The Festival of Eventing got off to a great start under new management and a new title sponsor. What luck that Magic Millions, Gatcombe’s first Australian title sponsor, had a home-grown champion in Chris Burton, not to mention weather that must have felt like home from home.
The new layout, with the sponsors getting the plum site above the arena, and the owners and press being beside the collecting ring, makes good sense, although I had to tease Peter Phillips about his re-siting of the Saturday night rider party from beside the arena to a marquee in the lorry park. He has assured me that it will return to its original, more popular position!
A smaller overall entry did not detract from some great competitions. However good you make the going — and it was mostly excellent, especially up in the dressage and warm-up areas, which were the best they’ve ever been — the continued heatwave has affected the running of horses, especially if they are aimed at the World Equestrian Games (WEG). Mark Phillips had again produced an interesting course but, for me, having competed at Gatcombe since the 1980s (and, admittedly, with the benefit of being on my feet this time), it’s not what it was. It used to be such a huge challenge, especially that big drop to a bounce of hedges on the far side of the valley, which felt like bungee jumping.
There were quite a few turns, a useful way to achieve distance without incorporating more hills, although turning back is tiring for horses especially in the heat. Some horses found the “roundabout” of fences disheartening, but most are now so well trained that they’re used to turning away from home.
Even if it isn’t quite the rider-frightener of the old days, the British open is still a pressurised competition in which the most surprising of combinations can come unstuck. Both Happy Times (Sam Griffiths) and Cillnabradden Evo (Oliver Townend) were retired after stops and it must have been so frustrating for Tom McEwen to miss a fence when going beautifully on Strike Smartly.
There were some tired horses, but Chris Burton’s winning partner, Polystar I, whom he rode so beautifully and economically, has quite a lot of thoroughbred blood, which helped him to finish so well.
Do selectors really have a choice?
Type of horse is a hot topic as selectors await detail on the length of the WEG cross-country this week, after news it might have to be shortened due to issues with the ground preparation on one section. Mark Phillips, the designer, tells me that it will be the full 10 minutes and that he expects the new turf placed on the hill section, which comes at eight minutes, to be well established by the time of the championships.
Although my preferred course is naturally the traditional long, galloping track that we saw at Kentucky in 2010, the length shouldn’t really make any difference to selection. Surely the point is to take the best horses you’ve got? Even if the track was under eight minutes, it would still be intense and that requires a horse with plenty of thoroughbred blood.
Also, do many nations have, in reality, such huge choices? Only in the last week have we seen three very sad losses to squads due to horse injury — for Britain, Nicola Wilson’s European Championship star Bulana, plus, for the Kiwis, Clarke Johnstone’s lovely horse Balmoral Sensation and, for Australia, Sammi Birch’s super Hunter Valley.
If anyone can build a true championship course, it’s Mark, but the FEI’s apparent desire to reduce the test at top level is not good news overall. Eventing needs some stronger voices.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 August 2018