I have a hunter (that is, a horse who was originally bred to go hunting), who I think dreams of being an eventer. A six-year-old who came over from Ireland a few years ago, he couldn’t be better out hunting, leaving hedges, tiger traps and ditches in his wake – all of them undemolished. But when it comes to showjumping, he finds nothing more enjoyable than kicking down poles – and I dread to think what he’d make of dressage, the first stage of a three-day event.
Not to worry – accuracy and manners might not be our forte, but on the hunting field he’s a star, and that’s what matters most, isn’t it? And anyway, there are plenty of others who are able to fly the flag for eventing as a sport – a sport which I’ve long argued is far better at promoting proper equality in sport than ladies’ football.
But anyway, enough of that. Many of the world’s top eventers will be competing at Badminton this week – including my friend, and senior master of the Surrey Union Hunt, Alice Dunsdon. Needless to say, we will all be busy cheering her on from the sidelines. After all, although every competitor wants to do well, she has more reason to do so than most. Her aim is to be the first person ever to complete all of the world’s four-star three day events (four-star being the highest level of eventing) on one horse, the unflappable Hilly (aka Fernhill Present). In the past five years they have been all around the world from Kentucky to Adelaide and everywhere in between. They were waved off on their way yesterday morning, and as Alice has thousands of fans who’ve been following her every step of the way, I can’t imagine what the pressure must be like for her.
What made things even worse is that she was initially put in 22nd position on the wait list for the event – meaning that 22 horses had to pull out of competing for her to be ‘in’. Almost worse than knowing that you’re going to compete at Badminton (which is famous, or perhaps infamous, for its solid cross country course), is not knowing whether or not you’re going to compete! She’s not the only one who made it off the wait list – Ben Hobday is another rider with a huge amount of support behind him. He was diagnosed with cancer last June, but has fought it off and has come back on fighting form. Alice and Ben are both first-timers, but there are plenty of old-hands who’ll be there too, including Olympians Tina Cook, Mark Todd and Zara Tindall (née Phillips) and world champion Michael Jung (who almost didn’t make a connecting flight out of the US yesterday). Oh, the drama!! What is it they say about never working with children or animals?
The competitors have arrived in Gloucestershire, advance booking of tickets is closed (though you can still buy them on the gate), and the weather looks set, as they keep telling us, to be ‘hotter than Istanbul’. I have my shopping list at the ready, too. If only I could take my pony with me – after all, he might learn something from watching these top-class athletes (both equine and human). Maybe I’ll have to show him the BBC highlights programme after it’s all over.