Equestrianism: A curious Olympic legacy – eventing

This weekend 170,000 paying spectators will go to Lincolnshire to watch horses

Burghley

It is the numbers that seize you by the throat. Amid the brass bands, the hacking jackets and the stalls purveying Purdey "shooting wear" and Pimm's comes the realisation that you are at the biggest sporting event in Britain.

The crowds for the Burghley Horse Trials, the flagship event of three-day eventing, were always big but they have never approached 170,000 as they will this weekend. If this really is an elitist sport, an accusation levelled at eventing every time it seeks funding, then the elite stretches further than we could possibly have imagined.

Those who jammed through its gates – paying on average £26 for yesterday's cross-country element – would no more think of themselves as revolutionaries than they would swap Horse and Hound for a copy of Socialist Worker. But in the wake of London 2012 those sports that were once smothered by football are finding their own place in this summer's watery sun.

You can precisely date the moment when football became the middle-class sport of choice: the night of 4 July, 1990 when Paul Gascoigne broke down to the sound of Luciano Pavarotti signing Nesssun Dorma and 18 million watched Chris Waddle blaze his penalty into the night skies of Turin.

At the previous major championship, the 1988 Euros in West Germany, the only nation that sent fewer fans than England was the Soviet Union, which had its own reasons for restricting travel. The London Olympics may prove to be a similar turning point.

Ticket sales took off the moment the British team tasted success at Greenwich and, yesterday, the chief executive of British eventing, Mike Etherington-Smith, had to do something he had never done before at Burghley. He queued – at eight in the morning.

It might have been very different. Three-day evening combines the disciplines of dressage, cross country and show-jumping at a circuit of country houses across England. The wettest summer for a century had washed out its first big event, Badminton, which was to have been virtually a jump-off to select the British team for the Olympics. The circuit moved to Chatsworth, which was also abandoned, before pitching up at a minor venue, Bramham in north Yorkshire.

However, in one sense the sport got lucky. Zara Phillips, the Queen's grand-daughter, finished third and was, surprisingly, selected for London 2012. There, she provided one of the iconic images of the Games, being presented with an Olympic medal by her mother.

Unlike Team GB's show-jumpers and dressage riders, the three-day eventers won silver rather than gold, but as Mary King, who was competing in her sixth Olympics, pointed out, their success came very early in the tournament when it seemed that in terms of medals the London Games might not be delivering.

Unlike rugby league, which drove itself deeper into its northern ghetto by abandoning the BBC for Sky and audiences that would get the producer of Antiques Roadshow the sack, Burghley and Badminton still have precious terrestrial television contracts. There are country house settings – this one is in Lincolnshire – and, most importantly, easily identifiable characters.

This is what made snooker such a success when David Attenborough, then the controller of BBC2, decided to screen it.

There was the old master, Ray Reardon; the rebel Alex Higgins; the joker, Dennis Taylor, and the young assassin in Steve Davis. The 1985 World Championship final between Davis and Taylor remains one of the most watched events in the history British sport.

Eventing should have no trouble in assembling a similar cast list for what next season may be turned into a proper circuit that will produce a British champion. The tall, angular figure of William Fox-Pitt, who is unquestionably a bit posh, is among the best horsemen in the world and should he win Badminton next May he will carry off $350,000 (£210,000) for having claimed Burghley, the Rolex Kentucky and Badminton in succession.

Then there is Oliver Townend, the brilliant, chipper milkman's son from Huddersfield. And the 51-year-old King, who has been known to serve journalists lemon drizzle cake and who on Imperial Cavalier paraded her medal through the jammed streets of Sidmouth. Then there is Zara, who as a member of the Royal Family gives eventing something snooker cannot match.

With its shopping village it is easy to dismiss Burghley as a Benidorm for the Countryside Alliance set, but these are tough, tough people. "Nobody gets anything on a plate," said Etherington-Smith. "No, not even Zara. Her father was a hard rider and the Princess, God, yes."

Emily Parker, a 22-year-old graduate of Nottingham University and one of the best young riders in Europe, has a choice between a career in estate management which would pay the mortgage and a career in equestrianism that might not. She is going with the horses.

A few years ago, Lucy Wiegersma, who was first reserve for the Olympics, won prize money totalling £100,000. She could have used it as a deposit for a house. Instead she spent it on a trailer that can carry seven horses and which, from April to October, acts as home.

"I can imagine eventing taking off," she said. "The sport has fabulous locations and a certain glamour factor. Bernie Ecclestone had to take Formula One by the short and curlies and drag it up. Perhaps we can do that with eventing... Not everyone owns a horse, but please don't dismiss us as a posh hobby. A lot of people have scraped and clawed their way to be here."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat