Out and about at Gatcombe

  • As William Fox-Pitt stands at the top of the imposing Beta Steps, looking out into open Cotswolds countryside, I wonder what he is thinking.

    Hopefully, not what I heard a girl wearing a Pony Club tie say to her father as I walked past fence three on the Open Championship course; “I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.”

    But the Pony Clubbers do have a clue when it comes to the show jumping currently taking place in the main arena; there have been some masterful rounds. And the Willis brothers certainly have a clue when it comes to building cross-country courses.

    Gatcombe cross-country 2006 is jaw-droppingly beautiful; solidly crafted and meticulously decorated.

    When I last went round the course a few weeks ago it was quite clearly going to be a race against time to get it finished… the horses inhabiting the Martin Collins International Stables (fence 6) were still being painted, the PetPlan Equine Corners (fence 15) were not yet adorned with carved horse heads and the Land Rover arch at the Folly (fence 19) was all but a twinkle in Mark Phillips’ eye.

    Admittedly, it is still not 100% finished. I happened to spy the Willis bros truck at fence 9 and workmen adding tyres to the Good Year safety rails (fence 5). But already all four of the Festival of Eventing courses are truly majestic – worthy of representing the pinnacle of eventing at novice, intermediate and advanced level.

    There can be no denying that they are big and will prove to be a demanding test. In fact I was genuinely shocked at the size of the Hamptons International House (fence 11), a chunky table positioned inside a Cotswolds stone barn and I would not be surprised if
    the Hamptons International Punt into the water caught out a few riders.

    As competitors scurry around the course this afternoon, pacing out distances between fences and choosing their routes, there is a focused atmosphere in the Park. Word from the lorry park is that the going is good and the courses are up to height. “As ever this year’s track is very much a championship track,” commented Mark Phillips, “The winner will be a worthy champion and will deserve to join the Gatcombe roll of honour that really reflects a who’s who of great riders in the sport.”

    But as I struggled to keep up with Britain’s top eventers walking around Gatcombe Park, I couldn’t help thinking there should be a who’s who of eventers’ dogs. Not one competitor was without a canine friend on the course this morning. William Fox-Pitt’s whippets were joined by an army of Labradors, lurchers and Jack Russells. The sight of one exhausted Labrador puppy journeying past the the Festival Finale, the final fence, asleep in his owner’s arms illustrated how the horses are going to be feeling as they cross the finish this weekend and made me feel better about being rather out of breath.

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