Mark Phillips reflects on Burghley: ‘Is bigger sometimes safer?’


  • Former Olympic team gold medallist, four-time Badminton winner and leading cross-country course-designer Mark Phillips on some of Burghley’s horse falls, as well as top performances at the British autumn five-star

    Burghley has been part of my life since I first rode there at the age of 18 and finished fourth. More recently, I’ve been course-designer for most of the past 30 years since 1989. This year, I had to hand over the reins to Tokyo and long-time Kentucky designer Derek di Grazia. I guess I’ve had time to get used to the idea since the last running in 2019.

    I was privileged to be invited for the day when Derek was setting fences during the lead-up in August, and new director Martyn Johnson went out of his way to make me feel still part of this Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials team.

    I found my new level of expertise by judging the gallop phase of the Burghley young event horse final, which was definitely a new experience. We had some great winners, with the four-year-olds being an exceptional crop.

    I also had the honour of being asked by Rosemary Barlow to judge the winner of the new Avebury Trophy, for the best cross-country round. The winner was Jonelle Price on Classic Moet – not just because the 19-year-old was the only horse inside the time, but because of the foot-perfect way she did it, even more impressive because Jonelle didn’t have the help of a watch. Her only moment was touching part of the decoration at the Parasol Table. I’d like to have given it to Piggy March and Vanir Kamira, just one second over the time, arguably a better performance, but she made harder work of it in the latter stages.

    I also very much admired the performances of four British first-timers – Tom Jackson (Capels Hollow Drift), Bubby Upton (who gets better on every outing on Cola III), Wills Oakden (Oughterard Cooley) and the young Alice Casburn (Topspin). Having mastered the terrain at Burghley, over a true five-star track, they will all be able to concentrate on shaving off a few more seconds when they get to the flatter course at Badminton next spring.

    A real Burghley challenge

    This was definitely a real Burghley and, to his credit, Derek did not dumb it down for his first attempt. It was not the biggest track ever seen here, but he continually gave riders the opportunity to make a mistake and sadly too many did just that.

    Some will say, like at Badminton, there were too many horse falls. However, three of the seven were at an intermediate-sized brush corner in the first part of the Trout Hatchery.

    Many in the FEI and in high places want to make cross-country easier in the name of risk management. This was a classic example of easier does not make it safer – if that had been a big fence in the water, would the riders have had more respect and taken more time to jump it? I believe the answer is definitely yes.

    The field may have been slightly depleted due to the absence of those on duty at the eventing World Championships two weeks later. But so many people were so happy to be back at Burghley enjoying the special atmosphere. The crowd numbers were up from 2019 and Burghley once again served up the most exciting of competitions.

    A deserved win

    These days, the marks on the final day are so close and time and again produce a cliff-hanger finish. Vanir Kamira, Vitali and Classic Moet all have a bit of a history of having the occasional pole down on the last day, so Tom Jackson was my Sunday morning favourite.

    He produced the clear round, Tim and Jonelle Price both had poles, but Piggy’s two-fence advantage was enough, despite an early rail. She and Vanir Kamira, now 17 years old, thoroughly deserved their success and she is only the 14th horse to win Badminton and Burghley.

    As her peers move on to the worlds in Italy, let’s hope Piggy is back in the mix for more international honours next year.

    • Which riders impressed you at Burghley? Let us know by writing to hhletters@futurenet.com

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read within Horse & Hound magazine’s 20-page analysis of all the Burghley action, in shops Thursday 8 September

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