In the 1970s and 1980s, Lucinda Green set a record that no one has yet come close to equalling when she won Badminton six times on six different horses. She talks to Kate Green about why each victory was so special
“Badminton was always an event which inspired me more than any other, and nearly all of my horses seemed to be able to pull out that extra spark when they were there,” remembers Lucinda. “Badminton had an almost mystical effect on me, and that was before I had experienced such great highs as well as lows there.
“It is still the ultimate event, the one everyone dreams of winning but never thinks it will happen to them. Now, when I come back, it feels quite different, as though those six wins happened to someone else. I don’t really believe it was me.”
1973 – Be Fair
Lucinda was only 19 when she won Badminton for the first time, on the family-owned Be Fair, a chestnut gelding with a mind of his own, bought for her when she was 15 to compete in Pony Club and junior events. He was the result of an unplanned mating between a mare called Happy Reunion and a colt that became Sheila Willcox’s 1968 Burghley winner Fair And Square.
“My first Badminton win, and still the most special,” she says. “I had been fifth the year before on my first attempt [behind Mark Phillips and Richard Meade] and was nowhere near favourite. But, that year, the coffin at fence three wiped out about half of the field – it would be unusual nowadays for one fence to turn out to be so spectacularly influential – and that was really what won it for me.
“I had a near-miss there myself as I had, somewhat rashly, decided to dispense with Be Fair’s martingale, so he went into the fence with his head stuck in the air. He nearly fell over the first rail and landed sideways on in the ditch but somehow scrambled out the other side.
“Winning was overwhelming because it had seemed an impossibility. As I drove home alone in my little ice-cream van, which served as a lorry, with Be Fair standing just behind me, I heard it announced on the news on the radio: ‘Today, Badminton Horse Trials was won by Lucinda Prior-Palmer and Be Fair.’ It felt completely surreal.”
1976 – Wide awake
The second victory, on Vicki Phillips’s Wide Awake, will forever be remembered for the dreadful incident when the horse dropped dead on the lap of honour.
Lucinda remembers: “This was special because Wide Awake and I had never really understood each other, yet on this occasion it all came together and he was foot perfect.
“As I walked the course, I had a strong premonition that we were going to win, not something I felt very often. When he died of a suspected heart attack it was shocking, but I felt afterwards that it was also bearable because he had just given of his very best.
“It was an incredible high and low packed into 60 seconds, which is so typical of this sport. It was devastating for all concerned, but he left us with a wonderful memory.”
1977 – George
Win number three came on Elaine Straker’s George, a handsome horse but one with a few blots on his record. Lucinda accepted the ride, however, as a distraction from her father’s looming death from cancer – miraculously, he was well enough to lead the horse around in the 10-minute box, and the win came, appropriately, on St George’s Day. Later that year, they won the European Championships.
“This was an extraordinary win because the omens were not good,” says Lucinda. “It was a very low period for me because my father was dying, and I was reluctant to accept the ride on George because he had fallen in his last five events. But my family encouraged me not to turn down the challenge, and I always believed that every horse had something to teach me.
“After the steeplechase, I didn’t want to jump another fence; George had jumped so badly. The weather was terrible, I was freezing and wet and didn’t think he could get around the cross-country. I remember sitting in the loo thinking: ‘It’s not going to be possible, but I’ll just have to go out there and wait for the fall.’
“Frank Weldon [Badminton director] had built a bounce into the Lake – the first ever into water – and I was sure George would fall there. But Elaine said, ‘I promise he’ll look after you’, and she was right.
“George jumped for his life in the most atrocious conditions – the bank was giving way at the Vicarage Ditch and as he took off, it disintegrated, but he just ejected himself upwards and out of trouble and saved us. He was brilliant.
“I couldn’t believe that he had frightened me so much and then pulled out this amazing performance.”
1979 – Killaire
Despite his unlikely chubby shape, Charles Cyzer’s Killaire is the only horse ever to have finished first, second and third at Badminton.
“Killaire has an incredible record, considering he was very much just a hunter,” says Lucinda. “He was exceptionally slow and he had no stride or scope to speak of, but somehow he battled on. If he made the steeplechase time, it was a miracle, but his middle name was ‘Try’ and he had a heart the size of a football.
“He was first to go in 1977 so we were the first to attempt the first ever bounce into water. I will never forget the feeling of riding towards it – all of us were completely unaware if the fence that we were approaching was even possible. The distance between the two elements measured 15ft; Killaire popped in a tiny stride and succeeded in landing safely down the drop into the Lake. After that a bounce into water was built on an increasingly shorter distance, now around 12ft.
“I have deep respect and love for Killaire, as he wasn’t cut out to be a Badminton horse, let alone a winner.”
1983 – Regal Realm
At the time of her fifth victory, Lucinda and SR International’s Regal Realm, a former Australian stock horse who was a superb jumper despite being ewe-necked, were the reigning world champions. The following year, they won a team silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Lucinda recalls: “Regal Realm gave me probably the best ride I have ever had around Badminton – Village Gossip [second in 1978] comes a close second – and perhaps because he was more talented than the other horses, I remember this win the least. Also, it wasn’t so unexpected, as we had won the World Championships in Luhmühlen the year before.
“I bought Regal Realm at Fontainebleau in 1980 where he was reserve for the Australian team. As I was thinking of spending my entire savings on him, I wanted to find out whether he was a brave jumper, so I jumped him over a couple of crowd barriers around the collecting ring. He then took me full tilt into the forest.
“Regal Realm was not particularly talented in the dressage phase, but he was a brilliant jumper and that year at Badminton only he and Jessica Harrington’s Amoy, who was third, finished inside the optimum time. It was a magical round.”
1984 – Beagle Bay
The striking part-Welsh grey, owned by SR International, who gave Lucinda a remarkable sixth Badminton victory, had an erratic career and could be naughty, but in 1984 he was on his best behaviour.
“He was perhaps the least sensational of my Badminton winners,” says Lucinda. “Beagle Bay was pretty, could do a good dressage test, jumped well and had stamina, but he was difficult to keep sound. He was ponyish and you had to watch him – he could put in a stop if you weren’t 100% with him. I adored him, but had less of a love affair with him than the others.
“There is a dramatic photograph of us jumping into the Lake, me with no reins. He had let his – rather large – tummy down on the fence into the water, and this bounced me a foot out of the saddle, making me drop my reins. Amazingly, he kept going through the water with his ears pricked and generously kept straight, unaided by me, for the fence out.
“Beagle Bay exemplified the wonderful effect Badminton had on my horses. They all seemed to unfurl their particular brand of genius there.”
Lucinda had a few more rides at Badminton, on horses like Shannagh, Willy B and Minns Lincoln, not with any particularly distinguished results, but by the end of the 1980s her career had mostly metamorphosed into writer, broadcaster and trainer. For many people, however, the sight of her primrose colours, her joyous approach and the visible empathy with her horses will forever epitomise all that’s best about cross-country riding.
Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020