William Funnell: Eastern Europe stides ahead of UK *H&H VIP*

  • I recently came back from a four-star show in Samorin, Slovakia, 20 minutes outside of Bratislava. It’s a country I haven’t visited for almost 25 years and it was a very different experience to my last trip.

    The facilities there cost €200m-300m (£148m-222m) to build, and I have never seen anything like them anywhere in the world.

    The main ring is slightly smaller than Aachen’s and has the same fantastic footing. There are three grass and two sand arenas, an indoor school and 600 permanent stables with rubber everywhere. The rings are surrounded by a mile of 20m-wide sand gallops — you can certainly see where the millions went.

    It’s a mark of how much the country has developed that it now hosts such outstanding equestrian facilities, far better than anything we have in the UK. We had a pleasant trip and it was nice to see Billy Congo back in form, picking up a third in the grand prix. It’s just a pity we can’t move it closer to the UK.

    The Eastern Europeans are starting to spend money, breed better horses and be a force to be reckoned with. Thirty years ago there weren’t as many shows but in a class of 40, there were only five that were capable of winning it. Now there are far fewer riders just making up the numbers.

    A bad chef and worse beer

    The last time I was in Slovakia — or Czechoslovakia as it was then — was when I rode in my first Nations Cup.

    Getting there was much more of an ordeal than it is now. Each border crossing took three to four hours and it amounted to a three or four-day trip.

    As it was such a long journey, I decided to share a lorry with Mark Armstrong. Mike Bullman was team manager and he couldn’t go, so he asked me if I’d be chef d’equipe. So it was my first Nations Cup and I was also chef — I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

    In those days, Mike used to select five people to travel to make sure there was a spare horse if a problem arose. A team of four was then selected for the Nations Cup itself. When we arrived, I said: “Mike, what shall I do about the team?” He told me to see how they went on the first day.

    The other three members were on great form and jumped clear, but Mark and I both had a fence down. Only when you jump on your first senior team are you allowed to wear a Union flag on your jacket. It was an ambition and a great honour and I didn’t have one — it was half of the motivation for driving to Czechoslovakia.

    Mark already had his Union flag, so I said: “Unfortunately Mark, I’m going to drop you.”

    I don’t remember where we finished but Mark went on to win both the small and big grands prix, with the advantage of jumping a fresh horse — and a bad chef d’equipe who obviously hadn’t picked the best team!

    Closing in on a medal

    This year, the Nations Cup final was a great conclusion for Di Lampard. We were so close to a medal at the Europeans and then just one fence away from a jump-off in Barcelona. Di has had a great start to her role. With Rio looming next year, we have it all to play for.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 8 October 2015