Equestrianism: Funnell looking to make a late impact

Briton out to realise a dream at this week's European Three-Day Event Championships.
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WHEN PIPPA Funnell finished sixth at Badminton this year, few people doubted that the 30-year-old rider would be on the British squad for the European Three-Day Event Championships, which begin tomorrow at Luhmuhlen in Germany. One of the few doubters, however, was Funnell herself.

"It's been a long-time ambition and it's taken me longer than most to make it," Funnell said with relief, once the die had been cast in her favour.

Since winning a clutch of medals in Young Rider Championships (individual gold in 1987, team gold in 1988 and individual silver in 1989), Pippa Nolan, as she then was, had been eager to impress the senior selectors. But, though part of the "second six" allowed to the host country for the 1977 European Championships at Burghley, this is her first time on the senior squad.

Funnell's partner in this achievement is the 11-year-old Irish-bred Supreme Rock. The big bay gelding, who is nearly 17 hands, bears little resemblance to Sir Barnaby with whom she won her young rider medals and was fifth at Badminton in 1990. Barnaby is scarcely more than a pony and still, at the ripe old age of 22, "with a trick always up his sleeve."

Supreme Rock was bought out of the hunting field by Emma Pitt (nee Lewthwaite) six years ago. She planned to do some novice one-day eventing with him during her final year as a student and then sell him on.

"We were at an event that year when Mary King asked if she could buy Rocky," Pitt recalled. "I was so excited to think that such an important rider actually wanted my horse." There was also a polite enquiry from Captain Mark Phillips, which was made on behalf of the Americans.

"When I told my mother, she said that if people like that wanted to buy him he must be good - so why don't we keep him?" Pitt therefore carried on riding the coveted horse through the intermediate grade.

Pitt was already one of Funnell's pupils by the time of the fateful night when her lorry was stolen. There were fears that Supreme Rock, who had not been in the vehicle, might still be the thieves' target. Funnell therefore offered him a home in her Surrey yard.

It was a typical gesture of generosity which, had she but known it, was to pay rich dividends. Funnell was, however, too much involved with the horses she rode herself to take much notice of the newcomer - until her attention was galvanised by the sight of Supreme Rock trotting up to the huge paddock hedge and sailing over it.

By the time Funnell was asked to take the horse on at advanced level, she therefore knew he could jump. She was also aware that his lovely paces meant that he was capable of achieving excellent dressage marks, as he has since proved.

Nowadays you only have to mention the name of Funnell to anyone among the cognoscenti to be told how superbly she has been riding this year. Her Badminton round on Supreme Rock was enormously impressive, notwithstanding an unlucky refusal coming out of the lake. Funnell still finished sixth and second best of the British, behind the victorious Ian Stark.

On Sunday Funnell set out on her return journey to Luhmuhlen, where she was the victor of a three-day event with Sir Barnaby on her last visit in 1991. She has won seven more three-day events since then, giving her a record that most top riders would envy.

Whether she is one of the four in the team, which is chosen today, or is one of the two who will compete as individuals, Funnell - and Supreme Rock - at last have the chance to prove themselves at championship level.