Mark Phillips: When can we get back to normality? *H&H Plus*


  • These are strange and stressful times for all, with experiences that none of us have ever seen before or want to repeat.

    Despite the tragic spiralling death toll, the rapid spread of the virus and the unprecedented strain on the NHS, I can’t help wondering if we are doing the right thing. In Sweden, older and more vulnerable people are isolating, with gatherings of over 50 people banned, but life otherwise carries on as normal.

    The UK lockdown will be responsible for bankrupting thousands of businesses and putting the country into a debt situation that will take generations to recover from.

    I’m currently in Florida, although hoping to be home before the end of April. In the US, all horse shows are cancelled until 3 May, subject to a two-weekly review. The situation varies from state to state, but most areas are not on as stringent a lockdown as the UK.

    No one can come into yards from off-site for lessons, so professionals can’t teach unless they have the horses in their care. Horse sales have dried up because many don’t have the disposable income; this won’t change for some time after the lockdown is lifted as businesses will take time to recover.

    Many owners have taken horses home because they can’t afford training livery and a lot of the top riders have given their good horses two or three weeks’ holiday and are then keeping them ticking over, sending their owners weekly videos.

    Course-builders have no work and so it goes on, with a lot of people not foreseeing anything happening before August or September. I hear the FEI have discussed there being no four- or five-star ranking showjumping shows before September, worldwide.

    Things may be better here than in the UK, but none of it is good. With 330 million people in the US, the situation will arguably take longer to control than in the UK.

    Altered courses

    In the sporting field, I sympathise with the tentage, portable loo and fast-food contractors. I do hope they will all be afloat when normality returns.

    What will the effect of all this be on British Eventing (BE) finances, which have already been laid bare by the IT problems? You can’t help feeling that members will be sharing some of that pain next year.

    I also wonder how and when we come out of lockdown. In America, they predict deaths from coronavirus in June and July. How can we be open to running events in that situation – and will there be another explosion of outbreaks when the population starts moving again?

    At the end of May, we have to decide whether to run the Festival of British at Gatcombe in early August. For Burghley, it will be the end of June. Those deadlines are frightening close.

    If we can run Gatcombe, I’ve proposed to BE that we hold the novice championships over a 3ft 7in cross-country course and the intermediate championships over a 3ft 9in track, both 2in lower than normal as inevitably horses will be short of runs. Burghley will still look every bit a five-star, but it’ll be technically a little less challenging than usual.

    Obviously the postponement of the Olympic Games was a massive disappointment, but achieving a satisfactory preparation was looking increasingly difficult, so it may have been something of a relief for some coaches and riders.

    You have to feel sorry for more senior riders nearing the end of their careers now that we have a 12-month delay. Hopefully they and their horses will still be fit next year.

    We had a carefully planned course-designer handover at Burghley, with Derek di Grazia taking over for 2021 after his duties in Tokyo this summer. I am now wondering what will happen next year with Burghley coming up so quickly after the Olympics. You may not have seen the last of me!

    Out of control

    There is so much uncertainty at the moment – never before have I felt so out of control, with no idea what the near future holds. Coaches can’t teach, dealers can’t sell, breeders can’t breed and the landscape is changing so quickly.

    We can but try to stay safe, positive and in good health until this nightmare is over and we can start planning again.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020