Equestrianism: Interview Blyth Tait - `I'm not sure we can take much more'

A sport traumatised by tragedy must accept it may have to lose some of its sting
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The Independent Online
THE BAY horse lobs primly round the practice ground. The evening sun reflects off its sleek flanks, highlighting the muscles. Competition has finished for the day at the Blenheim Horse Trials and the relentless process of equine education has begun once more. The horse is learning to obey the minute movements of hand, heel and thigh through which the rider exerts his control. The owner stands in the middle, issuing instructions at the rider, and a girl in blue jeans sits on the grass, sunglasses perched on her blonde head.

The scene would be entirely familiar to Polly Phillipps, Simon Long, Robert Slade and Peta Beckett, whose deaths over the past four months have brought the ramrod-straight world of three-day eventing to its knees. So swiftly has tragedy been heaped on tragedy, Long died the day after Phillipps was buried. Like Formula One in the aftermath of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in successive days at Imola in 1994, the sport is in a state of shock, utterly unable to understand why its lush green playground has been transformed into a killing field. "Everyone just wants the season to end," says Blyth Tait, the Olympic and double world champion. "I'm not sure we can take much more."

Tait's own season ended at the same fence which claimed the life of Simon Long, the farmer's son from Wiltshire, at Burghley eight days ago. A 14- inch long plate in his right thigh serves as a reminder to the New Zealander of the self-confessed "tiny error of judgement" which caused his horse Chesterfield to trip as he jumped out of the water. Tait's leg was trapped against the unforgiving wooden poles of the exit fence.

Tait regards the injury as a natural hazard of his profession, says his recent run of luck had to end some time. He had emerged unscathed from a fall in Northern Ireland the previous weekend. But his accident had wider implications for the sport's authorities. If a rider as experienced as Tait was penalised so severely for a fractional misjudgement, had not the odds for a relative novice like Simon Long slipped imperceptibly beyond the bounds of safety? Mark Phillips was criticised for designing too tough a course at Burghley. The more pertinent question, Tait believes, is: too tough for whom?

"I thought it was a fabulous course," he says, crutches neatly stacked against the stone wall of his rented Cotswold farm cottage. "It was pitched very strong, but it was fair. It was big, it demanded a lot of power and good judgement and it asked a varied number of questions of both horse and rider.

"I don't pretend to have the answers to what's happening in our sport at the moment. Each of the deaths came in totally different circumstances. But I wonder whether we shouldn't pitch our competitions a little softer and save the likes of Burghley for the Olympics and world championships.

"There's a big field of competitors for these events and I would have real concern for about 20 per cent of them. They've got to be smart, but I don't think it would do the sport any harm if a little bit of the sting was taken out of the demands of the course. What would it matter if there were a few more successful rounds and a few more completions? I still think the cream would rise to the top."

Tait's own experience at the fated fence gives a precious insight into the traditionally closed world of the eventer. He had walked the course in the morning, not just looking at the 35 fences, but, like a golfer's caddie, measuring distances and strides, anticipating problems and formulating plans. He had not noted any particular trouble at the Sunken Water, except that it was the third of a series of demanding water complexes at a point midway through the round when the horse might be starting to tire a little. Jump into the water, one stride through the water, on to the bank and away, Tait calculated. He was more concerned with a later fence which could test Chesterfield's tendency to drift left.

Tait was riding the course late and because he only had one horse he had time to watch how his rivals fared on the television monitors back in the competitors' area. He noticed that some of the horses hesitated fractionally coming into the new fence, either, he thought, because of the shadows cast across the complex or because the horses were unused to having to cope with three water hazards in quick succession. He made a mental note to be particularly positive at the entry.

"Maybe I put too much significance on that," Tait explains as he replays the video. He was ahead of schedule and going well. "We made a good approach into the first part, but I pushed him a fraction too early, so he dived into the water a bit." Tait also momentarily failed to correct his horse's instinctive move left. "To make the distances work we had to be right down the centre." They weren't.

Normally, a top-class eventer like Chesterfield will ignore the instructions of his rider at such moments and find his own way out of trouble. That is part of the deal built up over many hours together in the paddock. Sometimes, it's the other way round. But at a fence which tested athleticism and agility, the 14-year-old could not quite summon the spring to lift his front legs above the parapet at the water's edge.

The next thing Tait knew he was in the back of the ambulance on his way to Peterborough District Hospital, his emotions torn between concern for his horse and frustration at throwing away a decent chance of winning at Burghley. Only when he arrived at the hospital did he learn that Long had died, crushed beneath his horse, in a fall at the same obstacle earlier in the day.

Tait was brought up on a farm north of Auckland where riding and walking were athletically synonymous. He cleaned up in the national events in New Zealand but only when he acquired a horse called Messiah did he feel confident enough to move into the vastly more competitive arenas of Europe. With a horse, little money and no name, Tait depended for his future on a strong showing in the 1990 World Championships. He did better than that; he won it, with some panache. "The naivete of youth," he laughs, though he was 28 at the time.

Since then, he has swept the sport's major prizes, won gold at the Olympics and, last year, capped a remarkable season by winning a second world title, on his first horse, Ready Teddy, and becoming the world No 1. He has his own Blyth Tait clothing range, sweaters, moleskins, the insignia of equine middle England, and, ironically, at Burghley had just launched his new instructional book, Blyth Tait's Cross- Country Clinic. He would have been competing at Blenheim this weekend; instead, he is contemplating six weeks on crutches and another two months out of the saddle. Time enough to reflect on where his sport goes from here.

"We have a responsibility to those who have been killed and to those who are still competing to learn from this," he says. "But you can only minimise the risks, you can never eliminate them completely." The scoring system, recently changed to penalise slow rounds more severely, is one area of concern. "Speeds haven't risen, but riders might be psychologically worried about going slower," Tait says.

Qualification levels, safety equipment and fence construction, already addressed at the Blenheim course this weekend, will also be subject to review by a committee of riders, designers and officials set up last week. The sport is determined to do its own soul-searching.

"I knew Polly well and I was just starting to get to know Simon," Tait says. "There is a great camaraderie in the sport. We are competing over four or five days sometimes, so we get to know each other and very rarely does anyone begrudge success, because we know just how much has gone into the preparation of a horse.

"Why do we do this? We ask the same question every time we are waiting in the starting box. Then, when you gallop through the finishing flags a few minutes later, you remember. We do it because we want to, because it's exhilarating and thrilling, because we love the challenge and love the horses.

"We don't do it for the money or the prestige. For every day of glory, there are 10 spent slogging around in the mud and the rain. But it's a way of life." For Polly Phillipps and Simon Long, sadly, no more, though neither would disagree with one single syllable of that fitting epitaph.