Four Star CCI is of course the absolute pinnacle of our sport. Yes, the dressage is a bit more difficult and the SJ bigger than 3*, but really, who are we kidding, it is all about the cross-country.
Those fences are huge, daunting, and for the most part very unforgiving, but over the years plenty of horses and riders have managed to make 4* look, if it isn’t total heresy to say it, pretty easy. For instance there have been those who, extremely confident, well-trained and athletic, and supremely well-ridden, went out and breezed around inside the time (or with just a couple of time penalties) on their 4* debuts – Supreme Rock and Cool Mountain spring instantly to mind.
Then there are those have done multiple 4*s without a jumping fault, who cruised round again and again as if it was just another day at the office. Lenamore, just retired, is the supreme modern example of this (I’m forgiving him his last minute “You what?!?!” stop at the half-coffin at Burghley some years ago, when he just didn’t understand the question, marring the customary copybook round.) Or there’s Ginny Elliott’s legendary Priceless (one of the very select band of event horses – maybe the only one?! – never to get a xc jumping penalty) and also her Night Cap, Karen Dixon’s Get Smart, and a host of others who have showed repeatedly that 4* was their métier.
Of them all I think Caroline Ryan-Bell’s great campaigner Hooray Henry II is/was possibly the most awesome, and in 1991 at Burghley when course-builder Captain Mark Phillips rather ‘overcooked’ a direct route, building the mega-skinny point of a pallisade coming towards you, on the other side of a yawning chasm of a ditch, this combination was one of only 2 or 3 to attempt it, and the only ones to make it to the other side clear. I walked the course that year and that fence looked truly unjumpable, so I’ll never forget the sight of them sailing blithely over it!
There’s another group of 4* heroes: the ones who are utterly genuine, can ‘take a joke’ if necessary if the rider isn’t 100% accurate, and still keep going with confidence. Tony Warr’s awesome Coolgrange Merger springs to mind – I hope we get to see him doing big stuff in this country again, and not being thwarted by the FEI points system. And anyone who saw Marius Voigt-Logistic and Heinrich Romeike (later to win the Olympic Individual Gold in Beijing so decisively) go round Badminton will never forget it. They exited the Colt Pond water, clear so far, in a very disorganised fashion and were pretty much sideways-on beside the next element. One desperate tug of the reins from Heinrich and the horse gave it his all to get over the fence somehow from a seemingly-impossible spot… he KNEW his job and was desperate to do it!
I have two final categories of 4* horse, both of whom, in my opinion, looked as if they would cope with bigger and more technical fences than 4* (gulp!), although I don’t think the sport will ever go that way, and nor should it.
Firstly, there are those who seem to find it incredibly easy and retain a definite sense of humour, which sometimes works against their riders. These are the ones who are so quick-thinking that if there is the slightest error or too much trust from on top, they might take advantage. For example Tamarillo, so talented but an utter monkey with it. I’m not sure I can ever quite forgive him those cheeky run-outs here and there which cost both William Fox-Pitt and at times the British Team so dear!
Andrew Hoy’s awesome grey Darien Powers was the same, sailing round in impeccable fashion so many times – and with a win looking ‘in the bag’, if one may ever dare say such a thing, having nailed his best ever dressage and made it all look like a schooling exercise till that point, he just veered slightly over a ditch at Badminton and somehow avoided the last element. When interviewed afterwards Andrew remarked ruefully, if I recall correctly, that he had “sat like a prat”, but it is very easy to get trusting on a horse who is going so brilliantly… and the horse could easily have jumped the fence!
Sir Percival III is another – perfectly capable of cruising around foot-perfect under Francis Whittington, the two of them making it look ridiculously easy, or he can have a sudden, spectacularly ill-timed ‘moment’ and be the one horse every few years who suddenly boggles like a total greenie at the Burghley waterfall fence, dropping totally behind the leg in a nanosecond, utterly ruining their chances of a very high finish.
My final category consists of the ones who somehow managed to make 4* resemble an Intro. Murphy Himself was definitely the first proponent I ever saw of this very rare art, with his breathtaking bravery and contemptuous leaving-out-of-strides. If you’ve never seen him go, have a look at this, particularly at 2.50mins. (By the way, anyone who thinks that xc in the old days was ‘easy’ because there weren’t any skinnies, just look at the feats of athleticism those fences required. That drop to bounce was HUGE, for example. Different questions to nowadays, but no easier!) I remember the pre-xc buzz about the Stockholm WEG course, and in particular that road crossing.
Pics are stills from the video, sorry for dubious quality!
It had a downhill approach, was parts b and c of a combination, and was big. Most horses took a perfectly comfortable stride, I think some took two. When asked beforehand, Ian was quoted as saying that he thought even Murphy wouldn’t try to bounce it… I was watching it on TV and gasped out loud and then cheered manically, as Murphy bounced through with utter contempt as if it were a small grid in the arena, and charged on down the hillside, with Ian hauling desperately on the reins to turn him, fighting to have any input at all!
This horse had awesome scope. Bigger-than-4* xc fences would have made his day, I suspect. He took 2 strides in the Centre Walk fences at Badminton in 1991, where most horses took a comfortable four strides, and Griffin (who Ginny Leng had swapped for Murphy) took five! He was, frankly, a freak. He was breathtaking to watch, I dread to think what he felt like to ride… terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure?!
Legend has it that Ian Stark was the only rider willing to take the horse on after Ginny Leng, of course a supremely brilliant and experienced rider in her own right, faced the fact, after being ejected at the Ski Jump at Badminton and watching Murphy charge off heedlessly across the park (having won Burghley on the horse’s 4* debut the year before) that Murphy was just too much horse for her to hold xc. Of course Ian’s other ‘flying grey’ Glenburnie was out of a very similar mould: hard-pulling and ridiculously brave. Whether the rumours were true that Ian required a nip of, shall we say, “Scottish Courage” before setting off on Murphy in particular, we may never know…
In a similar mould to Murphy, I’d put William Fox-Pitt’s breathtakingly athletic Idalgo, sadly now retired. I suspect he would have liked to have had a lot of similar “I can flyyyyyy” moments. To me, he always looked the supreme athlete in the field at a 4*. At the IEF Eventing Forum at Hartpury in 2011, WFP said that he did gradually get to grips with him, “but Idalgo would disagree with me, very much feel that he is still in charge. But he has learnt to do it, I have trained him to a point. If he has a fault it’s that he is too brave, will take a stride out, it scares me to death… As a result, I take the odd check in front of a fence which I don’t like to do, because you interfere and waste time. But you have to present him at the fence, you can’t just let him go at it. He gets so overexcited he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Murphy, in contrast, knew exactly what he was doing and enormously resented the slightest bit of interference from on top!
In 1950 the reigning Badminton champion Golden Willow famously jumped the Irish Bank in one go with John Shedden, disdaining to touch down on top in the more time-honoured way. These crazy-brave horses have cropped up here and there, usually anchored (most of the time) by brave and determined riders!
The great Armada is a similar would-be lunatic xc, I suspect. I’ve heard from a few sources that he hooked off down the hill last year at Burghley during his great round with Oliver Townend, and took a full stride out at the maximum-size white Burghley Station rails at the bottom of the hill, clearing them by miles. I haven’t been able to get hold of a photo of this yet but surely there must be one out there, so if anyone has one, I would love to see it!
Finally we get to Nicola Wilson’s awesome Opposition Buzz. With his freakishly amazing jump but also his extreme handiness, he never looks a runaway, he accepts Nicola’s input, but when she asks for it, he switches on the power in a way that very few horses can. This photo shows exactly what I mean. Riding him must be the most incredible feeling.
I don’t think 5* will happen. I don’t think it should ever happen – the margin for error, already very small at 4* for most horses and riders, would make it far too dangerous to have even bigger fixed fences. But just sometimes I see a horse and rider combination out there making it look so easy over 4* fences, and I just wonder a little…