Mark Phillips: ‘diehards want the cross-country to have more influence’ [H&H VIP]

  • What a difference there was between William Fox-Pitt’s first Badminton win in 2004 on Tamarillo and this year’s victory. Eleven years ago he was a minute over the time in the wet — and one of the fastest.

    This year in the sun William produced a truly classic round on Chilli Morning to be inside the time.

    It was such a contrast from 12 months ago. Last year in the wind and rain, the time was impossible to make over a good but overly intense course, and only 35 completed. This year, with a plethora of let-up three-star fences, 62 of the 78 starters finished. There were 14 inside the time — I had predicted 15-20, but a further seven were within four seconds of the time, so I was not far out.

    Actually, overnight rain had softened the ground just enough to make it slower for the early horses. It was noticeable how much better horses finished towards the end of the day.

    Four-star course-design is not easy. I’ve been sick to the stomach trying to get it right for 25 years. What Giuseppe della Chiesa did was understandable — a swing from the too difficult to the too easy. He can now build on this year’s test and bring the cross-country back to a more central role.

    I felt sorry for Hugh Thomas, Badminton director and now retired course-designer. Riders lambasted him two years ago for making the course too soft when he probably had Badminton’s strongest field ever. This track was easier, but the riders strangely quiet, probably with relief after last year. It has to be said, though, that we were back to a principally dressage and showjumping competition.

    Klimke’s challenges

    While William thrilled the home crowd with his 54th three-day event win, you had to feel for Ingrid Klimke. Many thought she was harshly marked in the dressage; Horseware Hale Bob lost a shoe in the start box and she had centimetres to spare as she approached The Lake for the first time as two cars blocked the course. She scraped through between the back of a car and the people on the string, still managed to be within the time and jumped clear on Sunday.

    There was sympathy, too, for Andrew Nicholson. His three rails cost him £63,000 — ouch!

    This was the third time Andrew Hoy has managed to get wet twice in a day, the other two being at Luhmühlen. With luck he now has that monkey off his back.

    Australia had a bad day. Christopher Burton looked special until he got into a muddle at Huntsmans Close and pulled the right rein instead of the left to get 20 penalties for crossing his tracks. Then Sam Griffiths did the same thing in The Lake on Happy Times when the long route option was right in front of him.

    Tina Cook took a ducking in The Lake on De Novo News — no one saw that coming — and Caroline Powell, normally so reliable, forgot to balance a little before the Gatehouse New Pond and was also airmailed into the water.

    I was so disappointed not to see Izzy Taylor and KBIS Briarlands Matilda on the last day. No one rode better than her on Saturday. I’m also increasingly impressed with Gemma Tattersall’s cross-country riding. Sadly she has a little work to do to reach the same heights with this horse in an atmosphere in the showjumping.

    You had to feel sorry for Oliver Townend and the veteran Armada. I’ve never seen him go better, but his four rails down cost £32,000.

    Balancing safety and influence

    The scores were so tight that one fence covered the top five riders, and the top 20 all had to jump clear to guarantee holding their place. Edge-of-the-seat stuff for TV and the packed stadium! But diehards will want the cross-country to have more influence.

    Having said that, Saturday was a good day for the sport with a lot of horses finishing with a smile. But eventing continues to struggle with juggling safety and risk management with a more influential cross-country. I believe there will be more minimal requirements for four-stars in the future. I can easily see four-star fields being reduced to 70 or even 60 of the best. Five or six hours of cross-country is too long for many people and certainly for live TV.

    I’m also a supporter of perhaps two penalties for knocking down a flag, although I think the five proposed by the FEI is too many. Designers would then, in fairness to the competitors, have to use fewer super-skinnies, which horses tend to jump in an ugly way. The pictures would also be better with fewer flags falling.

    That is all for the future though. For now we celebrate a great Badminton win for William. He claimed £80,000, but many celebrated with him as after six years, once again we had a British winner.

    Ref: H&H 14 May, 2015