A mark of a true sporting great is longevity of top-level success. Pippa Funnell dominated eventing in the early 2000s and to win Burghley a decade and a half later underlines her achievement.
Her performance in the unfamiliar role of team pathfinder at the Europeans will have been an important shot in the arm ahead of Burghley, which was an imposing five-star course with a tight time. It’s no secret that Pippa’s had to overcome crises of confidence, and the way she won will be remembered as a great moment in Burghley’s rich history.
There was a greater than ever disparity in the standard of the field; the top few riders looked world class, as did others, including some first-timers, but there was an uncomfortably large gulf between these and the rest. Worryingly, the poor displays went beyond one or two individuals.
So often the course-designer becomes the undeserving scapegoat, which isn’t entirely fair; the course at Burghley was a good five-star test.
There were multiple cases where riders looked like they never had a clear plan. It shouldn’t be underestimated how much meticulous preparation goes into walking five-star courses — identifying the potential pitfalls and optimal plan for each fence.
Were some riders punching above their weight in not understanding the theoretical questions, let alone having the skill to put into practice the right answer? Everyone can make mistakes, but there were some elementary ones from riders who looked out of their depth.
The sport hasn’t changed overnight, but the track did have a lot of wide, gappy oxers and corners using frangible technology. Although most rode well, designers try not to design and place a frangible fence that they wouldn’t have set before the technology became available; similarly, riders mustn’t ride them any differently to other fences.
The siting and transparency of the oxer before the descent into the Trout Hatchery meant it didn’t always get horses up in the air, but drew some down before they reached the back rail.
Too many events?
The year following a weak field, a course-designer’s natural reaction is to soften the course. This invariably then leads to a spate of barely-appropriate pairs entering the event the next year, so the cycle continues, creating a long-term crisis.
It’s important we uphold the standard of five-star courses, and address the quality of entrants.
The best rounds stood out as wonderful displays of horsemanship, but there were only a handful of them. We were lacking about 16 top-class combinations for one reason or another (Michael Jung, Andrew Nicholson, Sam Griffiths, Chris Burton, Nicola Wilson, Tina Cook and so on). Had we had these, the balance of the day would have felt different.
The number of true five-star pairs has always been limited and as a sport we should look at how many five-stars we run.
Next year, there is due to be a new five-star at Fair Hill in the USA, which would be likely to draw the 11 US combinations who were at Burghley plus some European-based horses. The pool of elite horses and riders — and that’s who five-star is for, the elite — is simply too small to support more than two major autumn events and yet with a championship, Burghley, Pau and Fair Hill we have four in the northern hemisphere.
“Good pictures” and safety are priorities for the sport, but the biggest threat to both is a dilution of quality through too many top flight events.
Ref Horse & Hound; 12 September 2019