The incoming Burghley Horse Trials course-designer and director have shared early thoughts on what fans and riders can expect as plans continue “full steam ahead” for next year’s event.
Derek di Grazia, whose designing credits include the Tokyo Olympics and 10 years of Kentucky CCI5* tracks, will be the brains behind Burghley’s 2022 course as the fixture prepares to return following a two-year hiatus.
“I always like to go into any course, even the ones I do year after year, and try to think of it as being blank, starting fresh, and then going from there,” he told H&H on his first visit to the site in two years.
“To me, it’s the best way to look at it, because then you don’t get stuck on any one thing. Then you’re able to bring new things, new obstacles, new features to the course.
“I think that there are some things that are always givens, that you probably have to do. But at the same time, even with those, you try to sort of look at them in different ways.”
“It’s a little early, I don’t ever really give much away,” he added, with a smile.
“I’m just looking at ways we can change the track where we can, changing how the jumps come up and how the combinations are put together. On any course I like things to be newer and fresher, so that you just don’t see the same thing. That’s how I have always gone about it.”
It was an expectedly cryptic response to the question to which everyone wants to know the answer – what can we expect from the 2022 course. But one of the joys of this sport is the build-up to the reveal and the preparation to this five-star has been a particularly long time coming.
Derek’s Burghley debut is a year behind schedule, a result of Covid-forced cancellations of the Lincolnshire event. It was announced in 2019 that he would take over from outgoing designer, H&H columnist Mark Phillips, after 30 years at the helm. The 2020 event was supposed to be Mark’s swansong before Derek took over for 2021, but the pandemic scuppered those plans.
Travel restrictions meant the US national was unable to travel to Burghley in his planning for 2021. So to ask whether the 2022 course is the same as we would have seen last year is perhaps to simplify the question. But it’s one worth asking all the same.
“I was designing on the computer based on my maps, and information I had, and hoping to be able to travel over in the summer to make more plans, but obviously that never happened” he said.
“Being able to come out, to work on the track and walk the ground is very valuable – nothing replaces that. You have to really be here and to understand it.
“I’ve been here [as a spectator] at least 10 times, so I’ve seen the course run in both directions, the courses have been different every time I’ve been and I’m very familiar with how the ground rides.”
But seeing the event through the eyes of a spectator is a different perspective to looking at the park as a whole as a blank canvas for a future CCI5*. He credits the established team and course-builders for their years of experience and insight in “certainly making my job a lot easier”.
“When you come to the event, there’s so much, not only going on, but all the infrastructure and so you only just see that track in the ropes – you never see outside of that,” he explained.
“If you go out there now, you would be hard pressed to find where the main arena is. Luckily, I have Adrian Ditcham [long-term builder alongside Philip Herbert], who came out with me a couple years ago and this time as well, to show me exactly where everything sits. That’s very important, because you have to be able to know how you’re going to design your course with all of those things in mind.
“The terrain and the way the ground moves here is unique to any piece of property that I’ve been on in the world. So not only from a design aspect, but as a competitor here, you have to always know your lines so well because of all those [up and down landscape] features that come into play.
“There are so many iconic features in the park and [designing] is really a case of planning where they come in the course, the relationship between them and what you do in between. That’s what I’m working on trying to figure out, getting the right balance.
“The other thing you always have to always think about here is that there is a great amount of terrain. And so it becomes not only an event of jumping and figuring out all of the exercises, but an event of endurance as well. You have to balance both those factors and make sure that you don’t overdo it. At the same time, you have to put forward a true five-star course, and one that everybody’s going to enjoy.
“It’s a case of trying to put all those things together and then come out with hopefully, the best [course] possible.”
‘Full steam ahead’
Derek has ridden up to four-star level and his experience as a rider is something that plays into his vision as a designer.
“I think that having ridden, and understanding how the horses move over the ground, how jumps come to you and how quickly they can come up gives you a perspective of the relationship between your jumps. To me, I think that’s quite valuable,” he says.
“I think you’re always designing to try to have a great competition; [a course] where the horses are safe, the riders are safe and the questions are fair. You want riders to enjoy what they’re doing, and you want the public to have something that’s nice to look at.
“A lot of that is having jumps that are interesting, but also that are going to show what these horses and riders are able to do, because these horses are amazing.”
Work on the footing is under way, so by the spring, everything will be in place to capitalise on the growing season, which is when the heavy lifting starts in earnest. Derek will return in the spring to lay out where the jumps will go, with much of the building work taking place between March and June. By the time July rolls around, the course will be about in place.
“August is really the final sort of just the final look and making sure everything’s where it needs to be,” he added.
“You have the ideas, you have the concept of how you want the course to be, but [the satisfaction] is about the development, and eventually in those last four to six weeks, seeing how it all comes together. “Obviously the big part is seeing it ridden, I get to the point at the end where I just want the competition to start.”
Derek’s appointment is a legacy of former Burghley Horse Trials director Liz Inman, who stepped down in July after 16 years.
“Derek’s appointment, which was before my time, would be my decision as well,” said new director Martyn Johnson, paying tribute to Liz for her choice.
“I was lucky enough to go to Kentucky a couple of years ago – the place is immaculate, the course was fantastic and I think it’s really exciting for us in Britain to be able to see Derek and what he does.”
Martyn added that the job he has on his own hands is “hugely exciting” and “slightly daunting” at the same time.
“There’s a great team here already. They’ve been here a long time and have a lot of experience. Everyone is very supportive and very positive about next year’s event,” he said.
“It’s full steam ahead now, planning and discussing all detail required. It’s great not just for Burghley, but for the sport of eventing to know that our big events are coming back.
“The 2022 event is all about Burghley coming back and things being familiar, but there’s also going to be some new angles and new aspects. We’re not going to tell you too much! And it’s also about looking to the future – while we’re planning for 2022, we’re already talking about 2023 and 2024.”
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