Behind the scenes at Burghley

  • “She was as good as she’s ever been,” Mark Phillips said of his individual gold medal winning daughter after the World Equestrian Games. Yesterday the same thing was said here at Burghley: “the park is looking as good as it ever has.” When a Telegraph correspondent asked runaway dressage leader Lucinda Fredericks whether her horse’s test was as “good as it’s ever been?” I realised this must be some kind of equestrian code language – simply meaning “the best ever” – a most unBritish thing to say.

    But at risk of lowering the tone, I firmly believe Burghley is at its best. The sun is shining, there are over 600 trade stands and the dressage has been of an exceptionally high standard. With its white picket fences, flags, shining Land Rovers and champagne tents, Burghley Horse Trials is traditional equestrian sport at its finest – and the horses are not looking bad either. That is if you ever see a horse. In the beer tent last year a group of tweed clad young men proudly announced they had yet to see a horse.

    Burghley is a social as well as a sporting occasion and many of the trade stands are decidedly unhorsey – perfect for Christmas shopping. And attention is paid to the finest details; event director Liz Inman admitted to me yesterday that food stands are carefully chosen and strategically positioned so as not to fumigate the grounds with cooking smells. Classy or what?

    Any problem, requirement or improvement is being carefully logged in Ms Inman’s 2007 file – ensuring Burghley can only get better and better.

    But when it comes to the cross-country course, designer Mark Phillips and the competitors do not feel the need to use code language. “None of the riders would disagree that this is a true four-star course,” Phillips said yesterday, adding that it is the biggest track this year apart from the World Equestrian Games. Lucinda Fredericks agrees: “everything is as wide as she [Headley Britannia] is long. I’m just going to have to have a drink beforehand!”

    Fence 9, the GNER train was a particular eye-opener for Fredericks, having been made significantly bigger than in previous years and according to Phillips the riders have spent a long time walking the Rolex Corners; “a key fence – a wicked fence.” The Maltings, fence 19ab (pictured above) is maximum width and competitors are required to take the Land Rover Trout Hatchery at 21 on an angle, a new question of which Phillips confesses to be unsure of the outcome. But there have been no complaints about the course – apart from sanding down a rough corner on a flower pot on the Rolex Corners.

    The start and finish of the course have been moved to ring two and a new fence five – the Dolmio fences – is the first major test. A big carved mushroom is followed by another big mushroom, positioned in a wide ditch. “It is quite a significant test,” said Philips and the Cottesmore Leap is, even by his standards, “an absolutely huge ditch.” (pictured below)

    Returning to the subject of code language – the dressage spectators seem to have their own. Whenever the Nokia ring tone resounds in the grand stands (more often than the burley looking stewards would like) a voice will say “I am watching the dressage.” I take it this must be code language for “call me back later” although I can’t understand why the phone is allowed to ring out in the first place. Perhaps it is a way of testing the concentration of the world’s top horses and riders – in which case I firmly recommend downloading our new hunting horn ring tone – that will prove far more effective.

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