Legends of the sport: Eventing great Mark Phillips *H&H Plus*

  • Mark Phillips has nailed a host of roles within the eventing world, and his prowess as a rider puts him among the greats. Lucy Higginson discovers the history behind his remarkable career

    Every Horse & Hound reader knows Captain Mark Phillips; he may even have been writing his H&H column longer than you’ve been around to read it. To the layman, he’s a horseman who married the Princess Royal, but to riders he’ll always be one of the greats: a four-time Badminton winner and Olympic gold medallist; a prolific team trainer (for the Spanish and Americans); then a world-class course-designer in the current phase of his career.

    In his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell explores the idea that genius doesn’t just pop up randomly. It emerges when someone with huge potential meets with opportunity to learn, absorb, practise and practise again until they achieve that “genius” status.

    When you discover that Mark joined his local Pony Club branch (encouraged by his horsey mother Anne) to ride alongside a young Jane Bullen (later Holderness-Roddam), Jennie Bullen (later Loriston-Clarke) and future top-level eventer turned commentator Mike Tucker, you realise this was no ordinary epoch in the Beaufort branch of the Pony Club. And Mark was destined to become no ordinary rider.

    The branch instructors were equally mind-boggling. Mark remembers trotting 20-metre circles under the watchful eye of Molly Sivewright, founder of Talland School of Equitation; being trained by Colonel Alec Scott, who’d won team bronze in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, then Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Weldon (team gold medallist from the 1956 Stockholm Olympics and later course-designer at Badminton), “actually sitting on his British team horse, whom he’d ridden at Rome [Olympics] – talk about inspiration!”

    But Mark’s biggest early influence by far was another from that Stockholm team, Bertie Hill.

    “Frank Weldon sent me to Bertie on a sort of gap year [before joining the Army],” says Mark. “He was a natural horseman, like Mark Todd – and became my mentor.”

    Bertie told Angela Rippon for her 1982 biography of Mark that he “had all the ability in the world… it was just a matter of adding a bit of polish”.

    His pupil speaks more plainly about it now: “I thought I knew how to ride – but on my first day at Bertie’s, he said, ‘Follow me!’ and took me flat out down Devon cleaves and heaven only knows what… I thought, ‘Holy s**t!’ That changed me from a Pony Club kid into something else.”

    Bertie helped an 18-year-old Mark to produce the horse that would become his first serious eventer, Rock On, from a fearless but frightening novice into a Burghley horse in the space of a season, as you could back then. Fourth there followed by fourth at Badminton resulted in Mark becoming travelling reserve, aged 19, for the gold medal-winning British team in Mexico 1968.

    Distinctly average horses

    In many ways, this set the tone for so much in Mark’s career – producing fantastic results from self-made or sometimes distinctly average horses – yet too often ending up on the peripheries when it came to Olympics. Bizarrely, for such a prolific rider, he never won an individual championship medal.

    “I was never in the position to go out and spend big figures on horses,” says Mark. “I bought four-, five- or six-year-olds and occasionally lucked out.”

    Former Badminton director and riding contemporary Hugh Thomas agrees that Mark’s success “on a great many different horses and catch rides is one of the things that makes him stand out. His greatest achievement I think was winning two Badmintons and an Olympic gold on Great Ovation who was not the most generous of horses.”

    Lucinda Green agrees: “I could tell even then what a bad horse Great Ovation was, but he just lifted him over every fence… he just made it happen.”

    Mark always was open about Great Ovation’s limitations. He was terrible in the autumn: “Out of the hunting field, he was a winner. Out of a long summer on hard ground, he was a donkey.”

    Mark’s 1973 Burghley triumph with Maid Marion – another horse sent his way by Bertie Hill – is another example of skill over scope. Or as Mark puts it today: “I had to carry her round.”

    Yet when Mark finally got his hands on a truly brilliant ride – Columbus, owned by The Queen with whom he won his third Badminton in 1974 – their partnership was beset with injury.

    He also speaks animatedly about his mid-1970s foray into the world of showjumping, thanks to owner and dealer Trevor Banks. Trevor even let Mark compete his former Olympic horse Hideaway on several victorious Nations Cup teams, including Calgary.

    “You think Badminton or Burghley gives you an adrenaline rush – you try going against the clock over 1.60m,” he recalls.

    This was another element in what Mark considers his “probably unique” equestrian education. The showjumping “made me a way better rider. I just wish I’d done it earlier in my career – I’d have won a lot more.”

    He learnt from others along the way too, including Dick Stilwell, Ferdi Eilberg, Bert de Némethy, and “a fantastic amount” about dressage from his second wife, Sandy.

    Mark’s career also spans eventing’s development from being a truly amateur sport – with training crammed around the Army and later farming – to a far more professional one, with riders finally landing big sponsorship contracts by the 1980s.

    Though a hugely effective rider across country, what else made Mark stand out? “He was particularly brilliant at speed,” remembers Hugh Thomas. “We didn’t ride to minute markers back then, but he rode the tightest lines, practically booting the fence posts out with his leg.”

    “Most people then weren’t good on the flat but Mark had feel,” adds Lucinda Green, “and he definitely looked the part in his uniform.”

    Despite Mark’s array of medals when it came to Olympics, things never quite went his way. Even winning team gold in Munich, he was the discard score on Great Ovation and was gutted only to be travelling reserve for the 1976 Games in Montreal.

    In 1980, the British boycotted the Moscow Olympics and his ride, Lincoln, went lame at the alternative event at Fontainebleau. Mark made the British team a final time in 1988 for Seoul, but Cartier tied up on the roads and tracks. It seems horribly unlucky. “I was,” agrees Mark. “I probably wanted it too much.”

    Despite his reputation as a coach and course-designer, it’s his time as a rider that Mark looks back on most fondly: “If you’re a competitor, you’re always a competitor,” he reasons. “I had such a good time riding. I’ve been extremely lucky and my hobby became my profession.”

    And the very best days of that extraordinary career? “That’s quite simple… I grew up in the Beaufort Pony Club dreaming of one day winning at Badminton, so that first win – oh my God!” replies Mark. “And seeing that flag go up at an Olympics, that’s unbelievable. And the British team hasn’t seen it since, nearly 50 years later!”

    Mark on…

    Zara: “Funnily enough, I’m quite relaxed when Zara goes cross-country because she has good instincts. Dressage, I’m nervous, but showjumping I’ll sweat buckets because she doesn’t have that same natural instinct for it.”

    Luck: “I’m a great believer that you make your own luck. Most times ‘bad luck’ is because you made a bad move. People used to say to me: ‘What do you do for the Americans?’ and I’d say ‘Mostly, I keep them honest… No, you weren’t unlucky there, you rode a crappy turn.’”

    Riding position: “[Former showjumping trainer] George Morris says he’s a position freak; well, I am too. Whatever you have in life you have to work on, and I used to analyse my photographs and check the angles were as they should be.”

    Four horses Mark will never forget…

    Chicago: Bertie Hill’s classy grey partnered Mark to his first and only World Championship team title in 1970. Hopes of doing more with him were thwarted when the horse was eventually sold to Germany. “He had a big head, but a lot of quality and a better temperament than Columbus, a more push-button ride,” says Mark.

    Rock On: “Rock On was amazing. He made me, to be honest,” says Mark. “Up until then I’d just ridden family hunters and my first real thoroughbred ended up being a superstar.” Under Bertie Hill’s guidance, this raw, zany and brilliant jumper went from novice to fourth at Burghley in one season. “We were 38th out of 40 after dressage,” points out Mark. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Because of him, I got to go to Mexico [as reserve] while I was at Sandhurst, then rode him at my first Europeans. “That’s why I got the ride on [Bertie Hill’s horse] Chicago, and the rest is history.” Does Mark wish he’d had him later in his career? “I wouldn’t have been brave enough to ride him later on!”

    Hideaway: Formerly the Olympic ride of Mike Saywell, this top jumper owned by Trevor Banks gave Mark some of his best thrills in the saddle, including four Nations Cup victories, fourth place in the King George V Gold Cup and second in the Hickstead Derby Trial.
    “The most frightening thing I ever did was turning him into the 7ft puissance wall at Olympia,” says Mark.

    Cartier: Mark’s last international horse came from a working hunter background: “It was easy to fast track him up through the grades.” Having finished seventh at Lexington in 1986 and 12th at Luhmühlen in 1987, the pair were selected for Seoul, but Mark’s Olympic bogey continued: after torrential rain during their dressage, the horse tied up on the roads and tracks.

    The Badminton trio

    Columbus: “The best horse I ever rode,” says Mark of the 17.1hh grey owned by The Queen. He came to Mark, before his engagement to Princess Anne, when it became clear in 1972 that he was too strong for her. Though it took a while for Mark to get to grips with the headstrong horse – they had two falls at their first Badminton in 1973 – the following year they won with a double clear. “He did everything – won Badminton, big jumping classes, even took me round the Grand National course [for a BBC challenge against former jockey Richard Pitman],” says Mark. “Obviously he needed a thousand half-halts before the dressage because he was thoroughbred and wanted to gallop and jump. But with him I had all the options.”

    Mark’s sometime team-mate Hugh Thomas agrees: “Columbus would have stood out at any time, not just in his time – he could gallop forever and jump everything.”

    Great Ovation: It would be impossible not to highlight the horse who won two Badmintons back to back for Mark and partnered him on the gold medal-winning Olympic team in Munich. Yet this smart gelding, co-owned by Mark’s ever supportive Aunt Flavia, was “a very average horse”, says Mark. “OK, he did a good dressage test and was quite careful showjumping, but he was chicken s**t cross-country. You always had to put him in deep to a fence. And any time you thought he was better than he was, he would either stop or fall over.”

    “I took him hunting once and even then he wasn’t that great,” adds Mary Low (née Gordon-Watson). “He never really picked up the bridle.”

    Lincoln: A horse remembered less for his talent than the challenge he presented his rider with before winning Mark’s fourth and final Badminton in 1981. “Lincoln was another magical story because I spent 18 months trying to get him to go like a normal horse,” says Mark. “Lincoln wanted to storm into fences and slow down at the last moment while I wanted him to come into them in a rhythm.

    I took him to Taunton Vale one day and had 17 stops on the cross-country trying to do it my way,” he remembers. “So I gave up and rode him his way and let me tell you, coming at 60 metres a minute into a coffin frightens the life out of you.”

    Mark’s medals

    1970, team gold, World Championships, Punchestown
    Mark rode Bertie Hill’s smart grey Chicago alongside team-mates Richard Meade, Mary Gordon-Watson and Stuart Stevens. Despite Mark’s cricket score late on the course, he finished 11th. Britain was the only team to get three home, to win gold.

    1971, team gold, European Championships, Burghley
    Princess Anne won the individual title, riding as an individual on Doublet, but Mark was on the winning British team (and fifth individually) with Great Ovation.

    1972, team gold, Munich Olympics
    Mark captured an Olympic gold medal with team-mates Richard Meade, Bridget Parker and Mary Gordon-Watson. Great Ovation had two falls across country but still completed.

    1974, team silver, World Championships, Burghley
    Mark won silver on The Queen’s Columbus. Yet this event was as much about what he lost as what he won: a blistering clear put Columbus nine points ahead. But a slipped tendon off the hock forced them then to withdraw, putting paid to Mark’s best chance of an individual title.

    1988, team silver, Seoul Olympics
    A final Olympic team appearance for Mark with Ian Stark, Ginny Holgate and Karen Straker. Though Mark had to withdraw on the roads and tracks, the team took silver.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 21 May 2020

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