Mark Phillips reflects on Bicton, Luhmühlen and illogical safety rulings
I’M not sure anybody envies the monumental task facing Helen West when she takes over as chief executive of British Eventing (BE).
However, if the Bicton international was an example of the calibre of her work, then the sport in this country can look forward to a bright future.
She led a strong team to run such a successful event – including showjumping designer Jamie Perryman, who did a fantastic job – and to find a title sponsor in Dr Geoffrey Guy’s Chedington Estate was impressive.
I’ve criticised the standard of cross-country courses at some of the upper level “replacement” events this spring. However, given the short notice preparation time, perhaps I’ve been unfair.
At Bicton, though, Helen and her team produced top-notch four-star long and short courses at seven weeks’ notice, having started with nothing more than an intermediate course. It had as much, if not more, terrain than Bramham and the presentation was Burghleyesque.
I helped with some of the technical questions and some will say we pushed the four-star standard too far with the Offset Brushes after the water and the angle of the brush corner coming out of the rail-ditch-corner complex.
However, all the combinations rode well. Some riders were caught out by going too fast in places and not riding forward in others. On a hot day, many horses tired with the heat and terrain.
The event did highlight the difference in fitness needed for the two formats – it’s folly to think you can switch a short format fit horse to long at a moment’s notice.
Looking at the number of withdrawals and retirements, we saw the effect of not having had a real four-star for two years. Some will say we should therefore have made the course softer, but many owners and riders thanked me for bringing back the cross-country test to the four-star level of yesteryear.
Bicton was also a big pre-Tokyo outing for our Olympic long-list. The selectors came away with mixed feelings: smiling because of the depth of choice – we could field two teams both capable of winning gold – but also with a furrowed brow, wondering how to whittle the squad down to a team of three and one reserve. There is so little difference between them. Anyone want to be a selector?
THE BEST LAID PLANS…
YOU have to feel sorry for Luhmühlen. Having taken the brave step to run behind closed doors, their plans were completely torpedoed by the new entry rules for British-based riders.
By the time the government changed their stance, it was too late for most to get all their paperwork done, though Emilie Chandler and Samantha Lissington did make it.
Hats off to the Luhmühlen team though – the venue looked resplendent and the Mike Etherington-Smith-designed and David Evans-built courses very much looked the part. The cross-country day did, though, emphasize the modern dilemma with some of the best horses and riders in the world competing but with others playing above their skill level.
Congratulations to Mollie Summerland for overcoming the Covid hurdles and for leading the five-star from pillar to post, with an improved dressage and showjumping from Pau last year. She will be very aware, though, that sterner tests lie ahead at Badminton and Burghley.
When Michael Jung and Maxime Livio put themselves out of contention by activating MIMclips it emphasised a new dimension in an ever-changing sport. Now riders need to leave the rails up on cross-country day as well as everything else!
A LOST SPECTACLE
I STRUGGLE with many current FEI risk management rulings, such as Oliver Townend having to run at Bicton to get Cooley Master Class’s confirmation minimum eligibility result (MER) for Tokyo, despite the pair having won a couple of five-stars.
Similarly, Tom McEwen was slated to ride my daughter Zara’s Classic Affair at Luhmühlen, while she returns to full fitness after having a baby, but didn’t have a recent enough MER despite having ridden the horse at Bramham 2018 and an advanced win at Aston-le-Walls this May.
When I think of all the five-stars that I, Mark Todd and others won on catch rides, it’s sad that spectacle can’t be part of the modern sport.
This report can also be read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale date 24 June 2021
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