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September 7, 2011

The Epic Burghley Blog

William Fox-Pitt won Burghley on off-the-track Thoroughbred Parklane Hawk.

I’m back in the grand ole U.S. of A, adjusting to the time change, coherent road signs and seasoning on my food. I proudly only outed myself as a loud, impulsive American once where I decided that waiting for the green light to exit my parking area was for sissies and pressed the gas pedal with wild abandon—dressage was starting, darn it! Ten seconds later with my car teetering on a large chunk of metal designed to keep idiots like me from leaving the car park without paying, I realized the green light was there for a reason. I lern reel gud.

I’ve thought a lot about what to write on this Burghley wrap-up blog, but I couldn’t come up with any one topic in particular I wanted to delve into, mostly because there was just toooooo much to talk about! I thought I’d just cruise along in my ADD addled way and talk about things I observed and things I learned.

First things first, it has to be said: The Americans dressed beautifully for the jog. Other countries less so. Call me judgmental, but bedazzled blue jeans for a four-star trot-up? I judge. Oh yes, I judge.

Dressage was very different one day to the next. Many of the seats in the ring were free for the dressage days, and on Thursday they were about half full. The horses lucky enough to go early on were not subject to the electricity of the jam-packed stands of Friday. There were a few errors of tests, including the eventual winner and Pippa Funnell, who both halted at L, rather than X.

When Fox-Pitt was questioned in the press conference as to what that might mean (he and Pippa halting in the same, WRONG place, nudgenudge,winkwink!), he answered very seriously, “What, exactly, are you insinuating?” He followed the odd question up with the fact that they were both old and feeble and prone to such mistakes. Funny man!  

Dressage judging was interesting—there were many times when two judges would give 8s, and one would give a 4. I’d love to hear the reasoning for that.

Horses with flamboyant movement up front but no matching “push” behind were penalized (yay!), and the challenging test of working canter/change/counter canter/change/counter canter/change /change really caught some of even the “big guys” out. The tests at the top were not the flashiest movers; they were the quiet, forward, accurate, easy looking rides. A perfect example of this is watching William Fox-Pitt’s tests on either of his horses. It turns out, accurate, forward, pleasant rides equal 8s and 9s.

Cross-Country Day

Ahhhh, bliss! Cross-country at Burghley is unlike anything you’ve seen in the States. The hills are AMAZING! And by amazing I mean gigantasaurus rex. On top of the sheer climbs and descents, the horses and riders have to deal with the constant undulations of each step of ground, and it definitely took its toll on fitness. Upon completion of cross-country day, Caroline Powell said it wasn’t the long climbs that tire a horse at Burghley, but the constant vigilance of varying terrain—I likened it to skiing a flat black diamond hill versus a mogul run, or a straight incline on a treadmill versus the incline of a wooded, pitted, log-strewn mountain.

Even I, who could not run down a hill without falling if I were on fire and a deep pond awaited me at the bottom, would fare far better on the smooth decline versus the lumps of the English countryside. My guess was that this took a toll on many horses.

For the first 6 minutes of the course, you are for all intents and purposes, galloping uphill. This giant course rode surprisingly well, and I loved hanging out at some of the combinations and watching the masters come through. The skinnies were skinny, the tables were set for 200, the combinations required thought and accurate riding. There were very few silly decorations on the jumps, which I really liked.

I watched Jessica Phoenix come through Centaur’s Leap (the giant brush) and four strides out, the place where most people were grabbing mane and attempting to not vomit, she smiled the biggest smile across her face and her amazing little off-the-track Thoroughbred launched himself effortlessly over a ditch-and-wall three times his height. If that doesn’t give you chills and make you bounce around and cheer, I just don’t know what to tell you J.

I also sat and watched Colleen Rutledge and her tiny bouncing orange ball, Shiraz, take on this same fence, and these two rode it among the best of anybody I saw all day.

Scariest moment of the day goes to Icarus and Michael Pollard, who experienced a rather rough fall at the last water. While Michael was up immediately, Icarus was down for quite a long time—long enough that I was able to walk the ¼ mile from where I had taken a photo of them, all the way down to the water (about 5 minutes). He did not get up for several gut-wrenching minutes once I arrived, and the relief of seeing him walk out from the water and from behind the screens on his own legs was palpable among the crowd.

Icarus was shaken, but looked OK with just the tiniest cut and trickle of blood running down a foreleg. He gave that high-lonesome whinny to the pony horse standing nearby, and it sent chills down my spine. The two spoke back and forth for a few moments before he loaded onto the trailer. What an absolute relief. Icarus is an ex-racehorse, and I am sure I’m not the only one hoping for big things for Michael and him in the years to come.

I spent the last 10 horses planted directly at the bottom of THE LEAF PIT OF DOOM. I watched several amazing rides come through, a few questionable ones, and one that didn’t happen due to one very opinionated ride of Ollie Townend’s who caught one whiff of either stabling or the death drop and decided to T-Rex his way back to stabling.

Fox-Pitt, Andrew Nicholson and Powell all made easy work of the direct route and really showed you exactly why there were on top of the leaderboard. Speaking of which, it turns out the Chronicle forum posters aren’t the only CMP bashers out there, as someone on that leaderboard, upon hearing the Captain state he “expected more horse falls” (on cross-country) very clearly mouthed the word….well, use your imagination (hint, it rhymes with Mass Foal). No comment on that, but I did chuckle at (her or him) for their bravado!

I feel I must make mention of talk of turf and footing. Burghley turf is so perfectly suitable for horses you can actually see what every event held in the United States strives for. At the end of my second course walk, my normally angry feet were not complaining, and that is because I was walking on padded carpet, or something that felt a whole lot like it. The Brits most certainly have an advantage over the U.S. riders in this regard.

Oh, The Shopping

I also have to mention the trade fair and the crowds. They are, in a word, Amazing. I’m not sure what the official numbers are, but I’ve heard mention around 200,000 people are in attendance on cross-country day. Strangely, the jumps are easily viewable—up close even—and the crowd is easy to navigate and polite on top of it.

The one major difference here is that there is very little in the way of Hooting and Hollering as the locals prefer polite clapping. I, of course, am a rabid hooter and have been known to holler here and again, clearly identifying myself as “not from around these parts.” The crowd is what really makes the event, and I’m hoping our own four-star will reach crowds of that size eventually.

The trade fair has the most bizarre amalgam of saleable objects I’ve ever come across. You’ve got your sweaters, your tweeds, your tack. You’ve got professional garden builders, dog collars, firepits, tiki huts and fine arts. Cheese stands, basket companies, sculptors and Persian rugs, followed by horse boxes, dog car-crates, hippopotamus-head tables, fancy facial razors, flower bulbs, and I don’t even know what those things over there are. (Acrylic, $8,000, twirling bubbles of backyard tea sets for four.) Horseshoe art to spook the best and lots and lots of socks. I only came across one saddle-maker though, which was the only disappointment.

Soggy Show Jumping

Show jumping day was soggy. The photogs were told they would be escorted into the ring all at once and assembled against the fenceline so as not to obscure the view from spectators. Had I paid closer attention, I would have seen that everybody around me was grabbing every bit of plastic they could scrounge up as I sat smug thinking I was brilliant for bringing an overpriced raincoat and my Dubarrys. HA! I’ll show these folks how prepared I am! Rain? Schmain! Bring it on!!

 Oh. Oh wait, you want me to sit? On my on rear end? Here in the rain? Potential moment of brilliance averted. Thankfully a fellow COTH’er and photographer took pity on me and lent me a camera bag.

Happily and nerdily, I was able to go on a very small group for a course walk prior to show jumping with the designer, Richard Jeffries. Richard is the show jumping course designer for Rolex Kentucky and did the courses for WEG. He escorted a few of us around fence by fence explaining each element and why he placed jumps the way he did. It was SUPER interesting, and I jammed the poor man up with my super lame questions the entire time: “WHAT’S THAT!? THIS IS BIG, HOW BIG IS THIS? WHO DESIGNED THAT!?? WHAT ABOUT MUD?? ARE YOU SKEERT!?”

He was very tolerant of my baby-bird style of yapping at him for information, and I learned a whole lot. He mentioned the camber of the ground was far different here compared to Rolex, and there is a visible rise in the arena to the flattened area of the dressage ring. The combinations were placed 1’ shorter in distance to account for the rise. The triple also only contained one oxer (middle element) with mind to the fact that the horses had galloped around cross-country the day before.

He made many comparisons to how he sets up a grand prix (show jumping) course versus a three-day course, stating that oftentimes he knows the horses and riders who have been jumping all week and who will now jump the grand prix course, versus the one-time group of riders over the third day of a four-star. He’ll soften the combinations just a tad for the eventers (only because of cross-country the day prior) by dropping the front rail of the in-oxer, and square it on the out.

Cool, interesting stuff, and I’m a sponge for it. Upon asking about the distance from the triple to the next jump, he said he made it easy, but very hard to ride well. It was straight-forward—not holding and not going. Because, as any of us who have ever had a jump lesson where the distance is right there know, the hardest thing to do is NOTHING AT ALL. Turns out we mortals aren’t the only ones affected by gottadosomethingitis.

As for the questions I asked: The single was big, 5 cm bigger than it was technically allowed to be—a bend of rules thanks to the undulating round.

Richard selected all of the jumps he wanted to use and designed the Rolex and Land Rover jumps as new editions this year.

There would be no mud. Richard stated that the turf was “as old as that house over there” (pointing toward Burghley “house”), and that the root system was so impressive that you could fully remove the grass and still have perfect footing. He was right, by and by—the course had barely a mark on it after 50+ horses.

And as for whether he was scared, he looked right at me while visibly trembling and said, “What, do I look scared??”

Stalls are calling my name, more soon!

P.S. An ex racehorse totally won Burghley!"