Burghley 2014 will long be remembered as an “I was there” tick-box. Even before Andrew Nicholson and Avebury had sealed their historic third consecutive win, spectators were revelling in a collective adrenalin rush. Avebury raced to the top of the leaderboard with one of the most dazzling cross-country rounds Nicholson has produced, even by his own exceptional standards.
The buzz was heightened, of course, by the added significance of this effort and the fact they were last to go on Saturday afternoon, when no one had got remotely near the time. Nicholson admits putting himself under extra pressure because he’d been disappointed not to win a medal at WEG, and was still mad with himself for falling off at Badminton.
I’ve made a note to use the word “audacious” more sparingly in future competition reports, because we will otherwise run out of relevant adjectives for Andrew.
He says Avebury “likes it best when I ride him as if I’ve just stolen him.” Their scamper through the Trout Hatchery is etched on my memory. The line through that notorious water complex was awkward enough, before horses then hopped out and endeavoured to set up immediately for a “skinny” off a left-handed turn, squashed against a tree. For even the “good” people, this meant emerging from the water facing the wrong direction, then re-grouping so as to face right way – even grinding to a total standstill. Not Nicholson. Avebury just kept coming, as if plucked straight to the skinny by an invisible rubber band.
Show jumping day at Burghley was especially gripping, as the show jumping final four was also underway at WEG.I truly wished I was in Caen, too. Had the first week Normandy experience not been so draining, I could well have stayed on for it, forsaking even Burghley.
Colleagues commandeered two TV sets, one showing Caen on FEI TV, the other tuned to Burghley. Believe it or not, Nicholson and Dubbeldam – on his fourth horse – were in their respective rings at exactly the same time. Our necks became swivels.
The WEG horse-swapping finale is something you either love or hate. I certainly love it when you have four finalists as skilled and evenly-matched as Dubbeldam, Madden, Delaveau and Bengtsson, plus a format that enables a truly great horseman to excel, irrespective of his world ranking and the amount of time he spends flogging round the global circuit.
At Burghley, by chance I shared a lunch table on Sunday with one of our British show jumping greats, Malcolm Pyrah. It was fascinating to hear his memories of the 1982 worlds at Dublin, where he won individual silver with Anglezarke.
Malcolm says Scott Brash is the most gifted rider Britain has produced in 50 years. What a disappointment not to see how sweetly other peoples’ horses might have gone for the world number one, had he made the final four.
What on earth happened to the British jumpers at WEG? Indeed, fans over the pond might be entitled to ask who were the Brits at WEG? Our team had two first-timers, both unknown outside Europe. Joe Clee – scarcely known in the UK either, as he lives in Belgium – and Spencer Roe, who is only 21, landed their berths off the back of Nations Cup consistency, not least their roles in saving Britain from premier league relegation with strong performances at Dublin.
But it was big ask to then burden them, just three weeks later, with 50 per cent responsibility for qualifying GB for Rio. They did their best, but it wasn’t good enough, with both Whitaker M (who at one stage withdrew himself from selection in protest about not being allowed to go to Aachen) and Brash also performing under par.
The feeling in Britain (naturally) is that the quota for Rio is skewed against Europe. Four countries normally considered “strong” – GB as Olympic champions, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland – will now be chasing just three remaining Rio places at the European championships in Aachen, alongside several more than capable of pulling off a podium place on their day – Italy, Ukraine, Spain. And that’s even without contemplating a “yes” vote for Scottish independence next week and possibility a new-look Scotland will annexe Brash for its national team!
It’s a potentially gloomy scenario. UK Sport, who are bankrolling our equestrian teams to the tune of £17m through to 2018, has “form” for axing funding when specific teams don’t not deliver – as with our jumpers in the run up to Athens 2004.
British jumping team manager Rob Hoekstra has taken some “stick” for his WEG selections, and for his strategy in the opening speed leg, after which Britain was fighting a rear-guard action. But Hoekstra says no one who could a) have done better and b) was still sound was left at home. Big Star (Skelton), Billy Congo (Will Funnell) and Amai (Michael Whitaker) were already middle to long-term grounded through injury, and we lost Cella (Ben Maher) at the last-minute with an over-reach. Skelton himself has branded our 18th place the “pathetic” in this week’s Horse & Hound.
During the Nations Cup at Hickstead, Hoekstra was openly warning of our horsepower shortage and said 11 horses on his wish-list were injured. He blamed the demands of the international calendar and the relentless march of Jan Tops’ Global Champions Tour.
The other factor behind our limited horsepower, in my opinion, is that the hoped-for wave of new owners inspired by Britain’s 2012 successes did not happen. It was taken as a given, with ondon-fever promotions directed to the grass roots and encouragement for people to take up riding in the first place.
The only show jumper to find a significant new backer, post-London, was Ben Maher, but that was no net gain either; soon after joining forces with Jane Clark, Maher fell out with his long-time owners, Mike and Emma Phillips.
I was one of the Greenwich skeptics who felt the tens of millions thrown at the pop-up venue for London 2012 could have been directed to a more permanent legacy. That park, gorgeous and atmospheric as it was, went 15 to 20 times over the original £6.7m budget, depending whose version you believe, because the organizers always declined to reveal what it cost. The justification was that the spotlight on equestrianism, for once at the centre of the host city, would create a rush of inward investment and new TV exposure.
In hindsight, this “soft” legacy was taken for granted. One senior team official lamented to me in the Fall of 2012 that this kind of window was only ever two months long and had already been missed. And the only new equestrian event embraced by terrestrial BBC TV since Greenwich is the new London leg of, you guessed it, Global Champions Tour, which was always going to come to the UK anyway.
Legacy, and how you make it happen, is another topic for the Bromont 2018 organizational team to add to its growing list…