Mark Phillips: Burghley was a learning curve for all *H&H VIP*

Opinion

As I write from Tryon in the USA, Burghley seems like a world away, as I’ve already laid out courses at Kelsall Hill in England and Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, since the British five-star. But I still feel battered and bruised after a really rough cross-country day at Burghley.

Many people have already written about why only 50% finished and why thankfully all were able to walk back to the stables under their own steam. However, like so many things in life, nothing is just a simple black and white. There was no one reason and many contributing factors.

Yes, there was a weakened field, but that is no excuse. Burghley has always been Burghley, at least over the past 30 years of my time there. It is the ultimate five-star test, not just because of the size of the fences but also because of the terrain, which makes the time so difficult to get.

Everybody should take note — this is not the place for your first five-star examination. Cut your teeth at Luhmühlen, Kentucky or Pau and then move on to Burghley.

One more year

The trick of riding at five-star is being able to control the shape of your jump, which gives you a better chance of solving the puzzle at the next elements. I always think of it like golf — I only want to get that little white ball from tee to green. The professional will hit it right then left to get the uphill putt. Riding at five-star needs the same sort of detailed planning, something that too often seemed lacking.

All the riders I talked to on the Sunday, including Tim Price, replied to my comment of, “Bad luck yesterday” with, “It wasn’t bad luck, I made a mistake and at the five-star level you pay a price.” That was honesty personified, which is why the top riders are at the top. They look in the mirror and admit when they make a mistake — and learn from it.

Having said that, I need to look in the mirror too. We saw all the fences jumped perfectly as they were all big, but also fair. But was the collective too much? Arguably yes. Do I need to reduce some of the intensity in the middle section? Again, arguably yes.

Luckily I have time to mull over plans for next year and I’m just glad I have one more year designing at Burghley and 2019 was not my last. However, I’m equally determined not to make next year a soft touch, a risk suggested by Harry Meade in a recent H&H column.

For the most part Burghley was a great weekend for “frangible technology”, which fed into there being no serious injuries to horse or riders. However, it did not work at the gates at Land Rover at The Lake, despite using all the latest engineering skills. Any sort of frangible is better than no frangible, but the sport has so much to learn to make frangible fences better and fairer.

There will be the odd hard luck story — the horse who chips a back rail with the back legs and receives 11 penalties for breaking the frangible. But as a sport, we are better with a couple of bad luck stories than one serious injury in hospital. Ultimately, it is the riders’ responsibility to jump the fences clear and the designer’s responsibility to make the questions fair to horse and rider.

I may be 70 years old, but I’m happy to say my learning curve is still a steep one as we strive for a better and safer sport.

Ref Horse & Hound; 19 September 2019