Horse & Hound’s 140th anniversary legends: Tamarillo – ‘He felt he was important, but not superior’

  • Known for his quirky attitude, this spooky part-bred Arab proved brilliantly athletic after a sticky start. Catherine Austen pays homage to this class act as we celebrate Horse & Hound’s 140th anniversary in 2024

    “He was an absolute showman, but in no way was he arrogant; a show prince who wanted to look lovely, but needed your approval and reassurance. He felt he was important, but not superior,” says William Fox-Pitt. Anyone who took even a passing interest in eventing in the first decade of this century knows which horse he is talking about – the quixotic, charming Tamarillo, whose unmistakable dished face revealed his Arab blood.

    Together they won both Badminton and Burghley and several medals for Britain but, such was Tamarillo’s brilliance when on form that one almost feels they never quite achieved the one pinnacle they deserved – that championship victory.

    “We had sad losses – Olympics and the World Equestrian Games [WEG] were all within his reach when stupid things happened,” says William. “What might have been! We had a few heart-breakers; the Athens Olympics was one of them as he cracked his stifle after a lovely clear round – I didn’t even know he had hit a fence. He won Badminton, but he could have won two more. He missed those moments, but that’s how good he was. He wasn’t a normal horse.”

    Tamarillo at Blenheim in 2005.

    Tamarillo at Blenheim in 2005.

    Tamarillo didn’t enter William’s orbit until the Hon Finn and Mary Guinness’s home-bred was seven. He had been produced by Diana Burgess, who was based at their Biddesden Stud, and she had evented him up to his first few intermediates.

    “It all happened because I parked next to Mark Todd at Tidworth around 1998, and was talking to him and the Guinnesses,” says William. “I said I was looking for horses, and the Guinnesses said they had some that Toddy didn’t want because he was retiring after Sydney. They said, ‘Why don’t you come and have a look?’

    “I went and saw them, and Mary said, ‘Now look at this one – he is my golden jewel. You can look but you can’t touch – he is far too precious.’

    “I had only seen Tam over the stable door, but a little while afterwards I saw him in the showjumping warm-up at Bicton, where things weren’t going to plan. As I walked past Mary, she said, ‘I might give you a ring next week.’ She did call, and said, ‘You’d better try that horse – maybe he needs a man on him.’”

    William Fox-Pitt’s inauspicious start with Tamarillo

    When William went to try Tamarillo, he admits he couldn’t get him over a single fence.

    “I did think, ‘What’s the point?’ but I was young and he was pretty so I had nothing to lose,” he says.

    Tamarillo, who had never been ridden by anyone except Diana, arrived at William’s yard in Stratton Audley in the early summer of 1999.

    “I remembered my mother saying to me when I was young, ‘Sometimes you have to go fast enough that the horse just can’t stop,’” William says. “I had that in my ears as I thought, ‘Right, Tam, you and I are going to have a go and we will see if you are going to go or not.’ And gradually he did start to go. I had learnt in the hunting field and was slightly gung-ho in my approach.”

    They were second at Cornbury on their first outing, then won at Knaptoft and Hartpury.

    “We went round those first events so quickly that we would probably have got lots of penalties for going too fast these days,” he says. “I think going quickly got his blood up and gave him some adrenaline, so he was excited and thought, ‘Right, I’d better go.’”

    William remembers going to another event and “getting cocky, thinking I was going to win”.

    “We did a lovely dressage, a clear showjumping round and then on the cross-country he jumped up the bank with me going like the clappers and somehow managed to stop,” says William. “I flew over the fence coming down the bank and landed in the field on my feet. At that point I realised things weren’t quite sorted yet! He was too scared to jump off the bank by himself, so I got back on him and carried on, as you could in those days, and actually I think in his mind that he realised it was easier to go.”

    Tamarillo at Badminton in 2004.

    Tamarillo at Badminton in 2004.

    The following year, 2000, William and Tam won their first three-day event, the CCI3*-L at Blarney Castle, won the intermediate championships at Gatcombe and were second in the CCI4*-L at Blenheim.

    “I was feeling now that I had a bit of apparatus under me, but it was a very sticky beginning,” says William. “He was the classiest, spookiest horse I have ridden in my life. That spooking defined him and it lost him many a moment in his career.”

    They finished second behind Pippa Funnell and Supreme Rock at their first Badminton in 2002 and made their first team appearance that autumn at WEG in Jerez, where tripping up the step coming out of the water resulted in 20 penalties.

    “He took some managing,” says William. “The year he won Badminton [2004] he had only done Tweseldown open intermediate beforehand. How many horses go round Badminton that well with only a cross-country school, essentially? He was never a horse you could enjoy as much as you wanted to – I had to save him for the big days.”

    There were other big results – second at Badminton in 2005, individual silver and team gold at the Europeans that year – but probably Tam’s greatest achievement was his final one, that 2008 Burghley victory.

    “That was very special because he had come back from a lot of things, and he hadn’t been selected for the Beijing Olympics that year, which I was very sad about,” says William. “But he won Burghley in the mud; he was in a class of his own across country that day. Being a really athletic blood horse, the terrain there meant nothing to him, and remember he was 16 at the time.”

    Tamarillo at the World Equestrian Games in 2002.

    His owner and breeder, Mary Guinness, points out: “He won both Badminton and Burghley in wet mud; people forget that Arabs are bred to go their best in the sands of the desert, which is very deep going. He bounced off the ground and at no time did he make one of those big tracks look intimidating or anything but straightforward.”

    Mary went to every competition Tam did, and says: “When he did a leg and was taken swimming to help his recovery, I drove a 200-mile round trip every time to be with him in case he started to panic. He knew me so well – the horse whisperer Gaynor Davenport said he thought I was his mother.”

    William Fox-Pitt and Tamarillo win Badminton 2004

    Tamarillo at Badminton in 2004.

    Tam’s quirks remained with him all his life.

    “He was very cold-backed; you practically had to rebreak him after his winter holiday, and put a saddle on him in the stable and leave him there for a bit,” says William. “And he loved women, but not men. There were days when I would go into his stable and not be able to catch him. Even in his last years, you could never assume anything with him – you would get on slowly and not do up the girth too tightly too quickly.”

    He continues: “Tam always kept me on my toes and he was electric when on form. I think he really is my horse of a lifetime. Chilli was amazing, of course, but Tam was a freak who had everything in excess; more jump, more blood, more movement, just different.”

    “Darling Tam”

    “If Tamarillo had been a man, I’d have married him,” says his owner Mary Guinness. “He was a dream. He was bred for the job and I knew what I had the moment I saw him. No one else did, because he was so pretty, but I knew his parents and the sport.

    “He was very petted – ‘Darling Tam, one day you’ll win Badminton,’ I used to say to him, and I probably petted him too much. It was a big wake-up call when he went to William, because he was expected to behave like a grown-up, but they were a match made in heaven.

    “He was a wildly intelligent horse, and so athletic and beautiful. My most special moment with him was actually when he won Blarney in 2000; everyone had laughed at me about Tam for so long, and having lived in Ireland I knew half the people there at Blarney. It was a real step into the unknown and a proper course. When we won, I couldn’t quite believe it and I smiled and smiled all the way home. I felt vindicated.”

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