‘I never want pity’: William Fox-Pitt on why he has chosen to retire from top level eventing

  • At the end of Mars Badminton Horse Trials 2024, the most successful five-star event rider of all time, William Fox-Pitt, announced he would retire from top level. For 40 years William had graced the sport with his skill and charm, but as he told H&H: “Nothing lasts forever”.

    There had been mutterings all week during Badminton that this could be William’s last. But with such a glorious round putting him second before showjumping with Amanda Gould’s Grafennacht, and a runner-up prize at Maryland on their previous CCI5* run, the 55-year-old seemed to be back to the peaks he had arguably not reached since his head injury from a fall at Le Lion in 2015. Could a last Olympic hurrah in Paris even be on the agenda?

    In fact, that 180,000-strong Badminton crowd were lucky to see him back on home soil at all, as William reveals he had nearly called it a day after Maryland the previous October, when he was denied victory by just 0.4 of a penalty.

    “I thought, ‘That should be it. It’s not going to get better than that’,” he says. “But then Dickie Waygood rang me and put me back on the Olympic pathway. I never thought I’d actually make it to Paris – I’m not that dreamy – but I wanted to enjoy one last push, it’s exciting to be part of it.”

    A handful of fences down on Badminton’s final day drew a line abruptly under the last chapter of what has been a fairy-tale career. William said retirement had been “on my mind ever since my head injury”, but in a magical way, continuing in the sport that nearly claimed his life had been integral to his recovery.

    “I love the challenge, the get-up-and-go, the goals have always been my driving force,” said William when we met at his Dorset yard in June 2024, still humming with activity; horses, riders, kids, dogs – and rare-breed chickens – bustling to and fro.

    “I’ve always had Badminton or Burghley or championships creating a rhythm to my season. It seems bonkers, but after the head injury, it was thanks to the Rio Olympics that I got better. It squared me up so much, because I’d lost all my drive, I was just glad to be alive. I was so floppy and uncaring but I cared about Rio, so it got me physically fit again and gave me a focus.

    “And then after Rio, I had good horses in Little Fire and Oratorio, and Grafennacht coming up. Was I ready to watch someone else ride them? No! So I carried on.”

    Between that injury and Badminton 2024, William completed six Badmintons and won his fifth Armada dish for 25 completions. Back on the podium at five-star, there was a sense that his journey back to his full self is complete. Following that Badminton swansong, Grafennacht (Lillie) is heading to Harry Meade’s – and William is content.

    William Fox-Pitt: “I will not miss that”

    Why then did he deem this the right moment to retire from top level?

    “The time has come when I can watch someone else ride Grafennacht,” he said. “I can’t wait to wake up on the first Saturday in May before the Badminton cross-country and not think, ‘What on earth am I doing?’ Being in the warm-up field when everyone’s feeling absolutely sick, you’ve forgotten to have a drink, your mouth is bone dry. I will not miss that.

    “I will enjoy being involved, and watching Lillie. She needs to have some younger bones on her back.”

    William Fox-Pitt is acutely frank about the limitations of age in a sport where athletes can persist.

    “I walk courses with a different mindset now, worrying about seeing a good stride or slipping on a turn rather than assuming it’ll go well. If I make a mistake, I worry about people saying, ‘Stupid old man, gone a bit crazy, he should stop!’ instead of accepting that cock-ups happen.

    “Badminton was good,” he concedes, “but it’s only 32 jumps and I don’t think I’m riding as well as I was. I’m conscious of not looking like an idiot, and it has been niggling at me for a few years now not to go on for too long.

    “I never want pity. I was always fit as you like, could compete six advanced horses in a day easily; now I’m feeling five is too much.”

    Nothing lasts forever.

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