“Go on” my friend said, “join The Club too”. “But I’ll feel like a middle-aged groupie” I said. “I’ll lose my street cred. I might as well queue up for my head scarf and shooting stick”. “But we’re going to Burghley on the Friday”, my groupie friend said, “we’re going to walk the XC, yes?”. “Yes”, I said, “definitely”. “OK then” she retorted, “why on earth would you want to walk it with just me when we could both walk it with William Fox-Pitt?”. Put like that I capitulated. Who better to give us the inside word on Captain Mark Phillips’ twists, turns and fiendish combinations than the man who has won there six times? So I bit the bullet, squeezed the £20 yearly subscription from my bank account and sat down at my laptop to reap the benefits of being a fully paid up Fox-Pitt Eventing groupie.
Part of the introductory offer included a free Burghley course-walk guided by William; which, of course, was why we joined in the first place. I had already been sucked in by the daily emailed updates from Malmo giving the inside word on Team GB’s fortunes so was really looking forward to the course-walk. My fears that it would be a 100-strong impersonal route-march to the top of the hill and back were completely unfounded. There were, at most, 30 of us, including William, his wife Alice, his children and PA. William and Alice were approachable and very keen to mingle and answer questions. For some people this would purely be a PR exercise and although it must have been an intrusion into William’s Burghley prep (it was only his second time walking the course he would ride the following day) it really felt as though were we welcome and even the most naive questions were dignified with a detailed answer. If this was a ‘duty’ for Team WFP it certainly never felt like one from our side of the equation. Several people were obviously long-standing regulars and were all greeted by name.
So, the course. We met at fence 2 (Lambert’s Sofa) and William explained that unlike some 4*s there were three fences in quick succession after the start to get you out and jumping and get a few confident leaps under your belt. The arena fences being near the start of the course this year would present a better picture than asking a technical question near the end (where they have been previously) when horses are less adjustable and probably down to only one gear. It also meant better viewing for the audience in the arena as they would get to see every competitor, rather than the depleted numbers who were likely to get to the end of the course.
Fence 5, the first trip through the Discovery Valley would be the first question on the track, but he really didn’t expect anyone to go for the alternative straight off. Four strides from the hedge to the planet. By the time you rode the return trip through at fence 8 you should know whether it was going to be your day or not. The Leaf Pit at 7 is every bit as steep as everyone says. We got to walk up to the edge and peer off (much to the chagrin of the group walking with Eric Smiley who were confined behind the ropes!). The drop isn’t huge, it’s the sheer slope on landing which puts the fear factor into the fence. William explained how to approach it – you must get the horse back to you so that it has time to see the question, but not at the expense of having it go forwards. It’s easy to put the handbrake on and actually end up stopping the horse yourself. The right approach is more of a ‘whoa – go – whoa – go’.
The walk up the hill saw the group naturally spread out a bit. Eventers, especially tall ones, walk fast! I’m 6ft, with long legs and my friend is used to walking courses at my speed so we strode up the hill in the vanguard, leaving the slightly less leggy in our wake. We walked the whole track and were allowed inside the ropes to look at angles and distances, though we tried to keep off the riders’ line to save the ground. The Dairy Mound prompted much discussion and William said that the riders weren’t all happy with the placing of the second skinny on the direct route – 3ft to the right and it would have been a totally different question. The camber of the ground had been used to site the fence in a particularly difficult position and fences here before have never jumped particularly well. The brush did get a haircut, but the fence stayed where the course-builder had put it. We discussed the possibilites of angling the skinny and jumping it as a corner to reduce the risk of a glance-off. I was interested to see William go on to take this route! I take full credit for mooting the possibility of course…
The Cottesmore Leap is just as imposing and chasm-like as on TV and we asked whether William ever panicked about seeing a stride to it. He replied that he came round the bend towards it but didn’t make the final turn to the fence until he’d seen his stride. I retorted that on that line of thinking I might still be cantering past it a week next Sunday!
The rest of the course was mulled over and discussed in the same fashion. We talked about the (controversial) future of Badminton XC course design and my friend and I had a chat about mental approaches and sports psychology with Alice. I asked, with the Burghley course design having been publicised and photographed/videoed so long before the event whether William had taken the opportunity to mock-up and of the questions at home in the school and he said he had built an exercise similar to the Discovery Valley question at fence 8 and had done some extra practice over fences similar to the very long-nosed skinnies used at the Dairy Mounds.
My friend and I had a fab time and didn’t feel like groupies at all. It really is a fantastic opportunity and gave us a lot of insight into the striding options, lines and alternatives at the various fences which in turn added a lot to our experience in watching the XC phase the following day.
The membership is for a year and we had daily email updates over the course of the competition (and from other big three-days) and a weekly round-up between times. All are well written with behind-the-scenes photos.
I appreciate that the Team WFP PR machine is a somewhat bigger operation than most riders could manage (or possibly require) but it would be a reasonably easy concept to set up and administrate. Perhaps some of the younger generation of media-savvy eventers should consider something similar. I bet it would be a good way of bringing sponsors and potential owners onboard, and it’s a cheap way of creating goodwill and bonding supporters and fans to you.
I really didn’t think this sort of club would be at all up my street – I’m usually far too hard-nosed and cynical – but as it turns out (and to my utter embarrassment) I have been charmed by the whole experience. My friend and I are already planning our trip to the yard open day!