Mark Phillips: Burghley’s no longer the biggest game in town [H&H VIP]

  • I last won Badminton back in 1981 — another wet day, so I rose from 19th after the dressage on Lincoln. That was rare then. For Sam Griffiths to come from 25th after dressage to win in the modern short-format sport was quite remarkable.

    This was traditional Badminton, with Giuseppe Della Chiesa’s course a big track in anyone’s language. I said on Wednesday I was not sure Burghley could still claim to be the biggest game in town.

    I don’t think Guiseppe will serve up an identical menu next year! To get 35 out of 78 around is not something any designer enjoys. Even by Colonel Frank Weldon’s standard of “If I get more than 50% round I’ve had a bad day!” this was an old-fashioned statistic. While it made for great TV highlights, spectators near the end of the course often had a long wait for horses.

    To Giuseppe’s credit, there was not one bad fence and, while there were more falls than politically acceptable, no one was seriously hurt. There was not 1 reason for so few finishers, but many factors coming together.

    Yes, the ground was soft, but not soft like the old days. Hugh Thomas has spent a small fortune on drainage and manicuring the turf. It paid off.

    Nobody anticipated the wind. Later in the day, I walked up from the warm-up to the collecting ring and had a real struggle to keep going. Horses were galloping into the teeth of it all the way from the Swindon Designer Outlet Mound to the ISH Studbook Huntsman’s Close. No wonder we saw so many start to come “off the bridle” as they approached the 8min mark in front of the house.

    This stretch also has some of the softest ground. In the old days we could “hunt” here and let horses go in “their time”. But with the intensity upped, riders don’t have that luxury.

    There were too many places where horses landed “static” after a fence and had to regain speed. I would have liked to see more flow and a few more let-up fences. I’m sure we will see Giuseppe tweak these areas next year.

    Ups and downs

    Psychology in sport is a wonderful, weird and complex subject. When was the last time that Messrs Fox-Pitt, Nicholson and Todd all fell off when they had a good chance of winning?

    On the other side of the scale I take my hat off to Harry Meade — his story will hopefully one day be committed to print. After the agonies of 2 broken elbows last year, the months when he could do nothing for himself, he rode one of the best rounds.

    I was thrilled for Sam Griffiths. He too has had his share of rough moments. He won’t have enjoyed his photo at the Mound, but he won’t care now he has the Mitsubishi Trophy on his mantelpiece.

    You also have to admire the job Oliver Townend has done with Armada, who has never been an easy ride. Oliver too has visited the darker side of this sport, but now seems to be coming through the other side.

    It will be interesting to see how the Badminton formbook pans out at the World Equestrian Games [WEG]. There will be hills, but surely the dressage will have more influence?

    And on to Chatsworth

    Last weekend I went to Chatsworth where my Belgian hopefuls tried out some hills ahead of WEG.

    With the event under new management, including director Patricia Clifton and co-ordinator Gail Dale, there seemed a genuine happy atmosphere as a vast crowd soaked up the spring sunshine.

    Ian Stark’s course was refreshingly different with narrow fences spread all over, not necessarily related to a big spread fence. The going was good — maybe a little soft in some low-lying places, but riders could pick their way round those spots if they so chose. It was nice to see both a coffin and a sunken road, although I’m not sure some of Ian’s turning questions produced the picture he wanted.

    How unlucky CIC3* runner-up Beanie Sturgis was not to get into Badminton from the wait list on Lebowski. A cross-country machine, he would have loved those conditions.

    It was good to see my daughter Zara returning with High Kingdom. They are still not back to their best, but an advanced third in a canter will have done them no harm.

    This article was first published in the 22 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine