It can’t be a total coincidence. Chris Bartle starts training the Brits and at Strzegom in Poland they win their first European eventing team gold in eight years. Chris Bartle stops training the Germans, and they don’t wholly dominate the Europeans for the first time since goodness knows when.
Well, it is not quite as simple as that, of course. Without the aid of Chris Bartle, Ingrid Klimke and Horseware’s Hale Bob were able to put their Badminton gremlins behind them to jump a superb clear in the stadium today (Sunday) to secure a long overdue individual title, and Michael Jung was his usual genius to add a couple of silvers to his jangling collection with FischerRocana FST, even if that colour is not quite what he is used to!
Still, it can’t be denied that under the new dream duo of Chris Bartle (head coach) and Dickie Waygood (manager) a new kind of focus, camaraderie and finesse was layered on top of the thrusting cross-country style associated with the British tradition this weekend.
Nicola Wilson (Bulana), Tina Cook (Billy the Red), Oliver Townend (Cooley SRS) and senior team newcomer Ros Canter (Allstar B) scored personal bests in the dressage, while fast cross-country clears from Wilson, Cook and Canter ended the long era of German dominance.
Britain could have afforded two fences down in Sunday’s stadium round, but the three girls all jumped clean (Townend had had to withdraw by then). A clean sheet, too, was a final day achievement that has not been taken for granted by the Brits in recent years.
It is not fair, of course, to demean the latter stages of British team management under Yogi Breisner, who retired after Rio having been in post since the world class performance scheme was introduced in 1997. Britain won eight consecutive European team golds up to 2009, six of them under his direction, plus a world team gold in 2010 and Olympic team silver in 2012. But we should have done a lot, lot better at the Europeans on home ground in 2015 at Blair Castle, and we returned home embarrassingly empty-handed from Rio for the first time at an Olympics since 1996.
You need a fresh pair of eyes in any walk of life when the regime has been in place for a decade or so. At more recent championships there have been a few curious selection decisions that seemed to favour riders with dressage superiority and CIC form over four-star cross-country achievement, or which gave a second chance to riders who’d had a glitch on other significant occasions. As it turned out, in Poland Britain did field some proven dressage top scorers – but the subtle difference is that this was not their main raison d’etre.
A brilliant dressage mark is a funny thing. It enables many people to win major three-day events from the top, but it is also a fickle gauge of the rider’s level of control and communication with their horse.
Look at poor Bettina Hoy: headlines on Thursday for her world record score at a championship of 24.6; out of the competition by fence 10 on Saturday, after a fall, which apparently resulted from a confidence jolt a few fences earlier, at an accuracy question where she and Siegneur Medicott were certainly not on the same page.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Bartle several times about what makes the Germans so good. When he first took them on after Sydney 2000, his aim was not to interfere with the discipline and skills drilled into all German riders at the basic training stage, but to introduce some flair and dash. I don’t think Chris was joking when he told me that German riders wanted to know exactly what stride they were on 30 strides out! He said that nowadays they do still prefer to know this, but that he has shown them it need not govern their every move.
Whatever Bartle’s style of non-interference with the Brits, I am looking forward to seeing the results of even more of it at WEG 2018. No one is giving too much away, though Waygood was happy to elaborate a little about team spirit. “We had a fantastic culture and team environment from beginning to end. Sometimes it’s not the winning, it’s the way that you win, and we won with precision and style,” he said.
“Everybody rode with great belief and Oliver took the ultimate sacrifice of going first and his feedback was invaluable; he set the tone by having two blips but never giving up to the finish line and amazingly only incurred two time penalties. This was then replicated with the same fighting spirit through the rest of team and our two individual riders’ performances in both the cross-country and jumping. We are delighted, but this is the first stepping stone towards our ultimate dream.”
“Luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” added Bartle – the first horse trainer I can ever recall quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca!
It is also thrilling for Wilson, 40, in securing her first ever individual medal, the bronze behind Klimke and Jung.
Wilson succeeded Jeanette Brakewell and Over to You as Britain’s regular trailblazer, representing Britain on four senior championships teams with Opposition Buzz. He was some machine across the country though as first to go she would never, ever take any kind of risk to enhance her personal chances of glory over that of the team.
After Opposition Buzz retired in 2014 it took a while for Wilson to find another that the selectors seemed enthusiastic about. Her string is now so strong Wilson is ranked world number 4. Bulana is a feisty 11-year-old mare of warmblood extraction whom she took on at two-star level at the end of 2014 and who delivers in every single phase. They have yet to tackle Badminton and Burghley, securing their team place after finishing second in the Luhmuhlen four-star in June.
People who have been to Strzegom before told me they did not expect this championship to be up to snuff. How misleading was that! The venue looked a picture, there was an enthusiastic audience, and Rudiger Schwarz’s course certainly sorted the wheat from the chaff. It was by no means the flat sort of slalom that cynics says normally favours the French at this three-star European level. Only two of the French team completed on this occasion.
It is nearly 30 years since the break-up of the old Soviet bloc but, despite huge economic growth in many of the former communist states, it is still unusual for one of them to successfully bid to host a FEI championship in the Olympic disciplines. The 2022 WEG in Samorin, Slovakia, will be historic in that regard.
Sadly, the Poles lost one of their horses, Bob the Builder, on cross-country at an arena fence. It appears he sustained a fracture of the pastern bone at take-off. Bob got up unaided. The decision to euthanise him was taken in the clinic, after it was determined the injury was irreparable.
Both Poland and its neighbouring countries should be really proud of what it put on this weekend. At the start of 2016, for instance, Aleksander Markov was ranked world number 9 off the back of numerous two and three star successes in his native Russia where the number of starters rarely goes into double figures. He had a rude awakening at Rio, not surprisingly.
One year on, Markov has finished 20th (from 77 starters) as Russia’s sole contender, jumping clean in both cross-country and stadium and looking much more the finished article. The loss of Bob aside, the whole Strzegom experience will surely give real shot in the arm to the development of eventing in eastern Europe.