Despite being described as an “awkward chap”, the quirky Ben Faerie son went on to have an extraordinary eventing record, notching up six gold medals with Ginny Holgate. Kate Green delves deeper into his story
NEVER was a horse more aptly named. Priceless, who cost £1,000 as a four-year-old in 1977, evented for nine seasons with Ginny Holgate (now Elliot) without a single cross-country fault, nor a championship pole down. He was world and European champion, he won Badminton and Burghley and six of his eight medals were gold.
“Mr P” was brainy, awkward and a law unto himself, “an unpredictable little beastie”, as Ginny puts it. You couldn’t use a whip on him or he would buck like mad, he snapped like a crocodile in the stable, he didn’t enjoy schooling and, to the end of his days, refused to be caught.
“If you told him, he would say ‘why?’, so the secret was to ask, to cajole. He was quite an awkward chap,” explains Ginny.
Standing 16.1hh “in his stilettos”, Priceless was three-quarter-bred, by Diana Scott’s thoroughbred stallion Ben Faerie out of the half-bred Reckless, and he looked more like his dam. Ginny went to try him at the Scotts’ Brendon Hill Stud in west Somerset; she felt that he might be too small, but also that he looked “cute”.
“I decided that if he jumped a ditch bravely, I would buy him, and he did,” she says.
They won their first big competition, Bramham in 1979, and never finished lower than 12th at an international event.
“Whatever was built, he jumped,” says Ginny. Her team-mate Ian Stark once described Priceless as having the versatility of a motorbike across country; he went in a D-ring snaffle and no “gadgets”.
They won double gold at the Burghley Europeans of 1985, where there was a bullfinch at the bottom of the hill, on an angle, a massive ditch toward.
“I was absolutely terrified of it,” recalls Ginny. “I tapped P with the stick and he fitted in three bucks, but still managed to jump it.”
At the Gawler World Championships in 1986 – another double gold performance – Priceless was “bored out of his brains” after 10 weeks of quarantine and training, as Ginny hadn’t wanted to risk competing him on hard Australian ground.
“He galloped at the first fence, missed his jerk, walked all over it, bucked and then carried on,” she says.
“Then there was a water complex where I thought the striding just wasn’t possible and I angled him so as to fit a stride into a bounce distance; he did it easily,” Ginny continues. His brilliance was his brain; he could assess things at high speed and had an incredible ability to adjust himself.”
At Burghley in 1983, Ginny told British chef d’equipe Malcolm Wallace and her friend Louise Bates that if she was short on time, she would go straight at the notorious brandy-glass fence, a route no one had tackled. As she approached, her supporters relaxed, because they knew she was in plenty of time; what they didn’t realise was that her stopwatch had failed and they had to cover their eyes as Ginny boldly kicked on, the only rider of the competition to take the direct route.
Priceless was team trailblazer at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, winning team silver and making Ginny the first British woman to win an individual Olympic eventing medal (bronze).
“The cross-country course was in Santiago and we got horribly stuck in traffic – it was nip and tuck,” she recalls. “I had no information about the course, but that was probably best.”
Here, they were the first pair to take the straight route at the Crescent Oxer, a spectacular massive parallel and drop. The photographer Kit Houghton asked trainer Dot Willis if she thought Ginny would go direct.
“Dot said, ‘Don’t worry, she will,’ so Kit got in a complete muck sweat running over to the fence,” Ginny says. “Sure enough, P did it. I was more than terrified, but he was unbelievable. We finished with only 0.4 of a time-fault and I was so thrilled. It was my most proud moment.”
IT had taken meticulous planning to get to this stage. In 1980, Priceless was sixth at Burghley with 22 time-faults; in 1981, he was eighth at Badminton with 34, and sixth and a team gold medallist with 16 at the Horsens Europeans in Denmark, by which time there was much muttering that he was “too common”.
Novel ways had to be found to manage him. Remember that, in those days, championships were “real” long format (incorporating roads and tracks and steeplechases) and the cross-country at five-star level; most horses ridden by women had to carry dead weight to reach the requisite 11st 7lbs.
Ginny sought help from the Yorkshire-based racehorse trainer Michael Dickinson, famous for producing fit horses – and the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. She volunteered to help him with gridwork if he would show her how to get Priceless as fit as a racehorse.
Michael advocated swapping interval training (which was then – and still is – the accepted wisdom, pioneered by the likes of Sheila Willcox) for hill work at different speeds every four days on the gallops.
Priceless hated being lunged and had to be kept occupied, so Ginny’s mother Heather would hack him out – on the route of his choice – and Mr P, as he was nicknamed by team trainer Lady Hugh Russell, was put on a diet: every four hours he would be given a tiny haynet and at night a 6lb one. He was fed four times a day, everything carefully weighed, and turned out in a bare paddock.
Fortunately, Priceless was “as sound as a pound”, only missing part of the 1983 season due to the blood poisoning disease leptospirosis.
“It was a team effort. Dot was a brilliant eyes-on-the-ground, and there was Mummy, Pat Manning [dressage trainer], Pat Burgess [jumping], Lady Hugh [cross-country] – all amazing people who chose to understand him.”
WITH horses such as Night Cap (also by Ben Faerie), Murphy Himself, Master Craftsman, Griffin and Welton Houdini, Ginny won two more European titles, two more Badmintons and medals galore. Altogether, she won at Burghley five times, four of them in succession and two of them on Priceless, of whom she says: “He mapped out my life.
“I would never have evented at that level without him or gone on to buy other horses. It was his brain, his attitude, his wilfulness and his guts that did it. He did what he did against all the odds. The long format was against him – in fact, it was against most horses – he was just a trooper.”
The breeder on Priceless
PRICELESS undoubtedly put Diana Scott’s prolific eventing sire Ben Faerie, a 15.3hh thoroughbred bought from Ascot for 240gns, on the map, but Priceless was “a funny little foal”. Born on Kings Brompton Common, he earned his name when Diana’s sister said: “Oh, isn’t he priceless!” And a farm worker said: “He’ll be no good – his ears turn in!”
Diana observes that Ben Faerie was “a pattern of a horse, full of quality. It didn’t matter what you crossed him with, he would put speed onto a non-thoroughbred.”
The dam, Reckless, came off the boat from Ireland and was bought from an Exeter sale for 120gns.
“She carried my father-in-law staghunting and he told me that she jumped all the gates,” recalls Diana. “I took him at his word and jumped all the farm gates on her. My husband, Maurice, was horrified as she hadn’t actually ever jumped anything before.”
Diana visited Priceless in his retirement: “He heard my voice and trotted over before shying, bucking and galloping off.”
Another of Ben Faerie’s legacies was a long life; Priceless was put down aged 28.
Priceless as hunter
HUNTING bookended Priceless’s career: he was a “mannerly” four-year-old out staghunting on Exmoor with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds joint-master Diana Scott, who led her small daughter from him, and Pytchley joint-master Louise Bates (pictured) enjoyed his superb jumping post-eventing.
“He was the most intelligent horse I’ve ridden – he knew where the fox was before the huntsman and would change direction even before hounds,” remembers Louise.
She recalls a “vintage” half-hour over huge Meynell fences.
“Another visitor, Bruce Hodges, later said to his brother: ‘My God, that Louise Bates goes well; I nearly killed myself following her! She was only riding a stocky little bay horse…’”
Louise took Priceless to Olympia for a parade of horse personalities. “Every time we came through the curtain, Raymond Brooks-Ward would holloa and I nearly fell off,” Louise says. “We also gave Mark Pitman and Corbiere [Grand National winner] a lead over a 2ft practice fence!”
You can also read this feature in the 20 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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