see the A element of 20AB to the left, which gives some sense of how closely-packed this field is — truly the best part of the course for spectators to congregate.

The final water — the NFU Water at 22ABCD — was the most influential part of the CCI4*-L course, though it looks quite different now without its double of angled hedges, which claimed 21 faulters despite each element being separately numbered. This time, it’s made up of a left-handed angled brush as the A element, followed by a brush-topped 1.8m drop into the water. Then, there’s a left-handed curving line out over a triple brush, which will deposit horses and riders back on dry land and point them towards a final left-handed angled brush.

The real question here is in the line. The first element encourages an angled approach to the drop in, but jumping the B element even slightly from right to left will make the line to the final two elements almost impossible to negotiate. Instead, riders will have to make a plan to land from the A element and find themselves coming into the drop in perfectly straight. Fortunately, there’s enough space between each element to really plan those turns and square them off for maximum straightness, though the safer the route, the slower it’ll prove. There’s also an alternative route that they can use as a back-up plan if they land in a heap from the B element and need to regroup.

With the water behind them, our competitors will make their way to the final combination on course, the Fisher German Mounds at 23AB. Once again, Phillips makes use of a bending line to diffuse some pressure, but these tall brushes still need respect as they’re not small — and the question comes after a long uphill pull. Then it’s downhill to fence 24 — the St James Place Double Brush — uphill to another brush at fence 25, and finally, just the NAF Finale at fence 26 to pop. With 6,350 meters and 45 jumping efforts in the rearview, competitors will be glad to see this final jump.

For Captain Mark Phillips, designing this one-off course has been a unique experience, and one that’s been defined by learning the lay of the land as he’s tackled it.

“I’ve done Burghley for 25, 30 years, so there’s not much I don’t know,” he says. “Here, we learned a lot about the ground and the effects of the terrain back in June. We had a hot day, and I think we had some horses that were underprepared, but I think that everyone who came here in June now realises that we’ve got a big terrain, and the effects of that. So hopefully, they’ll come in better prepared, and I’ve learned a lot about the terrain and the effect of the hills, so I’ve given horses more of a chance to catch their breath at the top of the hills before asking questions and maybe made some of the questions a bit more sympathetic. But I do think riders will have to take their brains with them when they leave the start box.”

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