Monday, August 8, 2011

Gatcombe Horse Trials – The Festival of Australasian Eventing

Quite rightfully, you will probably think the worst of me. I’m writing this sitting at the back of the Stapleton Arms. It’s the pub in the tiny Dorset village of Buckhorn-Weston where Sam and Lucy go to celebrate their victories. Since – unlike them and Burto – I don’t have any victories to celebrate from the British Eventing Championships over the weekend it seemed sensible for me to chalk one up by winning the race to the pub. But my victory – by over ten lengths, 2 pints or one hour depending on how you gauge these things – is a hollow one. There’s no swarming press here to cover it, no crowd cheering me on, and no Princess Anne to present my prize. After such an amazing weekend of eventing at Gatcombe Park, I realise that unlike winning, for instance, the British Open Championship, my victory is pretty grim.

The Stapleton Arms - the finish line inthe most important
race of the weekend
They call it the Festival of British Eventing and apart from the big four star events at Badminton and Burghley, it’s the showpiece of the sport in the UK. Hosted by Princess Anne and run in her backyard at Gatcombe Park, it’s a phenomenal event held in a stunning location. Not surprisingly it drags in the big names and the Championship classes are littered with the superstars of world eventing. The Fox was riding half the equine population of Britain, and the only class Ollie Townend didn’t have a start in is the one in the photo below.

The Shetland Pony Grand National - no adults allowed
In terms of one day eventing, this was the biggest competition I’d ever ridden in. I wasn’t competing in the British Open class but in one of the Advanced sections, where the outcasts and riff-raff duel it out over the same course as the Open but for less financial reward. Even still, if you win a ribbon Princess Anne fronts up to shake your hand, and since we all want to meet a princess at some time in our lives it’s a pretty fiercely contested competition.

If you look really hard you can just make out Princess Anne
in the white trousers
This is a good moment to note that writing about your own riding performance is tough going. If you go well, you sound like a knob when you pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on your fine achievements. With the exception of the USA, in most cultures around the world people will line up to gleefully punch self-congratulators square in the teeth. Go badly and you’re almost obliged to make excuses, and that is tiring and boring and generally practised by people who have a large ‘L’ stamped on their forehead. So I’ll quickly just say that Tiger and I did a reasonable dressage test, had a few thousand rails in the show jumping and then ripped around what was a very big cross-country track clear with some time penalties. Sound, fitter, more confident and with some long hours in the show jump paddock to come over the next few weeks, we’re on track for Burghley.

Looking down into the park bowl
With my competition finishing on Saturday I had plenty of time to take in all that Gatcombe has to offer. The trade-stands are pretty awesome here in the UK, and if you’ve got a bit of spare cash in your back pocket it’s an easy place to dispose of it. Kit yourself out in some new threads – preferably tweed if you really want to score an invite up to the Princess’s house – and then go and blow a hole in your savings at one of the twenty or so saddleries that are on site. If that doesn’t seem extreme enough, you can always buy yourself a new horse truck, fill it with a spa, chicken coop and some outdoor furniture, and then make a friend while eating a bacon sandwich at the Pimms tent to help you drive your new Range Rover home.

Crowds - Wellington boots, tweed, dogs and... is that
guy really smoking a cigar?
If it’s not the trade stands that impress you then the crowds will and on Sunday the place was packed, with people piled up four deep around the jumping arena, with the remainder swarming through the cross-country course. It’s an enthusiastic crowd, and whether they are there for the sport, the royals, or to see if Mike Tindall is as ugly in the flesh as he appears in photos (he’s not), it’s fantastic to have them there supporting eventing.

Clayton Fredericks over fence one in the Open Championship
The crowd sees a phenomenal spectacle however, and as it is every year the Open Championship cross-country was run at express pace. This class has always been won by the rider willing to chance their arm and go flat out for six and a half minutes. Never before however, have the top five riders been able make the time. Unfortunately for what was obviously a predominantly English crowd, New Zealand and Australia stole the show, and while the English are good at royal weddings, building pubs, hacking phones and standing in puddles, when it comes to going flat out around cross-country the Kiwis appear to have the edge. First and second to  Andrew Nicholson (he also won the two advanced classes the day before so practically owned Princess Anne’s hand by the end of the weekend), third to Jonathon Paget, and fourth to Mark Todd. Burto popped up and pinched fifth from under Pippa Funnell’s nose, and she had to settle for winning the British National Championship from sixth place.


Paul Tapner out of the start box
Andrew Nicholson finishes after winning
everything except Masterchef

1 comment:

  1. You may not have won a ribbon, but you do win 'funniest blog post i have read today'.

    Not that it's all that exciting. Keep us updated!