Mark Phillips on frangible penalties: ‘Riders hate it – but it’s here to stay’


  • Former Olympic team gold medallist, four-time Badminton winner and top course designer Mark Phillips shares his thoughts on the frangible penalties given at Tokyo and Bicton

    HAVING been retired from five-star course-design at Luhmühlen and Burghley after my 2019 track in Lincolnshire, it was with some trepidation that I took on the five-star Burghley replacement at Bicton, which had to be put on in 11 weeks instead of 11 months!

    I learnt a lot, though, from the four-star tracks in June, especially the effects of the Devon terrain. Sadly, not enough of the riders learnt that same lesson: a few were found lacking on the fitness front.

    Luckily, all thought the Bicton cross-country course, which was beautifully presented by the team, asked five-star questions, even though it lacked some of the massive galloping questions seen at other five-stars.

    However, the terrain more than made up for those big efforts and some definitely underestimated the cumulative effort of the questions. Also, nearly half the fences had a jumpable width of 6ft or less, which meant riders had to apply a different sort of concentration.

    Part of the skill

    THESE days, risk management and the ever-developing frangible technology are never far out of the news. Michael Jung breaking a MIMclip at Luhmühlen and Tokyo, both incidents denying him a top-three finish, has highlighted the issues as never before.

    The 11 penalties for breaking a frangible is hated with a passion by all five-star riders and their coaches, particularly as most of the activations are from hindleg pressure, when there was no possibility of a potentially serious rotational fall. Similarly it is not supported by the traditional cross-country folk, who have always considered that a horse ought to be able to use its back legs as “air brakes”.

    However, public perception and that of the governing bodies at home and abroad around the world is that the technology and the penalties are not going away. Therefore, riders have to learn how to ride these fences and to train their horses accordingly.

    We had five pins break as riders jumped into the Ariat Challenge at Bicton and on each occasion, either bad riding or a horse that lacked rideability caused the activation. We have to accept that this is part of the future skill of crossing the country, even if it’s a country mile from the traditions
    of yesteryear.

    Special atmospheres

    BICTON did an outstanding job of putting on a true five-star competition at short notice. It will never be Burghley, but hopefully the Devon venue will retain a place in the calendar where we can enjoy top-end sport in this special facility. I could not, though, help reminiscing about Burghley, where I designed for a period north of 30 years.

    The new director of Burghley is due to be announced before the end of September so I thought also about outgoing director Liz Inman, who has been part of the Burghley institution for a longer period even than me. She carried on the traditions, developed by Bill Henson, that have made Burghley a favourite event for riders, owners and spectators.

    The challenge for the new director will be to move the event forward without losing the atmosphere that makes it so special.

    Bicton had its own special, family atmosphere. There was no doubt, though, about the quality of the competition at the top, with the leading three riders all displaying an array of championship medals and big-time wins.

    In the end, Gemma Tattersall came out on top for long-time owner Chris Stone, ahead of the rapidly improving Billy Walk On and Pippa Funnell. Sadly the dream of a second five-star win for Piggy March and Vanir Kamira was not to be.

    That said, it was certainly a top three that Burghley would have been proud to have on its podium.

    • This exclusive column can also be read in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 9 September

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