'God Forbid It Should Become Our Sport': How William Fox-Pitt Really Feels About the Eventing Showcase

'God Forbid It Should Become Our Sport': How William Fox-Pitt Really Feels About the Eventing Showcase

When you’re invited to participate in a showcase event that features a $50,000 prize pot, it’s hard to say ‘no.’ So last weekend British Olympian William Fox-Pitt hopped across the pond to Aiken, South Carolina for the Liftmaster Grand-Prix Eventing at Bruce’s Field.

“I rather thought, well, it’s no fun if you’re not invited, so if you are invited, sometimes it’s good to say yes!” he said.

William rode Hannah Salazar’s Sandro’s Star, a gorgeous, black Oldenburg stallion William described as a “nice guy.” The pair finished in third place and earned $10,000 for their efforts. The usual ride of 25-year-old eventer Chris Talley, this wasn’t the stallion’s first time in a showcase setting: Chris and Sandro’s Star won the $50,000 Devon Arena Eventing competition in 2018.

“Not all stallions are good event horses as we all know, but this one could be. I hope Chris Talley is going to bring him on and win Kentucky in a year’s time!”

Photo by Amber Heintzberger.

“They’re very kind to lend me the horse. I keep thinking, ‘Why did you lend him to me? It’s very generous because he’s a very nice horse and very precious to them, and God forbid I should injure him!’” William said, noting that he doesn’t always like borrowing horses, preferring to ride and compete his own. Nevertheless, he’s always taken on horses he’s been offered.

“I’ve always been lucky to have the opportunity to ride different horses; my mother had several homebreds that I just rode and got on with. It’s never about getting on and trying to make a horse what you want him to be, it’s rather about getting on and riding the horse that he is and making the best job of it,” William said.

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Catch riding is no easy task under any circumstance, and William abides by a few key rules for success.

“You have to tell the horse what the boundaries are for you, and there are do’s and don’ts for each rider, but it’s kind of just getting the horse on to your thinking and adjusting to how he is as quickly as you can,” William said. “I think being flexible is quite good for riding a horse that you don’t really know. I’m quite a flexible rider, I’m not a dominant, dictatorial rider. I’m quite happy to do a bit of this and a bit of that and do our best, and if he’s a bit of this or a bit of that, well, adapt to it.”

Still, it takes a special kind of rider to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar horse he is soon to run over an Advanced cross-country track. And in the showcase format, there isn't much time to work out the kinks. Dressage and show jumping are held on the first day, and the next there is a fast and furious four-minute cross-country course to negotiate, which is quite different to the longer courses found at this level in standard horse trials.

Photo by Amber Heintzberger.

A showcase is like an exhibition of the sport. It's intended to feature the best parts of eventing in a shortened, spectator-friendly format, and there are mixed opinions about its place in the sport.

“It is not, and I emphasize, it is not our sport, and I hope that it is not going to become our sport, but it does show what is going on and it can have a real market, a real niche in our sport,” William said of the showcase format. “But if you compare this to Kentucky it’s a different game, you’re riding a different horse; the winner here is likely not going to be a horse that wins at Kentucky. I think it’s very much a horse that is a specialist that is good at performing under pressure, in a closed environment, and being very nippy and turn-y, but not necessarily the horse that has the endurance and stamina to gallop for ten minutes on terrain cross-country.”

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With every showcase run comes the inevitable question: is this the future of eventing? It’s no secret that running an eventing competition requires enormous resources and manpower, and the condensed showcase version holds its own as a more a sustainable format.

“I think a showcase is a great thing to have; I’ve done many of these events, I’ve been to Wellington two years ago and did the one there as well, and definitely a very different event was the arena eventing up in New York in Central Park, and that was very exciting. It’s part of our sport, but God forbid it should become our sport, and I think people are worried that it will,” William said.

“Maybe in 50 years time it has to because it can be understood, it can be seen, and when you’re watching [Kentucky] or Burghley on cross-country day, there are people who have no idea what’s going on, whereas here you can pretty much see everything from one place, it runs in reverse order, and everything is nice and clear. I think it’s got a real market but it’s just different.”

As they say, only time will tell. What do you think of the eventing showcase?

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Feature photo by Anthony Trollope/Red Bay Group