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Peter Phillips organises Gatcombe Horse Trials

PUBLISHED: 23:39 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 12:06 16 June 2015

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

This year, there's a new hand on the reins at The Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park. Peter Phillips has joined his father, Captain Mark Phillips, in the role of joint horse trials organiser.

THERE'S something very natural about Peter Phillips - from the way he answers the front door with a cheery, "Like a cup of coffee?" to the way he boils the kettle and makes it himself.


The more you talk to him, the more you realise his recent appointment as joint organiser for Gatcombe Park's horse trials is a natural move, too.


"It's something my father has wanted me to do for some time," he says. "He's always been a great advocate of me being involved; of my stepping up into an organisational role."


That's not difficult to understand. For this likeable young man has an air of calm about him that, you rather feel, would surmount most crises - and in an event the size Gatcombe now is, you're not going to get away without the odd crisis. It's a calm thoughtfulness that manifests itself when he answers my questions, sometimes pausing and thinking deeply before speaking - not, on the whole, because he's worried about saying the wrong thing; but because he wants to say exactly the right thing; to choose the words to express clearly what he feels.


And what he feels is a great pride in what his parents have achieved at Gatcombe. And a determination to help take that achievement forward. "I'm passionate about the trials," he says, simply.


On top of that, of course, he loves horses. "When you've grown up with them your whole life, they're in your blood. You can't really have a family dinner without horses coming up some time in the conversation. And with Zara riding full time, of course, I take a keen interest in what she's doing."


His parents' and sister's love of horses has been well documented. His not quite so much. Yet Peter is no novice in the eventing world. He rode more or less every day until he was 16, including competitively.


"I used to really enjoy it, but I got to the stage where my parents said to me: 'OK, you need to make a decision. If you're going to take this seriously, then we'll go and look for another horse for you.' I was playing a lot of rugby at the time, and my rugby was going quite well." (Indeed, he earned a number of caps for Scottish Schools rugby whilst at Gordonstoun in 1996). "That was really what tipped the balance.


"Having said that, I love horses to pieces."


He would ride still, he says, but for the fact that he spends most of the week working at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London - returning to the Gatcombe estate at weekends - which wouldn't be fair on an animal. "Zara doesn't really let me ride any of hers," he laughs. "I said to her, 'Come on! Why don't you let me?' She told me I was too big!


"Occasionally, during the winter, she'll allow me to hack them out, which isn't too inspiring given that it's usually pouring with rain and freezing cold. I don't get to ride them when it's nice."


In fact, Peter has earned his spurs in different ways. For the last 15 years, he's pretty much run the Menial Task Division (or MTD) - a group of his and Zara's friends who've undertaken, some would say, the most unglamorous jobs on the Gatcombe list - banging in posts, walking round the roads doing 'stringing'. "Weeding the ditches - I never enjoyed doing that. It's one of those jobs where it always starts to rain, which makes it even more unpleasant."


So how do they apportion a job like that? Straws?


"It was usually the new incumbent: I've got a perfect little job for you. That's why we were always looking for new blood!"


That sense of humour and the easy banter are more than just appealing character traits: they're essential qualities for anyone working in the Gatcombe team - for it thrives on bonhomie and fun. It's an amiable combination that makes jobs (weeding the ditches aside) enjoyable - and it's one that communicates itself to the crowds who flock to Gatcombe each August to enjoy the horse trials.


"Everyone works very well together, and there's a great atmosphere," Peter says. "Tim Henson (the Director of Gatcombe) is excellent in the way that he allows that atmosphere to feed off itself, as it were, but at the same time keeping a fairly disciplined approach to everything. I also think that feeling comes from my parents. Both of them set out to give something back to the sport that they'd got so much out of. They wanted everyone to come here and have a good time - and that's still true 26 years later."


He certainly reflects many of his parents' attributes. Like them, he's never taken the easy route. Also like them, whatever he's achieved has been through ability; in fact, it seems as if he's deliberately put himself in situations where only hard work and talent will win through - whether on the rugby pitch or in his working life. After graduating from the University of Exeter with a degree in sports science, he worked for Jaguar Racing as an account manager; then for Williams Formula One motor racing team in the sponsorship team. It was nearly three years ago that he joined the Royal Bank of Scotland. He's ably demonstrated an ability to take a leading role in the huge concern that The Festival now represents, which includes managing a team of 500-plus volunteers, and up to 50,000 visitors during the horse trials weekend.


Has he never been tempted to rest on his laurels; to sit back and enjoy the privileges life could offer? "No: if you rest on your laurels, you might as well sit down in front of a TV and waste away, eating TV dinners. We'd rather get up and do something - and not only that, we want to do things well. As far as Gatcombe is concerned, anyone can put on an event; but to make it successful over 26 years, you've got to do it properly."


He cannot, he says, remember a time in his life when the horse trials weren't a significant part of the family's calendar. Which isn't surprising, bearing in mind that Peter wasn't quite five when they began. The Princess and Captain Mark Phillips made a conscious effort to involve both the children in the horse trials almost from day one. As a result, each summer the Menial Task Division gradually became a way of life.


"The MTD was started almost at the beginning of the horse trials by Jackie Stewart - now Sir Jackie (the former racing driver, a great friend of the family) - who always used to come down and help out. Its job was to do the little odds and sods like picking up twigs and cutting grass here and there, and generally making sure the place looked neat and tidy. He was the one who gave it its name.


"It was never anything formal - just: 'If you're free and you feel like it, come and join in!' As I got older, more of my friends became involved - friends from both when I was at school at Port Regis and all the way through the Gordonstoun years, and even on through my gap year when they'd come from Australia for the week. And, of course, it was Zara's friends, too."


Were they all from a similar background?


"Absolutely not. They had to learn over 15 years how to manage all these bits and pieces; all the kit we need... How to use a paint brush..." He laughs. "Sorry - that's me having a dig."


It's private joke that at least one of his mates will recognise - mates that have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, businessmen - a diverse group who've remained good friends. But, like Peter - who married Autumn Kelly this spring - many now have other responsibilities, and long foot-loose summers are a thing of the past.


"Numbers of the MTD have naturally dwindled - it was a change-of-life process - so it was a logical year for me to take that step up into an organisational role. This was also a perfect year, with my father being away at the Olympics, still to have a member of the family closely involved in the event: it made perfect sense."


Certainly, it's going to be different at Gatcombe this year, with some of the favourites already out in Hong Kong, preparing for Beijing. "It's slightly tricky for the 'diehard' fans, if you like; William's not here (William Fox-Pitt); Mary's not here (Mary King, who claimed her fourth British Open Championship at Gatcombe last year). But the other side is that it's going to create a massively open competition. It's a chance for someone new to make a name for themselves: there are an enormous number of talented riders and horses around.


"It will still be a fantastic event: there will be a huge amount of attractions in the main arena; and then there are over 100 trade stands, and all of this in a fantastic setting. Hopefully everyone will come and have a great fun."


And that is one of the attractions of Gatcombe. There's no snobbishness about it - equestrian or otherwise. You might not know one end of a horse from the other, but you'll find plenty of things to see. "I remember when we were talking about changing the name slightly, and 'festival' was a word that kept cropping up - wanting people to have fun. As you say, it wasn't just about the eventing - the horses are a part of and the reason why everyone is there, but there are other reasons to come along too - all the arena activity on the Saturday and Sunday, for example. When I was young, I sometimes hardly saw a horse because I used to love the arena attractions so much.


"Having said that, an event like this is also a way of educating people: you may not like horses; you may not want to go anywhere near them; but when you see what these animals can do, with the skill of the riders, it is incredible; to see the size of some of these fences... Anybody, whether they know anything about horses or not, couldn't help but think, Wow!"


In fact, Peter himself is the first to admit that technical know-how ("cross country course design and the stridings - all those sorts of things") is far from being his specialist field. And that leads on to the second change at Gatcombe this year - former international event rider Ian Stark is joining Captain Phillips as Assistant Course Designer for The Festival.


"He's a legend in the sport as it is," Peter says, "and he and my father have been great friends for many, many years. To have his input into this event is invaluable: having a fresh pair of eyes, and especially ones as experienced as Ian's. I hope he'll come and see what we're doing from the other side of the fence because he's also been here as a competitor. We're very excited to have him because of his experience and because of what he has achieved." In a career spanning 30 years in the saddle, Ian competed in the Olympics five times and won at Badminton three times; ironically, Gatcombe's British Championship title was one that eluded him.


Peter's role, on the other hand, will involve looking after the sponsors, talking to the press, and taking over many of his father's responsibilities while he's away in Beijing, coaching the American eventing team for whom he is Chef d'Equipe.


Is it hard for his father to hand over the reins, even when so busy elsewhere? "No; I think he feels good about having me here in an organisational capacity."


But no doubt there'll be some good-natured ribbing.


"He wasn't here a couple of years ago - I can't remember exactly what he was doing; away at the Pan American Games, I think - and we always joked that that year ran so smoothly because he wasn't there. He used to laugh about it, but I could see him thinking: 'I wonder whether they mean it'!"


Like his father, he's full of praise for the team that will be working, as ever, alongside him: Tim Henson, mentioned previously, who has become a good friend as well as colleague; Gail Dale ("who makes things happen; she's lovely, but when she says jump, we all jump!"; the numerous fence judges and stewards who, year after year, volunteer to come and help; to Gatcombe itself, the home he loves: "It's an incredible spot; stunningly beautiful and, with its natural amphitheatre, very well suited to host a horse trials."


And he's full of praise for the local community too. "It's almost a cliché but, without the support of the local community, you just could not put these events on - and the support we've had for the last 26 years has been fantastic. It has not only been supportive of the horse trials, but of the family as a whole. I know it may sound strange, coming from the family that we do, but we have a lot in common with the community. Because we share similar interests and concerns, there's a bond.


"We've never had to barricade ourselves in. When Zara and I were younger, we used to ride through Minch and the surrounding villages - Cherington, Avening - simply doing what everybody else was doing. And I think that having three horse trials at Gatcombe over the course of the year allows people to come in and share what we're lucky enough to have."


With the help of that low-profile, 'normal' upbringing, Peter Phillips represents the modern face of royalty - one that bridges gaps in a similar way to Gatcombe itself: the royals and the public meeting on common ground to enjoy some of those shared interests. Indeed, Captain Phillips talks of the 'injection of youth' that his son will bring to the horse trials. So what of the future?


"There are always plans for the future, and we always are talking about how we can develop the event - take it forward; take it on to the next level. Yet we also have to remember that the core reason we are running it is for the horses and the competitors; we should never lose sight of the fact that this is one of the major competitions of the year. But it's safe to say we're an ambitious organising team and we think outside the box in terms of how we can take things forward.


"One of the most important things is for the public to go away at the end of the horse trials saying, 'You know what? That was a fantastic event; we want to keep coming back!' It's the same with the volunteers. Part of my role is to make sure that everyone who comes enjoys themselves, because that means it's a happier place to be and people will go that little bit further. Give an extra smile, and it adds to that atmosphere. Making people feel welcome, feel comfortable with their surroundings, is a big part of what we have to do."


He makes it sound easy - though finding that balance between carefree enjoyment and focused dedication is not an easy task. But it's one Peter Phillips is perfectly suited to achieving. While he refreshingly manages to avoid taking himself too seriously, the same cannot be said of his attitude to the horse trials. For to him, to his family, to the competitors, and to the many members of the public who enjoy them, they're of paramount importance.


"That's something that has been ingrained into us as we've grown up," Peter Phillips says. "Having had these horse trials at home for as long as I can remember, I'm extremely proud of them. And they're something I want to carry on."


The Festival of British Eventing, presented by BETA, incorporating the British Eventing Open Championship, The Martin Collins International and EHOA British Intermediate Championship and the Dodson & Horrel British Novice Championships, takes place from August 1-3. For advance bookings visit www.gatcombe-horse.co.uk

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