18 July 2004

Brough Scott finds the tension mounting as the heat of battle looms in Athens for Britain’s leading eventer

When it comes to pre-Olympic worry the centaur carries a double burden. An ordinary athlete has two legs to worry about, an eventer like Pippa Funnell counting down the days before she rides Primmore’s Pride in Athens next month, has six. “It’s a nightmare,” she says, “every time I walk past his box I go in and run my hand down his legs, just praying nothing has gone wrong.”

Primmore’s Pride is a magnificent beast. He is 17.1 hands (5ft 9ins) at the shoulder, a good 550kg on the weighbridge. He is big, bold, beautifully balanced and, at 11-years old, approaching his prime. He is subtle enough to handle the equine ballet of the dressage, tough enough to endure the daunting jumps and 10 unforgiving minutes of the cross-country. But he depends on Pippa – and she on him.

All his life, and all of hers has led to this. At 36, she may already have won almost everything that eventing has to offer; two Badminton, three European gold medals, and last year’s unprecedented Burghley, Lexington, Badminton `Rolex Grand Slam’, but Olympic gold remains the ultimate ideal. “The experience at Sydney (where she earned a team silver medal) was quite wonderful,” she said last week, “and it would cap everything if we could go one better, but it’s so easy for something silly to happen. That’s why I get so wound up at this stage.”

The relationship between an event rider and their horse is developed not over weeks, but years. Frankie Dettori and the other jockeys in next Saturday’s King George at Ascot are amazingly skilled at their own equine discipline, but before they set off on their mile-and-a-half journey they may have ridden their mounts only a handful of times previously, if indeed at all. Pippa and Primmy’s go back to his very beginning.

Bought by owners Roger and Denise Lincoln as a foal, Primmore’s Pride was first schooled by Pippa as a two-year-old. “From a youngster,” she says looking admiringly at her massive partner, “he had more ability and potential than I have ever had. He was bred for it, his dam went twice round Badminton and his sire, Mayhill, was ridden by Mark Todd, and he has always had this amazing, scopey jump.”

Proof that potential had finally become prowess came in last year’s victories at Lexington and Burghley and renewed success in this season’s sole outing at Chatsworth. The closeness of the understanding between the big horse and the trim, young woman has to be in direct contrast to their 500kg weight difference. She has to put more than a hand on the reins, she has to find a place in his head.

The physical and mental pressure is the greatest that riding can impose and, with the sweltering August heat, the ordeal in Athens will be unique. To combat temperatures that can rise into the 40s, the roads and tracks and steeplechase disciplines have been eliminated and the distance of the cross-country course reduced from 13 minutes of galloping to 10. Yet with the same 45 individual jumping efforts to cross, the strain on Pippa and Primmy’s will be extra intense. “He is very, very good,” she says, “but because he is so big, he needs setting up some time before his jumps. You can’t spin him around like you can a smaller horse. But he’s very fit – and I am getting there.”

On her wrist Pippa now wears a wide-faced heart monitor and has become fascinated how her own recovery rate has improved since she has taken up a running routine in the last month. “We’ve used it on the horses for some time but I have always kept fit just by riding,” she said, “yet with the heat in Athens I think I have to go to extra trouble. We have done everything we can, we have one last outing next Friday and Saturday at Aston-Le-Walls and then it’s just waiting. That’s why we are so nervous. Forgive me if I have a cigarette.”

While Pippa and her fellow team members, Leslie Law, Jeanette Brakewell, Sarah Cutteridge and this year’s Badminton winner William Fox-Pitt, prepare their horses individually, the overall planning and detailed Athens build-up is in the hands of Lars Goran `Yogi’ Breisner. Appointed on the same day as his fellow Swede, Sven Goran Eriksson, his tenure as team manager has seen more success (Olympic silver at Sydney, European team gold at Pau and Punchestown), but rather less controversy, not to mention remuneration, than his bespectacled compatriot. His upbeat assessments also hold rather more conviction.

“Next week’s outing should add the final touches,” he says. “We need to take the horses out there completely fit and then just allow 10 days for them to acclimatise. With the temperatures, we will have to keep an eye on their weight, and check on how much they drink. We have learnt a lot about the problems and have been working some of the horses in special rugs to get them used to sweating heavily.”

`Yogi’ has a guru status throughout the equestrian world; he oversees jumping instruction at the British Racing School and has long been used as a jumping `coach’ for top steeplechasers and their jockeys. But as a former Olympic rider he empathises most closely with the team he will take to Athens.

“This is a very nervous time for them,” he says, “not because of the dangers but because they are so determined to do well. They have various ways of coping with it. Pippa uses a psychologist [Nikki Heath] and she gets better as the big day comes. She knows she is putting herself on the line, she needs to get there.”

Gold awaits the centaur with a lady’s head.

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