It’s a lucky person who lands a job he or she loves, and even luckier are the people whose careers align with a particular passion. Hugh Thomas is one such man who married his ardor for eventing with a position to which he would dedicate over three decades of his life.
After serving as the Event Director of the iconic Badminton Horse Trials for 31 years, Hugh will retire from the role this summer. At age 71, Hugh had a major impact on Badminton, including his role as course designer for 25 years. It’s been a rewarding journey, though he’s the first to admit it hasn't all been smooth sailing.
So what are some of the most memorable moments Hugh remembers throughout the history of one of the most famous horse trials in the world? What are his proudest moments, and what would he prefer forgotten? As this chapter in Hugh’s life comes to a close, he looks back on the best, worst, and wildest things he witnessed at Badminton.
Ginny Leng accepts an award from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Ginny won Badminton in 1985, 1989, and 1993 on three different horses.
The Rounds I Remember Best
Most years there are one or — at most — two rounds that you watch and say, “That was nearly perfection.” And that’s what I like to see. They are not always from the winner. Toddy [Sir Mark Todd] has done several of them; Michael Jung has done several of them. I can recall two or three from Pippa Funnell, and the best example of all was Ginny Leng (later Ginny Elliot), especially on [1985 winner] Priceless. She made it look like simplicity itself. The best in the world should be able to make it look easy if they get it right — if they can’t, then the course isn’t quite right.
The Years We’ve Had to Cancel
[The event has been cancelled four times in its 70-year history.] I’ve had to cancel twice. Once for foot-and-mouth disease [which caused widespread disruption in the British countryside in 2001], and once in 2012 when we were completely underwater. In 2001 we cancelled eight weeks before the event, and in 2012 at the start of the week, a horrible but easy decision to make. We’ve had some desperate weather to contend with. Cancellations are awful. Everyone has put in 12 months of intense work, and the whole atmosphere in the village and the county is so despondent. Then doing the admin and insurance after you’ve had to cancel is so tedious.
The Year of the Rider Revolt
The hardest year from the rider response point-of-view was definitely 2007. [Many combinations withdrew from the event on account of the very hard ground.] We looked so incompetent — because we were. It was awful. People said “Why didn’t you listen to the weather forecast?” The problem was, I did, and they kept saying it was going to rain. After that we spent a lot of money on grassland maintenance.
Most years there are one or — at most — two rounds that you watch and say, “That was nearly perfection.”
The Year I Got off the Hook
People gave me a bit of stick about not having done anything special at Badminton to celebrate Sir Mark’s retirement from the sport. Then when he came out of retirement and won in 2011 on NZB Land Vision, I was able to say “I knew all along you’d be back!”
The Year When It Paid to Go Early
In 1999 it hadn’t rained much before the event, but it started on Saturday morning and got worse and worse and worse. There were times when we wondered if we could keep going. Our number one concern is moving emergency services safely ‘round the course. The event that year was won by Ian Stark on Jaybee, who I think was first to go. The course was three-quarters of a minute slower by the end of the day as far as we could tell.
My Favorite Winners
My favorite winner is always the last one! The actual competition in fact comes very far down my list of priorities when the event is running.
One that sticks in the memory though is Sir Mark’s 2011 victory after he came back from retirement on NZB Land Vision.
And it might surprise him, but I was personally thrilled when Andrew Nicholson won [in 2017 on Deborah Sellar’s Nereo]. … I’ve had plenty of brushes with Andrew over the years — on either side — I’m not known for holding back if I feel strongly about something. But I always felt for Andrew to retire without a Badminton to his name would be a travesty of justice. He was the glaring omission on our winner’s board.
The Saddest Day of Them All
The single most difficult day I’ve had was in 1992 when we had three horses killed on cross-country day. It was emotionally draining; I was very upset about it. There was one fence at which Sir Mark’s horse broke a leg, and no fence was ever built like that again because we realized we’d built it wrong. The other two were totally out of the blue — completely unpredictable. But that is exactly the way of the world. The way I get through it is not by trying to pretend it didn’t happen.
I’m nervous about the future of a risk sport in an increasingly risk-averse world.
The Challenges No One Sees
There have been some years we’ve had nightmares trying to enable trade stands to use their credit card machines. Nothing was working on the Thursday morning! Three years ago we put in 1000Mb per second cable into the middle of Badminton Park, which is virtually unused for the rest of the year, to help bring Badminton into the digital age.
The Year We Witnessed a Rolex Grand Slam
Michael Jung became only the second rider ever to win the Rolex Grand Slam when he won here on La Biosthetique Sam FBW in 2016. I think it’s been a good addition to the sport.
2016 Rolex Grand Slam winner, Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW.
Several people have come close in the last few years because of the number of riders who have several top international horses. Oliver Townend came here last year trying to complete a grand slam but was beaten into second place by Jonelle Price. And in 2013, strangely, we had both William Fox-Pitt and Andrew Nicholson trying to complete one [the former’s grand slam bid carried over to 2013 after Badminton was rained off in 2012. But in the event, they were both defeated by New Zealand’s Jock Paget on Clifton Promise.]
My Concerns for Eventing’s Future
I don’t like how eventing is evolving, not in all respects… It’s terribly easy to think it was better in my day. I know that’s nearly always wrong. The huge expansion of the sport and professionalism definitely means the percentage of riders at the top two or three levels who are natural horsemen is much smaller. We’ve been trying to deal with that in safety and risk management because the biggest risk is caused by bad riding, and it’s very difficult to cater for that.
While I remain a strong advocate of secondary safety measures, clips and pins, etc., I’m nervous about the future of a risk sport in an increasingly risk-averse world.
Why I’m Proud of Our ‘Other’ Badminton
In 2010, a grassroots championship — now known as the Mitsubishi Motors Cup — started at Badminton over 90cm and 1m courses for amateur riders.
I’m very glad we did it, though it took us several years before it stopped costing us a lot of money. The late Duke [of Beaufort, President of Badminton Horse Trials] said to me after five or so years: “I’m not sure we want to go on with that.” I replied: “David, it’s the one thing that makes you and me really popular. Let’s stick with it.”
It’s a joy to go ‘round the lorry park because it is reminiscent of my time eventing however many years ago — the atmosphere is marvelous. It’s built up now that so that Wednesday [on which this contest concludes, before the trials proper begin on Thursday] is a busy day. We used to have to insist that the trade stands opened that day — now they’re thrilled with it. So it has been a great success.
Hats off and cheers to you, Hugh. We thank you for all your contributions and dedication to the sport. Whatever comes next for you, have a great ride.
Feature photo: Ian Stark and Jaybee. Photography by Kit Houghton.
Written by Lucy Higginson
Lucy Higginson made a small piece of history by becoming the first woman to Edit Horse & Hound magazine, a role she held for 12 years, campaigning ardently for hunting and for horse welfare, and collecting numerous awards along the way. Now a freelance and PR consultant, she’s also a regular rider in Windsor Great Park, close to her home in Eton College where her husband is a housemaster.