According to conjecture (by which I mean according to the vicious rumour that Chinch and I are circulating), the reason Jonty Evans is so tall is because he constantly gets coerced by hapless journalists into trudging around cross-country courses in the pouring rain. Like a particularly well-nourished strain of wisteria, he just keeps on bloody growing.
With this in mind, I asked him to give us some EN insider insight into Burghley’s meaty course this year just as the heavens opened – it’s all part of my grand plan to get him to outgrow Cooley Rorkes Drift so I can steal the ride. #noshame
The joke was, as usual, on me, as rather than a magic carpet ride, I was whisked away on the sort of buggy trip that nightmares are made of. Imagine Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, but with colour-coordinated flags, a lot of mud, and one very soggy chinchilla, and you’re most of the way there. I’m just glad that Jonty rides better than he drives.
As revenge for nearly ejecting me out the side door at least ten times (and gleefully ignoring the wet branches smacking me and Chinch in the face), I made Jonty walk a couple of lines in the rain just so you can all enjoy a very dejected-looking Irishman. Sorry, not sorry.
This morning, Chinch and I went for an early-morning stroll in the beautiful sunshine to see the fences again in all their glory and do some sight-seeing — so just imagine the words of wisdom to follow came from him. He’s a very wise rodent.
So, without further ado, I present to you: a dirty great big preview of a dirty great big course.
Fence 1: The Olympic Legacy
Fence 2: Lambert’s Sofa
Fence 3: Fairfax Saddles Table
For the third consecutive year, Captain Mark Phillips’ hefty course will run backwards, a tactic that makes best use of the undulating terrain in the park and makes the tight optimum time even harder to achieve. The biggest CCI4* in the world doesn’t disappoint, with impressive fences from the off and a plethora of alternative routes designed to give less experienced horses and riders a safe, educational round, allowing the major players to battle it out through the fiendishly exacting direct routes.
“The first two fences aren’t too big — riders will just want to get them out of the way,” explains Jonty, presumably saying this only because he’s tall enough that the Actually Very Big Fences look like crossrails to him. “As they come down to fence 3, they’ll be approaching slightly downhill — and the fence is huge. It’s probably maximum spread, and horses will know it.
“There’ll be one or two horses who’ll be a bit unsettled there, and will still be running away a bit, and while it won’t cause a problem, it could mess up the rider’s rhythm. You’d love to be establishing an easy, smooth rhythm at this point.”
Frankly, I’d love to still be on board the horse at this point (or in the buggy).
Fence 4ab: The Lion Bridge
A favourite of photographers and spectactors, the combination at 4 is framed by the beautiful Lion Bridge, which connects the back of the shopping village with the yawning expanse of the heart of the course.
“This is the first real question on course,” says Jonty. “It’s a right-angle turn on a left-hand bend, and it’s plenty big enough, off a short approach with water behind it. It’s the first time the horses will get a glimpse of something a bit different. It’ll probably jump quite well, but it needs respect.”
Fence 5ab: Anniversary Splash
Fence 5 has had a bit of a rework for 2017, and with its close proximity to the tradestands is likely to draw a reasonably sized crowd, meaning that horses and riders will have to focus on the task at hand.
Jonty explains: “The first part is a decent sized hedge oxer, but that shouldn’t cause a problem. It should set horses and riders up for what is now a log into water — last year, there was a brush fence into the water, and it jumped very big. Captain Mark Phillips probably looked at it and thought that that was sending the horses up into the air a bit too much. I imagine they’ll jump slightly lower over this, and have a slightly smoother jump.
“The interesting part is the undulation in the ground: It does measure six strides from the A element to the B, but you’ll see all sorts of different distances because of the ground. That might just add to a bit of unbalance when you’ve got to jump in. It’s the second time they’ll see water in two fences, so they should be au fait with that element of it.”
Hear that, gang? Easy.
Fence 6abc: Lakeside Corners
By fence 6 we’re onto the third combination on course, so if you hear a whimpering sound, don’t worry — I’m just having the first tactical cry of many to come this weekend. This is normal and absolutely no cause for concern.
“Mark Phillips has really given the riders options here. The right-hand route goes up the step, bounce over the carved log, and then the distance down to the C element to a left-hand corner. You can come on a more left-handed route and jump just a single jumping element, a right-hand corner, out of the water.”
You’re going to need to draw me a diagram, Jonty, because I’ve gotten lost somewhere under the carved log and have accepted my fate as a feral woodland creature.
The lanky Irishman has, by now, learned to ignore my looks of panic and goes on to tell me: “If I was riding it, and I trusted my horse, I’d go down over the single element — it’s one less jumping effort, but it’s a very committed line. The right-hand log to corner gives you a little bit more leeway if you don’t get your line quite right.
“If you’re completely floundering at this stage, you can come up the bank out of the water, behind all the elements, and jump one element turning the wrong direction, and then do a U-turn to get going again — but I wouldn’t think there’d be many riders who’d want to use that as their first option.”
Fence 7: Collyweston Slate Mine
“It’s basically just a huge square box,” says Jonty, as we squeal to a stop beside a fence the approximate size of the crate of gin I’d need to get through in order to jump it.
“The interesting part of it is that there’s a little lip in the ground just before it, and whereas riders would probably be able to guarantee a nice level approach to it normally, that would be on level ground. With the lip, you’ll find that this just kicks one or two horses off their stride. But this shouldn’t really cause a problem — if it causes you a problem, you should be going home!”
I’ll go home.
Fence 8: Capability’s Cutting
Capability’s Cutting has always appealed to me for a couple of reasons — first, because I think that if you were to forward-roll down the bank with enough commitment, you could probably very nearly make it up the other side, and secondly because I was a pony-less child and played a lot of Equestriad 2001 and I’m pretty sure the whole point of that game was just to plop in and out of this particular question.
On a much more serious and professional level, it poses an interesting challenge to horses and riders because of its unique approach.
“The fact that they’ll have to scrabble down the bank, across the lane and up the other side is an obstacle in itself,” says Jonty, not thinking at all about incredibly out-dated computer games.
“Normally there’s a fence directly related to it, and it focuses you as you come down and up again. This year, there’s every chance that that might mess people up a bit and break up their rhythm. It’s going to be a case of getting back into a rhythm to jump the great big hedge — which is a soft-ish fence, but made harder by having the lane in the way.”
Also made pretty hard by being large enough to build a nest in and live inside comfortably.
Fence 9, 10, 11ab: Storm Doris
The new combination on course is pretty smug about its top-notch location — it sits just across the lake from the house, and as you approach it you know that this is a fence that is sexy, and it knows it.
Jonty agrees, I think, or at least moves swiftly on, which is probably wise. “I love this story: Apparently, when Storm Doris hit the UK, these trees came down. Mark Phillips likes to claim that they landed in this formation, which I’m sure is not quite right!
“It’s a very bold fence, with a reasonable test of accuracy. Down the right-hand side, you’ve got the option of jumping 9 and 10 together: you jump the first log, and then ride two strides to a pretty angled corner, so you do have to be accurate, and that’s a long distance, so you have to be forward, too. It shouldn’t be too hard to be forward and accurate, and the profile of the logs is very kind.
“The left-hand route takes slightly longer: you jump the corner first and you’ve got three strides on a bend to a single log, and then another related distance to a skinny element further on, which forms the B part of fence 11.
“It’s a great fence with a great story, and I think it’ll jump really well. What’s really interesting is that this has brought us to a part of the park that hasn’t been used before, and they now turn right-handed and run up a very long hill up to Cottesmore Leap. This is troubling some of the riders — they’re thinking that it’s a very long hill early on in the course.”
Fence 12: Winners’ Avenue
A long gallop up memory lane gives riders plenty of time to think about what’s to come on course while watched by the Ghosts of Burghleys Past (or, at least, a lot of the current Kiwi team). To get themselves back into the swing of things, there’s a nice easy little log to pop. Or something.
“This is a dirty great big log pile — what’s interesting about it is that it’s on the only bit of flat-ish ground since Storm Doris. I daresay riders will have thought this might be a nice place to let the horse have a couple of deep breathes, because it’s essentially travelling uphill still, but instead they’ve got to jump this. It shouldn’t cause any problems — it’s just a big old log pile.”
Fence 13: The Cottesmore Leap
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: We’ve reached the ditch that you can demonstrably park a Land Rover in.
“At the top of Winners’ Avenue you come across fences 13 and 14,” says Jonty. “The Cottesmore Leap is probably one of the most famous cross-country fences in the world. It’s just a gigantic open ditch, really — the brush in front of it that acts as a take-off rail does soften the question a lot, and if you keep your head up and get your horse galloping well, most horses will skip over it like it’s not even there. It’s a crowd-pleaser, really.
Fence 14: Arched Roll Top
“You’ve then got a bending line to this big, rounded table at 14. Neither of these should cause any problems.”
Fence 15ab: Keeper’s Brushes
“The next fence, which comes up very quickly, is probably more technical,” Jonty tells me. I’m relieved to hear this, as I had been concerned that perhaps the riders hadn’t been tested enough at this point.
“The right-hand element of 15 is two brush arrowheads, the first of which is up a steep little bank and very close to the turn. It’s three strides on a nice enough straight line, which should be fairly easy for horses at this standard, but there’s a lip in the ground before the second of the arrowheads.
“The second option is the left-hand route, which is two wide brush oxers on a slightly bending two strides. It might make the distance feel quite long, having come out of the bend and up the bank, but I would imagine the big, scopey horses will go down over that like it’s not even there. You’ll see more do the oxer side than the arrowhead side.”
Fence 16ab and 17: The Land Rover Dairy Farm
“You come up a steep bank to a five-bar wooden gate — never a rider’s favourite, but coming up the bank should sit the horse off the gate, and I think you’ll see most horses jump the direct route,” explains Jonty.
“There’s an option to the first gate on the left-hand side. The straight route is to go across the mound, drop down the other side, and take on this wide corner, which forms 16b and 17. A few riders feel that going down the bank and staying on the line is going to tricky; they feel this fence could be influential.
“There are long routes — you can take the B element on top of the mound and then turn to a slightly easier corner, coming back towards yourself. The main players are going to want to go the direct route here, as it wastes a lot of time to take a longer route. The good horses will make this look easy.”
Jonty — and the competitors — are focusing on the wrong things at the Dairy Farm. The real problem here is this chap. Sweet dreams, kids.
Fence 18abc and 19: The Rolex Combination
If trakehners give you a slightly dodgy tummy, this isn’t the combination for you.
“Riders come into this having just come through the lane at Capability’s Cutting for the second time, and although it’s not as steep on the second approach, riders do feel that it’s nearly a jumping effort in itself. The oxer here isn’t that tall, but it’s very wide, and it’s a bland colour, so riders will want to keep their horses’ concentration here,” explains Jonty.
“There’s a very nice-looking direct line from the oxer, over the trakehner in the middle, to the corner on the way out. As you approach the trakehner, the ditch becomes really quite significant — it opens out beneath the fence and the banks of the ditch are quite a long way from either side of the hanging log.
“They’re also natural and grassed in, so they’re not revetted, like they’d normally be, with timber. That makes it a lot less clear for the horse where to take off and land. You’ll see a lot of riders adapting the most obvious line by putting a bend in to make the ditch more obvious.
“There are other options — there’s the left-hand route, in which you still jump the same oxer, but you then angle over a ditch and bounce over a rail, before a bending three or four strides to the corner out. Then there’s also a very long and time-consuming route. This is built for the likes of Nereo, and the less scopey horses, or those that doubt their riders for a second, could get in trouble with that ditch. Definitely a combination that riders will want to ride properly.”
Fence 20abc: Joules at the Maltings
Crack out your finest floral culottes, because the Maltings has had a country-chic makeover that still doesn’t make me want to jump it, but kind of makes me want to go shopping for tweed keyrings.
“These are lovely great big white oxers. It’s difficult to know which would be considered the direct route here — there’s an option at 20a, so you can either jump the big oxer with the flowery board on the bank, but that’s very wide, or you can jump the upright gate. After either of these, you turn right-handed to the B element, which is another big, wide oxer, and then you curve left-handed to the C element.
“There are various long routes to both the B and C elements, but I imagine you’ll see most riders jumping straight through. It’s not overly technical, but it’s big. You wouldn’t want to make a mess of the first oxer on the mound, because it’s wide and flat, and being on the mound, it would be easy to be a half-stride wrong at that,” says Jonty.
Fence 21: Captain’s Log
“This a very interesting fence. Structurally, it’s just a trakehner with a mannequin beside it, but it’s the first proper let-up fence in quite some time. There hasn’t been one since the log pile at 12 on Winners’ Avenue – everything has been combination after combination, or tricky jumps. This will be a chance to put a little bit of jump back into the horses and give them an easier time before the Trout Hatchery, which comes up quite quickly and is a serious question.”
A question: Why is it called the Captain’s Log if the mannequin is a witch? Answers on a postcard, please.
Fence 22 and 23abcd: Land Rover Trout Hatchery
In case riders were beginning to worry they may not get another opportunity to be dunked as thoroughly as a custard cream at a tea party, the Trout Hatchery is there, omnipresent and absolutely looking out for their best interests.
“Which brush fence the riders jump depends entirely on which route they’ll be taking, because at 23 you can go left or right-handed. If you’re going the right-hand side, which is probably deemed to be the quick route, you have an angled log into water with quite a significant drop in. It did cause one or two problems last year — horses didn’t take off terribly well for it, and equally, there were one or two that didn’t land well, either,” says Jonty.
“Then you have a bending line to a skinny brush, which is up a little slope out of the water and might cause a problem or two if horses don’t lock onto it. It’s framed by the trees, but horses have got to really take the bridle and commit at this point. Then you’ve got a bending line, on either four or five strides, to the D element, which is another skinny brush in the second part of the water.”
“The slightly slower route would be the left-hand side — it’s a similar log in, but not on the angle, so straight ahead, across the water, and up a step before a left-hand turn back under the pergola. Then there’s two skinny brushes before the second part of the water on a bending line. That’ll take quite a bit longer, but is considerably less risky. Here, we’ll start to see who the main players are — they’ll still be going the straight routes, while the riders on slightly less-experienced horses will be starting to look after them a bit at this point.”
Fence 25ab: Herbert’s Hollow
“There are so many places on this course where riders will have to choose which option they’re going to take, and this is one of them. The right-handed — and probably quickest — option is a single fence, a gappy oxer on quite undulating ground. The ground rises into it and then drops away into a little hollow afterwards,” Jonty tells me.
“The easier route would be the hedge on the left-hand side and then a right-handed turn to an equally gappier oxer, but that’s on more level ground. If horses are starting to tire at this point, you might see one or two riders decide to jump the left-hand option, rather than risking their horse catching a toe on the less-even ground on the right.”
Fence 25: Irish Horse Gateway
In another hilarious example of a let-up fence which is actually pulse-quickeningly huge, we come upon the Irish Horse Gateway table.
“This is a dirty great big sloping table with a wall front to it. It’s one of the very few let-up fences in the course, but it has actually caused a problem before — someone has definitely had a tumble at it. It’s downhill, and it’s coming out of the trees and into the light, so if the conditions are bright that’s something to keep in mind. Despite that, it shouldn’t cause any problems, and will be a chance for horses to have a relatively straightforward jump.”
Has Jonty noticed the stink-eye that I’m now resolutely giving him? Is he just ignoring it? Perhaps.
Fence 26abc and 27: Discovery Valley
Because what on earth else would you do with an expensive car, other than let big, fit event horses cavort around it gleefully?
“This is the first time horses and riders go through the Land Rover Discovery Valley. They jump the double bonnet on the mound as the first element, and then it’s really vital that they hold the straight line before the left-hand turn to the very skinny bonnet element of fence 27,” says Jonty.
“Last year the first element seemed to throw a lot of horses higher into the air than the riders were expecting, and they were then a little bit unshipped in their position. It’s going to be really important that they hold the line and the balance. Horses will be tiring at this point, so it’s vital to get it right so they can ride forward to the second element.
“There are long routes available here, but they’ll take a week and a half and cost riders the title if they take them.”
Fence 28: Rolex Grand Slam Rails
“This is another let-up fence, but it’s on undulating ground, it’s huge, and it’s over a ditch, and it’s on a right-hand turn,” says Jonty, once again willfully misunderstanding the idea of a ‘let-up’ fence.
“It deserves a bit of respect. One or two have made a mistake here; it’s got an uneven profile, and would be considered a Swedish oxer if it was a show jump, so it needs to be jumped properly. That will really help riders, because they’re just about to head up the hill to the brand new Leaf Pit, which is a real test of jumping.”
Lord help us.
Fence 29ab and 30: FEI Classics Leaf Pit
At this point, I’m growing increasingly concerned that Jonty has brought me here to reenact that classic scene from Thelma and Louise.
“This year is probably the first time in living memory that riders won’t be jumping down the massive drop into the Leaf Pit,” he says. “Instead, they’ll approach on a left-hand turn and jump over one of two cottages. They then have two routes to go down the really steep bank to a double of skinny timber arrowheads. On the left-hand side, which is arguably the quicker route, the arrowheads are on a left-hand bend.
“On the right-hand side, they’re on a straight line. It’ll be interesting, at this point – if the time is achievable, you’ll see people take the right-hand side, because it’s slightly easier on the horse and slightly less risky. If the time is proving unachievable, you’ll see riders try to come inside the tree before turning to the first of the cottages at the top, and then commit to the left-hand route.”
Fence 31ab: Discovery Valley
More cavorting with Land Rovers!
“The second time riders come to the Discovery Valley, they have to jump the trailer behind the Land Rover and then fit in three forward, straight strides to a brush bonnet fence with a ditch in front.
“To the really good horses, this is just a speed bump really — in the words of the infamous Harry Meade! — it’s just to slow horses and riders down a bit and make them think. It shouldn’t cause any issues; you should see horses jumping it, staying in their stride, and then galloping on.”
Fence 32abc: Arena Homecoming
“By this point, the riders will really get the sense of being on the way home — they’ll be really thinking of their time. The first element is a narrow hedge, followed by three forward strides across the middle to a table, which has an ornate water feature on top of it. Then it’s three more strides to a narrow-ish hedge coming out.”
“It’s probably the easiest question we’ve seen in the arena for several years, but nonetheless, it’s a three-stride-to-three-stride combination and requires jumping. Riders will want to make sure their horses don’t make a silly mistake or leave a careless leg at this point.”
Fence 33: Picnic Table
Have you ever needed boozy picnic more? No, me neither.
“Riders really are on the way home now, but this is a big square fence,” says Jonty. “It’s got a generous groundline, which should help to hold tiring horses away from it, but riders will really need to keep concentration and keep everything in check — they don’t want to go wild, they want to get home on a nice, level stride.”
Fence 34: Land Rover Finale
And here we are, at the end of all things. Thrilled(?) to have had Jonty as the Samwise Gamgee to my Frodo Baggins, I am ready to toddle back to Hobbiton — or at least the very colour-coordinated AirBnB that Jenni and I are sharing – but before I can, there’s one last obstacle to tackle.
“The final fence – probably most riders’ favourite fence! – is just a table with a roof over the top. Riders will be delighted to see this fence and even more delighted to jump it and move away to the finish,” the honorary hobbit informs me.
So what’s the prognosis? “Without a doubt, it’s a strong track, and it requires riders to think on their feet and keep very, very aware of what their horse can and can’t achieve, and exactly how their horse feels underneath them at any given moment.”
And just how unachievable is the optimum time of 11 minutes, 14 seconds?
“Four horses will get it,” Jonty roundly assures me.
So there you have it, folks — a whirlwind ride around the biggest cross-country course in the world (which this year measures 6,400 meters in length). Take a breather, rewalk your lines, and have a stiff drink — you’ve earned it.
Go Burghley, go eventing, and go synonyms for ‘big’!