Racehorses at Burghley House – Turf Talk: 4 September 2017
THE primary reason for racehorse ownership in the UK may be “to go racing with my horse”, but your racehorse can take you to other beautiful places as well.
On an idyllic summer afternoon quite a few years ago, we went with friends, carting a cobbled-together hamper of food and wine, to occupy a spot in the rolling countryside of Gloucestershire. Not just any old Gloucestershire beauty spot of which there are plenty, but a few square yards of Gatcombe Park, the spectacular home of HRH Anne, The Princess Royal and of The Festival of British Eventing.
It is all natural enough. Princess Anne was individual European Eventing Champion in 1971 and her daughter, Zara Tindall née Phillips, was World Champion in 2006 and won Olympic Silver in 2012, receiving her medal in the unlikely but stunning surroundings of Greenwich Park, round the corner from the Cutty Sark and the Meridian.
To compete at Gatcombe was a thrill. I had bred a colt by Night Shift out of a Shirley Heights mare named Bestow. Her son became Tonight’s Prize who was routinely concerned that the sky might fall on his head. A backward sort, he was nicknamed “Plank” in his Newmarket yard as in “As thick as two short planks”. Rude lot.
But he grew well and in confidence, so much so that he got his own back for the nickname by depositing the Head Lass on terra firma one morning on the Heath. We think he laughed.
Later on they were all cheerfully eating their words as he developed into a bit of a lion on the track, winning four and placing umpteen times until bleeding very badly at the age of seven when favourite for a decent handicap.
His rider, the excellent one time champion Seb Sanders, stopped and nursed him home. I stayed with the horse until about 2am when he stopped shaking.
After nearly a year off, “TP” learned about eventing and showed real aptitude. He was an OK showjumper, giving us a huge thrill in one challenging class in Devon, but his forte was cross-country. It took years, as it does, for him to cope with the whole set of disciplines but at Gatcombe that day, he ran in a very serious class and came 5th. In a world where “Top 20” makes people celebrate, this was something. He was twice a One Day Event winner, but this was something else.
Now at 20-something, he competes gently in veteran classes in Berkshire ridden by someone plenty of years younger than him but might still drop you if a bird flies up near him.
Fast forward to this weekend just gone. If enjoying a day eventing at lovely Gatcombe amongst a few thousand casual spectators in the sunshine is fun enough, how about joining the many thousands of knowledgeable people at the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the six top Three Day Events in the world.
Burghley House is a massive 16th century pile – a stately home, open to the public – near Stamford in Lincolnshire, conveniently close to the A1. I say that because I was lucky enough to stay there a few times, usually driving south from racing at Doncaster or York or Pontefract or anywhere else on the A1. The custodians, descendants of the original owner Sir William Cecil, High Treasurer to Elizabeth I, were my business associates in another life.
Saturday’s Cross Country in the Park saw, in warm late summer sunshine, most of the best event riders in the world on a course built by Zara Tindall’s Dad Mark Phillips. Those attending know the course, or learn it beforehand, and know what to do on the whistle. They pick their favourite spot near water or a tricky set of weird jumps on a hill and they lap up the relationships between rider and horse.
It may sound sloppy, but when one of the top riders in the world gets a bit teary about the effort put in by her “little mare”, recovering from leaning too far left approaching a fast, nar-row jump after water, correcting herself and being quoted by the lady rider as saying “Don’t worry Mum I’ve got this”, it sums up how all these passionate, slightly bonkers people tick.
That was Georgina “Piggy” French, World Silver and the rest, about Vamir Kamira, a combination that finished a brilliant 2nd overall. More tears.
The legendary Kiwi Sir Mark Todd having taken a tumble and made a not very elegant double forward roll on the ground while his mount watched apologetically, would not hear of it being the horse’s fault. Zara Tindall went head first into her father’s water. Having initially thrown her whip across the landscape in bedraggled fury, she laughed and said something probably very Anglo-Saxon, having the sympathetic crowd in fits.
Meanwhile, an ex-racehorse was excelling him-self. He certainly hadn’t done that on the track. Now 14, Arctic Soul had run as a 5 year old in two bumpers and twice over hurdles. Stone usess.
Over the weekend, 9 years later, he did well in all three disciplines including – under the brilliant Gemma Tattersall – an utterly breathtaking, fearless and flawless flash around the difficult cross-country course ending up 3rd overall at Burghley. Four months ago, they competed at Badminton – another of the top six in amongst the Rolex Kentucky, Australian International, Luhmüle Trials and Etoiles de Pau – and finished 7th, earning an extra cash bonus from the Retraining of Racehorses organisation, as did the few other thoroughbreds competing.
This year’s Burghley winner was Britain’s Oliver Townend (in an unusual British 1-2-3-4 as it happens with the top Kiwis, Americans and Germans there or thereabouts) on a young grey called Ballaghmor Class. Describing the grey as “Naive – gawky – easily distracted – would jump off a cliff for you”, proven champion Townend presented the eventing world and its followers with a new champion horse for the Ages. – tt.