In usual circumstances, the only extended period of time I spend at home riding is the winter, when it’s cold and wet. This lovely weather means some aspects of “lockdown” are hardly a hardship, but I know how privileged we are.
Normally the end of April and the beginning of May is one of the most intense periods of the season, with two five-stars – Kentucky and Badminton – to aim for.
The first time I went to Kentucky was in 2001, which was foot-and-mouth year. I took two horses, Lord Killinghurst and Mallards Treat, and as well as being their first event of the year, it was also the first time I had ridden either horse in a competition.
Both horses had come to me a couple of months earlier; Lord Killinghurst had jumped clear round Burghley with Owen Moore, albeit with a fair few time-faults, and although Mallards Treat hadn’t done a five-star, he had won both Blenheim and Punchestown with Franck Bourny.
Of course, three-day events had roads and tracks and steeplechase phases then, and because of foot-and-mouth it was very difficult to find anywhere to go cross-country schooling and I couldn’t use my normal gallops.
I ended up going to former trainer Stan Mellor’s gallops – so I had to get horses to peak fitness on gallops I didn’t know – and a week before we left for Kentucky I managed to have a cross-country school at Robin Dumas’ place.
I worked out and measured an eight-minute course and went at 570m per minute round it, which felt pretty scary. But I learned something about how they reacted when they got a bit tired, and so on.
At Kentucky, I led the dressage on Mallards Treat and Lord Killinghurst was third or fourth. I do remember walking the cross-country, seeing a couple of particularly tough fences and ringing Owen Moore to ask how Lord Killinghurst would cope with them. He filled me with confidence and basically told me to go fast at them, so I did!
Both horses went clear inside the time, but sadly Lord Killinghurst was lame the next day – he’d sprained a tendon.
I should have won it on Mallards Treat, but he had a deceptive rhythm to his canter and I noticed halfway round the showjumping that we were down on the clock, so I sped up and he had a couple down. We finished in the top 10, though, and it was a great first experience of Kentucky.
A fast track
When I next went back, with Nereo for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in 2010, I hardly recognised the place, so much had changed. It’s a wonderful venue, and both people and horses really love being there.
For some reason horses seem to be capable of going fast across country there even if they aren’t fast elsewhere – it isn’t a flat track, but they seem to gallop very easily round it.
Nereo got the time effortlessly at WEG and won the individual bronze medal, and Quimbo, who was practically full warmblood, was inside the time when he won the CCI5* there in 2013.
The only horse I’ve taken to Kentucky who hasn’t enjoyed it was Avebury, who didn’t feel himself from the moment we got there in 2014. He’d won Burghley in 2012 and 2013 and I wondered whether I’d used up all he had to give at that level, but he went on to win his third Burghley that autumn, so it wasn’t that. Maybe it was the flying – we’ll never know.
It’s an expensive trip – I worked out that if you finished first or second, you’d make money, and if you were third or fourth, you’d break even. Beyond that, you’d start running into the red. But I had great fun out there and I’d definitely go back if ever the chance arose.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020