Burghley heroes: 10 of the greatest horses *H&H Plus*

  • From the inaugural winner to a modern-day star, Ellie Hughes, Catherine Austen and Pippa Roome pick Burghley’s horse heroes


    Best burghley horses: Merely-A-Monarch

    The first of the 12 horses who have won both Burghley Horse Trials and Badminton Horse Trials was Merely-A Monarch, who took the inaugural Burghley in 1961, aged six. On this occasion and winning Badminton the next spring, he was more than 40 points clear of the field.

    Anneli Drummond-Hay then took Merely-A-Monarch showjumping, where he had a spectacular second career.

    “He was gorgeous-looking with incredible scope; stunningly brave and careful. He was a class horse in a league of his own,” remembers Lucinda Green.

    Merely-A-Monarch’s grandmother was a Fell pony. “That pony blood made him so intelligent,” Anneli remembers. “He was a freak.”

    The rider once took Merely-A-Monarch for a pipe-opener at a leading trainer’s gallops.

    “The trainer put a jockey up and worked him upsides Flame Gun, the top racehorse of the time,” says Anneli. “As they came up the straight, Monarch left the other horse standing. The trainer asked me if he could train him for nothing, saying he’d win the Gold Cup and the National, but luckily I kept him.”


    Best Burghley horses: Popadom

    Of all our best Burghley horses, Lorna Clarke’s winning skewbald cob with the hogged mane was surely the most unlikely. His mother pulled a dray.

    “When it came to buying him as a youngster, his new owner, Jennifer Harrison, had to haggle with Chipperfield’s Circus, which was desperate to have him,” says Lorna.

    In the end, Jennifer purchased Popadom for £40 and the gelding soon found his niche eventing.

    At the time of his Burghley win in 1967, he was certainly not Lorna’s first string. But he was quickly promoted when he jumped one of only half a dozen penalty-free cross-country rounds over a tough course that wiped out more than half the field.

    Maid Marion

    Best Burghley horses: Maid Marion

    Only two mares have ever won Burghley – Maid Marion in 1973 and Headley Britannia in 2006. While Lucinda Fredericks’ win with “Brit” was testament to a long relationship, Maid Marion was a chance ride for Mark Phillips.

    Maid Marion had been the young rider horse of Tony Hill, son of 1956 Olympic gold medallist Bertie Hill, but Tony broke his collarbone a few days before Burghley.

    “I trained with Bertie, so that’s how I came by the ride,” explains Mark. “The mare was straightforward on the flat and a careful jumper, but she wasn’t the bravest across country. I had to work hard to get her round.”


    A horse who did the double of victories at the British five-stars, Jane Holderness-Roddam’s ride Warrior took Burghley 1976 and Badminton two years later, as well as being a team European gold medallist at Burghley in 1977, earning him a place among our best Burghley horses.

    The 16.1hh bay was by Warwick – who also sired Diana Thorne’s The Kingmaker, who was fourth at the 1977 Burghley European Championships – out of Winslade, who produced Mike Tucker’s Dalwhinnie, seventh at Burghley in 1982.

    “Warrior was extremely intelligent, which made him quite difficult to ride to start with,” remembers Jane, who bought the horse from John Shedden, who won the first Badminton on Golden Willow.

    “John told me to ride him in a gag, but I thought my sister Jennie [Loriston-Clarke] would be able to sort that out! John was right.”

    Their first event together was Bramham – and was not a particularly auspicious start.

    “Warrior stopped at the Normandy bank and chucked me over his head,” remembers Jane. “I ended up sitting looking up at him, with his front legs coming down on my face. He pinned my hairnet to the ground with one of his studs – I never put such big studs in again.”


    One of eventing’s all-time greats. He won Burghley twice – in 1983 and 1985, when it was the European Championships – as well as Badminton in 1985. His eight medals include the World Championship individual gold in 1986 and the 1984 individual Olympic bronze.

    A mention must also go to Priceless’ stablemate Master Craftsman, who also did the Badminton-Burghley European Championships double, in 1989.

    “They were totally different horses,” says Ginny. “Priceless was barely 16hh, three-quarter bred, and had to put up with me learning on him. He was a fantastic mover – as though he were on springs – but more of a hunter type than ‘Crafty’, who was a beautiful, big thoroughbred.

    “But they were both ‘good soldiers’ – brave and honest, and it didn’t seem to matter what you put them at. Priceless only had one cross-country fault in his life – I fell off him, he didn’t fall – and Crafty didn’t have a single one.”

    Murphy Himself

    Murphy Himself was just eight years old when he won Burghley in 1986. His victory was one of the most memorable, though not for all the right reasons, admits his then-rider Ginny Elliot.

    Ginny recalls: “We finished inside the time, but only because I was totally out of control from about halfway round – Murphy took off and I was just a passenger.

    “I did a few more events with him, but soon decided that he needed a man, so I gave him to Ian Stark.”

    Forever teetering on the brink of both genius and insanity, Murphy Himself went on to win world individual silver in 1990 and finished second at Badminton the following year.

    Primmore’s Pride

    Denise Lincoln’s Primmore’s Pride is one of the best athletes the sport has seen.

    Sixth on his top-level debut at Burghley 2002, he was key to Pippa Funnell’s Rolex Grand Slam when he won Kentucky and Burghley 2003. He also took Badminton in 2005 and will always be the only horse to win all three grand slam events in the days of the roads and tracks and steeplechase.

    “He loved to gallop and the Burghley course really suited him,” says Denise. “In 2003 we were all keeping our fingers crossed for a big showjumping course, as we knew ‘Kiri’ would be able to cope and he needed to jump clear – and fortunately that’s exactly what we got.”

    Now aged 27, the Olympic silver and bronze medallist is enjoying his retirement.


    Judy Skinner and Michael Payne’s Ballincoola completed six consecutive Burghleys and was in the top six four times, winning in 2005, earning his place among our best Burghley horses.

    The “red-headed” chestnut was often tricky in the first phase, needing all rider William Fox-Pitt’s tact. But he lived for galloping and jumping and picked up only one refusal across country at top level – at Burghley in 2004.

    “I got it wrong at a fence and he quite rightly chose to save my skin,” said William afterwards.

    “Max” retired from top-level eventing after finishing second at Burghley in 2008 behind his stablemate Tamarillo. He went on to show Michael’s son Fergus the eventing ropes until he collapsed and died of a heart attack in 2010.

    Judy said at the time: “He was my horse of a lifetime. My only sadness is that despite being reserve three times he never made the British team, and therefore perhaps hasn’t had the credit he deserved.”


    There are far fewer multiple equine winners of Burghley than Badminton, perhaps because many top horses miss tilts at Burghley while on championship duties, perhaps because few have the tenacity to win more than once at this demanding event.

    Priceless was the only multiple Burghley winner until Andrew Nicholson’s ride Avebury, owned by Rosemary Barlow, pulled off a feat which is unlikely to be repeated: three consecutive wins between 2012 and 2014.

    “This means an awful lot,” said Andrew after the horse’s third win – also the rider’s fifth at the event. “Having a horse like him gives you the chance of doing something like this. It’s not just me in this, it’s my whole team – I have the luxury of riding him.”

    Avebury was also in the top 12 at Badminton twice and won Barbury CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) four times.

    Ballaghmor Class

    The 13-year-old is the only one of our best Burghley horses still competing, but he has more than earned his place, having already finished first, second and third at the Stamford event.

    He has also been second and fifth at Badminton – not many horses can boast five top-five places from their five British eventing classic starts.

    Owned by Karyn Shuter, Angela Hislop and Val Ryan, the son of Courage II is a beautiful, flea-bitten grey, and every inch an athlete.

    Ballaghmor Class was just 10 and at his first top-level competition when he won Burghley in 2017. Although Oliver admitted at the time that “Thomas” could be extremely quirky at home, the horse’s scope meant the rider was confident to bring him to the event.

    “I knew he wasn’t going to scare himself with a fence as long as I did my job, which is why in my mind it was ok to bring him,” said Oliver.

    The grey has improved every year since as he has become established at the level, leading Oliver to remark after his cross-country at Burghley last year: “What can I say – he’s perfect.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 3 September 2020

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