2 September 2007

AT 7.05 yesterday morning a very tall man and two very fit greyhound-mix dogs strode off towards a blue plank fence incorporating the hurdling figure of the Marquis of Exeter immortalised by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire. At 11.58 the same man cantered into the fence on a large brown horse and jumped it with insouciant ease. William Fox-Pitt is a centaur linking the old world to the new.

To walk a major cross-country track like Burghley on the Saturday morning is akin to going round the Open course with a top golfer on the Wednesday. The stride is brisk, the chat varies between the breezy and the brusque, the concentration ticks beneath the smiling surface while the castellated pomp of Burghley House gleams in the distance.

Over the first three fences the smiles are easy, but at the fourth, the vertiginous drop of the Leaf Pit, the brow furrows. To the outsider the prospect had gone from the daunting to downright impossible. At 11.59 the horse, Parkmore Ed, reached the brink and shivered his heavily greased legs in wonder.

The demand had been to jump what amounted to a solid wooden model house, four foot high with a red brimmed roof so wide that the unthinking horse might want to land on top of it. But this is no place for an unthinking horse or rider because only four strides later they have to be ready to confront a sheer drop which is six feet at minimum, about 20 if you launch out too far. Parkmore Ed is 14 years old but this was his first four-star event. It was his rider’s 24th and it showed.

Wrapping those impossibly long legs round his partner, 38-year-old Fox-Pitt launched him out into the drop, gathered him as they crashed down the slope into the bottom of the pit, and then aimed him out and over between the high white poles flanking another pencil-slim version of the red-roofed model house.

It was the equine equivalent of threading a needle but that’s what top horses and riders have to do, and this was the 11th time Britain’s No 1 eventer had tackled Burghley since winning at the first time of asking back in 1989.

Parkmore Ed’s inexperience is because for most of his life he has been carrying his owner in lower divisions. He has been back with Fox-Pitt only since June and this was his chance to show that he could be an Olympic conveyance next summer.

Over the next five obstacles he was a spring-heeled symbol of balance and power and supple obedience, then, at the massive, five-foot-high double hedge, he put his hind legs down on the ledge in the middle of it. Watchers gasped. The rider just tightened the reins in encouragement.

If you are walking with a golfer he can play his shots as practice. With a rider the jumps have to be in the mind, but the striding between one fence and another is very similar to those stalking steps around the putting green. So too is the “make a mistake here and you could really suffer” phraseology. Only in this game the words mean what they say. This year alone no fewer than nine riders have died of cross-country injuries worldwide.

No wonder Fox-Pitt walked to and fro and splashed in and out as he surveyed the Trout Hatchery water jump.

The issues as ever, were how to approach it and how many strides the horse should take between leaping out of the water and over the adjoining obstacle. By this stage Fox-Pitt had been joined by three other competitors and as many dogs – this is surely the most canine-attended event of the whole year.

What to the wider world can seem a simple, rollicking gallop is as deeply plotted as any golf round, and the cross-country adds a serious examination of physical fitness. The four-mile course has to be completed in 11½ minutes, that is within 70 per cent of thoroughbred racing pace. Men and horses get tired. When the action began, Nick Turner, starting third, took a heavy fall over the parked Land Rover jump at the end of the round. It might not suit Colin Montgomerie.

But it suited Parkmore Ed. Straight and true he galloped. Straighter and truer than his rider had hoped. If Fox-Pitt were a golfer he had the benefit of a ball which had a skill and courage and pricked-eared intelligence of its own. The crowds had come out, more than 80,000 of them thronging this ancient parkland to make it Britain’s largest sporting event of the day, football not excepted. They had not been disappointed

At the finish Fox-Pitt and Parkmore Ed were just 1 sec over the limit. It put him into the lead. Five riders later, arch rival Andrew Nicholson edged him out on the canny old campaigner, Lord Killinghurst. Going into the show jumping the two aces are separated by just three penalty points meaning that any fault by the New Zealander could hand Fox-Pitt his fourth Burghley title. It could be down to the very last jump.

Polly Stockton, meanwhile, enjoyed a great ride on Tom Quigley to finish the day in third ahead of Australian Andrew Hoy with Master Monarch.

In 2007, long after the age of the horse, you could be surprised at the attraction of a very smart, very horsey person pitching for a title in the historic grounds of the First Minister to Elizabeth I. But William Cecil was a grafter, no matter his pedigree. William Fox-Pitt has not got there because of his hyphens. To be the best, to take Parkmore Ed onward to next year’s Olympics, only the best will do.

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