Mark Phillips: Am I coming or going? [H&H VIP]

  • Last week was the start of a three-week nightmare for me. I can only hope it finishes up with pleasant dreams! At the beginning of the week I was training with the Belgian team, before the press day at Burghley on the Thursday and then Blair Castle (pictured above) at the weekend.

    On the Sunday night of Blair I was on the ferry to Normandy for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and this Sunday I’ll be back on the boat en route to Burghley. I guess it’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

    Having said that, I leave for WEG quite relaxed about Burghley. The cross-country is big and looks in fantastic condition as clerk of the course Philip Herbert and his team have made the most of this user-friendly summer.

    Even Caroline Powell quite likes it and wishes she were riding (see pull-out, p12 in this week’s issue), although she does have reservations about the Dairy Farm, where I actually thought I’d been kinder than last year.

    Even without the WEG field Burghley looks to have a great entry. It would be a brave man to bet against Andrew Nicholson making history with a third victory on Avebury. But I’m sure William Fox-Pitt and company will have something to say about that.

    It’s a long way north…

    I had not been to Blair for years and had forgotten the beauty of the mountains and countryside on the Blair Atholl Estates. It is, though, a long way up country and a lot cooler than we are used to for those of us living south of the Midlands.

    That will be a factor next year for the foreign teams at the European Championships.

    It took my Belgian riders 22 hours door to door including the ferry and driving through southern England at night. For those that still don’t comprehend the geography, when you get to Edinburgh you still have to go north for another two hours.

    Alec Lochore’s team were all outstandingly helpful, which augurs well for next year.

    This year was a typical Alec 10-ring circus with one-, two- and three-star competitions, showjumping and the longstanding country fair. It did get people through the gate, even if the organisation creaked at times.

    There were, though, enough of next year’s key people in place to iron out the wrinkles for the Europeans. It will also be a lot easier when the whole team is focused on just one class, rather than four international sections.

    I feel sorry for Alec, who suffered a detached retina driving back from Normandy the week before trying to be the director at Blair, quickly followed by trying to be technical delegate at WEG. He could not have chosen a worse moment in the year to be unable to see!

    Ian Stark, the course-designer at Blair, did a great job. The hill here is legendary, but Scotty had re-routed the track to move it to the middle of the course and so lessen its effect. Next year it will be even earlier in an effort to produce better pictures at the end, where there will be an extended distance on the flatter ground.

    Flat ground — or the lack of it — is a real issue at Blair. Next year’s dressage arena was the “hallowed ground” this year with no horses allowed on the new turf. A fortune has been spent on this ground with all sorts of experts involved and it did look a huge improvement to the surrounding areas in the main arena.

    However, when they erected the dressage boards on the Sunday to keep the jumping track off the turf, the new arena looked quite unlevel. Having gone to so much time, trouble and money with draining, grading and turf, you would think that levelling out the depression would be relatively easy — if I was Alec I would want some of my money back.

    Finding good flat training areas will be an issue next year. Alec is very much on the case and with far fewer horses spread out over a much larger area, I’m sure he’ll find a way to make it work.

    Everyone at Blair is determined to make next year’s European Championships a very special occasion and something that Britain and Scotland can be very proud of.

    This column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (28 August, 2014)