Mark Phillips: ‘How difficult can it be to draw a line in the sand and start talking again?’


  • Former Olympic team gold medallist and four-time Badminton winner Mark Phillips, who is one of the world’s leading cross-country course-designers, shares his views on the wet spring and angst about international officials

    I can’t remember the first three months of the year ever being as wet as the period we’ve just endured. I’m lucky and live 600ft up in the Cotswolds on free-draining limestone soil, but even there we’ve had water lying in places I’ve never witnessed it before.

    My next-door neighbour, Doug Etherington-Smith, had to cancel his first event at Oxstalls. I was amazed that he volunteered to run an Ascott-under-Wychwood replacement last weekend. The ground was waterlogged in the middle of the week, but after three days of wind and sunshine many enjoyed near-perfect conditions underfoot.

    I was so happy for Alec Lochore that he was able to stage his event at Burnham Market. It gave many horses destined for Kentucky and Badminton five-stars the first opportunity this year to stretch their legs on good footing and have a confidence-building run.

    Far from ideal

    Some organisers running a CCI4*-S this spring were caught out when the FEI slipped in a rule requiring those events to have a level four course-designer or technical delegate.

    Obviously the thinking was to try to make all the Olympic qualifiers of an equal standard. Sadly this plan was always going to fail because of the wide range of quality across the group of level four officials.

    It’s particularly problematic when technical delegates are expected to uphold the standard. It’s no surprise therefore that we’ve seen varying levels of difficulty at the CCI4*-Ss in Britain and the US.

    The introduction of level four was a good idea when it came to trying to have the best officials at five-stars and championships. Unfortunately the process of deciding who would be upgraded to level four was short of ideal. In all three categories (judges, course-designers and technical delegates) there are level four officials with shortcomings.

    I’ve had calls from judges perplexed as to how some of their counterparts achieved the level, and the same is true with course-designers and technical delegates.

    Some of the officials who felt hard done by in the process go to an FEI Tribunal later this month. I’m sure this is not the right solution, but the FEI has been dragging its feet and so far has failed to come up with a better process.

    It’s sad that all this is one of the main reasons that the International Eventing Officials Club lost its memorandum of understanding with the FEI. How difficult can it be to draw a line in the sand and start talking again? Is it so difficult to admit that the level four process was not ideal first time around?

    The next generation

    I was interested to read Andrew Nicholson’s comment about the next generation of course-designers doing a good job. He mentioned Andrew Heffernan. I’ve worked with Andrew and agree.

    I would also mention Stuart Buntine, who is truly maturing as a four-star and advanced course-designer. Helen West, freed of her duties at British Eventing having given up the CEO role there, is also doing great work on both sides of the Atlantic.

    With Ian Stark retiring at the end of the year, there will be great opportunities for the next generation. I only hope that they have looked at the FEI requirements to design at four- and five-star. These are not easy to achieve and the opportunities don’t come around very often.

    I’m off to America next week to help at Kentucky 3 Day Event with my course-advisor hat on and also to see some of our Paris hopefuls in action. I’m then back for Badminton Horse Trials – how good it feels to have the sun on your back, a spring in your step and the prospect of great sport ahead, with all those soggy days hopefully behind us.

    ● What will you do with your horse now the weather is improving? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and country, for the chance for your letter to appear in a forthcoming issue of the magazine

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 18 April

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