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Captain Mark Phillips

PUBLISHED: 23:23 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 12:07 16 June 2015

Captain Mark Phillips

Captain Mark Phillips

He might look fresh as a daisy, but don't be fooled. Captain Mark Phillips has just flown back from Denver (via an unscheduled stop in Chicago for 24 hours; medical emergency on board). And on Sunday he's off to Germany.

He might look fresh as a daisy, but don't be fooled. Captain Mark Phillips has just flown back from Denver (via an unscheduled stop in Chicago for 24 hours; medical emergency on board). And on Sunday he's off to Germany.


Talk about déj vu.


When we last spoke like this, guess what... He was about to jet off to Chicago, followed by a trip to Germany: "Stupidly busy schedule"; "100 plane trips a year"; "determined it's going to stop".


And?


He gives a surprisingly boyish grin.


"Have I changed anything? No, you're right. I haven't."


Well, you can hardly walk to work when your day-job is based in the States as Chef d'Equipe (or coach, in layman's terms) for the US eventing team. Nor is anything likely to change anytime soon. "I'm going to continue with the coaching through the London Olympic Games in 2012; then I will have done it for 20 years which, I think, is probably enough," he says, with certain conviction.


Maybe - but watch this space. Because the sneaking suspicion is that the Captain has managed the best of two worlds. Yes, his life is undoubtedly frantic; yes, it involves untold thousands of miles' travel per year. But he's earning money doing something he's adored since, as an 18-month-old, he sat with instinctive poise on his first Shetland, Tiny Wee. And when he does get to spend time at home - with his wife, the dressage rider Sandy Pflueger and their 11-year-old daughter, Stephanie - his world is 180 degrees different from his frenetically-paced work.


As if to prove a point, he glances out of the window of his tranquil study, into the verdant garden where a casual squirrel is doing the equivalent of a leisurely stroll, unperturbed by watching eyes. "I feel very privileged to live here. If you don't feel you want to draw the curtains at night, you can leave them open. The only people looking through the window are the birds and us."


There are things that have changed, though, since we last met at his arable farm on the edge of Minchinhampton. Back then we chatted in the rather more formal converted barn next to the house, used for business and social events. This time, we're in the Phillips's home itself: attractive, easy-going, with family dogs Lucy and Willow lolling around. Perhaps that makes for a change in the man himself; although always charming and helpful, this time round he is the most relaxed I've seen him. It could, of course, be a facet of being immersed in his own environment. On the Captain's study table, there are photographs of his three children - Zara and Peter, from his marriage to the Princess Royal - and a 'dad' medal, from Stephanie, proudly displayed. On another shelf stands the motto: "The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred".


Is that a standard saying?


"Well I hope it wasn't written specially for me," he laughs.


This is not the same man the papers like to describe. He's easy to talk to; chatty and informative. When I ask him questions, he invariably pauses - and when he replies, his answers emerge fully-formed, carefully considered, worth listening to.


He's long been acknowledged, of course, as a world authority on horses and eventing. As a rider, he won team Gold Medals at the Olympics, World and European Championships, as well as winning Badminton four times and Burghley once. Since then, it's been a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper for, after competing, he switched his interests to course design: as well as having created fences for Burghley and Branham, he is the man behind his own Gatcombe course. The art of design, he's said in the past, takes a day on the ground but six months mulling around the brain. As we speak, the Festival of British Eventing is but two months away. Is the course finalised? At least in his head?


"As far as the cross country course is concerned, I know where the tracks are going and I've got an idea of what I want to do in each of the locations."


And will it be different from last year?


"Most of the combination fences are a little different; but the route around the Park is pretty much the same. There are little things like stone walls that aren't very easy to move or adjust!"


As it happens, the work of a fence designer has never been harder: it's a case of skill, ingenuity and Solomon's judgement. For safety in eventing is a headline issue, and already 2009 has seen some horrific accidents, resulting in several riders left in comas, with a broken neck and, yes, even deaths. It's a contentious subject on which the Captain has written and spoken; and it's one that every course designer has to have at the top of the agenda. But while he acknowledges his own responsibility for helping to make the sport as safe as possible, he has his own views on why accident levels have risen. "There is no one simple reason. If there had been, people would have done something about it a long time ago," he agrees. "But the fact is that I competed internationally for 21 years and, in that time, we had no fatalities - we had a couple of broken necks but no fatalities. In the next 20 years, the fatality numbers have risen."


So what does he think has changed?


"There are a number of contributing factors but what I would say is that, when I grew up, I'd go and catch my pony in the field, jump on it bareback, ride on it with a head collar and probably jump a fence as well. And I didn't think anything about it. Now you can never jump without a hard hat, and we have body protectors as well; we never had any of that stuff then."


To understand fully where he's coming from, you need to go back to that childhood, where the young Mark Phillips enjoyed the freedom of the family's 400-acre mixed farm at Long Green, Tewkesbury. By the age of five, he was riding his pony, Beauty, off the lead rein. He started with Ledbury Pony Club; when the family moved to a 16th century house in Great Somerford, he switched to the prestigious Beaufort where the main instructors were Colonel Alec Stewart, who had won a team bronze at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; and Colonel Frank Weldon, who led the three-day event team to Britain's first Gold at the Stockholm Olympics 20 years later, and who also picked up the individual Bronze.


By some quirk of fate - or a playful intervention by the gods of equestrianism - Mark's fellow pony-club members included Jennie Bullen (now Jennie Loriston-Clarke), her sister Jane, and Mike Tucker (now a well-known commentator).


So why exactly does he think that sort of childhood better prepared riders for high-level competition?


"As a boy, I hunted in the wintertime and I learned how to survive in the countryside. Now people at pony club are much more nervous about getting you to jump bareback, or ride down a line of fences with your hands on your head, not holding on to your reins. They were the sorts of fun things we did that also gave us an instinctive awareness of safety and survival."


He also bemoans - with solid reason - the tendency for riders to learn in sand arenas, taking staid lessons instead of experiencing for themselves the sometimes-harsh reality of riding in a rural environment. And then there are the fences. Back in the day, the lowest eventing height was 3ft-7: "So if you weren't confident enough to jump that, you just didn't have a go at eventing; whereas now you can start at 80cms. Commercially, it's great - you can have more members and, therefore, more money; but if you've got a nice horse, you don't need a lot of skill to do it. Eventually, you qualify to ride at the 3/7 course - but nothing in that qualification process has helped you develop those skills in the way that hunting in the pony club did a long time ago."


For a course designer, he says, it's Catch 22. "You try to build into your course as much safety as you can in terms of the profile of the fences, in terms of the positioning of the fences; in terms of the materials you use. But the more we do that, the more we perpetuate the problem, because you're qualifying people to a level above their competence.


"It also means there has been very little that's original - something that's never been jumped before - coming along. That hasn't happened for a long time."


He pauses. "I don't want it to sound doom and gloom because there are hundreds of thousands of people competing perfectly safely and perfectly well. But it only takes one to be a tragedy."


The trick - and it's one the Captain manages with the consummate art of a conjurer - is to create fences that are as safe as possible, but that make riders think. The cross country course at Gatcombe, of course, is a prime example. Each year, it shows a combination of flair, imagination, humour (ever seen Nessie emerging from the lake?), and some real facers that make the most of the local geography. The Steps, for example, are a steep flight of different levels down a natural slope, culminating in a high stump at the bottom; riders might aim to slow down, but gravity has different ideas.


For spectators, the cross country makes for one of the most exciting spectacles of the equestrian year - enjoyable whether you're horsy or not. And that's a key reason why the horse trials at Gatcombe are so successful in introducing outsiders to the sport. Right from the start, the Captain and the Princess Royal accepted that people would come along for all sorts of reasons.


"In those early years, there was a curiosity factor. I can remember a whole lot of ladies in high-heels turning up in a coach. I'm not quite sure what they expected because they never got out of the vehicle!


"But I think it's settled down into the country-based family weekend it's been for some time. I don't think so many people come now, expecting to have tea with the Princess," he laughs.


In fact, they've embraced the fact that a wide variety of people come to Gatcombe for all sorts of reasons. You could even, in the extreme, enjoy yourself shopping, or watching a falconry display in the arena, without seeing a horse.


"One of the things that surprises us is the way that, even while the cross country is going on, some people will be watching the arena attractions instead. But they come for a lot of different reasons; as much as the eventing enthusiasts would like to think people are there just to watch William Fox-Pitt ride round the cross country, that's certainly not the whole of it."


And, let's not beat about the bush, there's added the pleasure of seeing the royal family. William, Harry and partners are not uncommon sights among the audience. And, presumably, Zara will be competing?


"I see no reason why she shouldn't be; she normally does."


Although the festival is not immune to the recession - hospitality has been particularly hit - it's not doing badly. Alongside the old faithful sponsors, such as Land Rover, BETA British Eventing and Hamptons International, there are even a couple of newcomers both, funnily enough, from the financial sector.


And in terms of entries, it should be a bumper crop. This year's timing is ideal: Gatcombe is running six weeks before the European Championships, leaving riders free to do both.


Last year, it was a slightly different story. Although still with its excitements, the Beijing Olympics not only robbed the festival of many of the top riders; it also took Mark himself away as he coached his team abroad. On the plus side, that created the perfect opportunity for Peter Phillips to step into the breach as event organiser, which he did with confidence and panache. "People tell me he did a good job. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's been a case of 'I don't know why you bothered to come back; we don't need you anymore!'" Mark jokes.


"But if the event is going to continue in the Park at Gatcombe, it's a logical progression for Peter to be involved. He's now in Hong Kong for three years, working with RBS, but he's coming back for the event this year and next. After that, I assume he'll be living in England again. Bluntly, although I get on extremely well now with the Princess Royal - we have a very good relationship - it's probably even easier for Peter to deal with his mother - what can and can't be done in her front garden - than it is for me. They both have the same interests in terms of the preservation of the Park and the surroundings. If there's to be a future, they can plan that future together."


The Festival of British Eventing, presented by BETA, incorporates the British Open, Intermediate and Novice Championships, and will also be hosting The Burghley Dubarry Young Event Horse qualifier. It takes place at Gatcombe Park, Minchinhampton on August 7-9. To book tickets, call 0871 789 1423 or visit www.gatcombe-horse.co.uk

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