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Olympic Eventing Thoughts: William Fox-Pitt

“Personally I’d like to be part of a team where we are all going to the Olympics with a damn good chance of individual medals as well as a team one, and then we might have a chance of beating the Germans!”

That was Team GB stalwart William Fox-Pitt’s patriotic retort to being questioned on their medal chances at this year’s Olympic Games. William, like many other Team GB potentials, had kindly opened the doors of his yard to the nation’s media for the day in order to give us insight into his 2012 prospects and plans.

A word of warning though; if you are scared of chickens, enter his yard with caution. Much to the amusement of others and my dismay, it appears William is rather fond of his Bantams and Silkies, all 20 of them!

It was a cold January day but the most die-hard of us stood at the edge of the arena with a doe eyed look of love watching William school his 2011 Burghley winner Parklane Hawk, one of his three horses in the Team GB Olympic ‘A Team’.  His other two prospects are Oslo, winner of the 2011 8/9 Year Old Championship at Blenheim Palace Horse Trials, and his compatriot, Lionheart, came a close third in the same class.

William does not have a main ride that he is campaigning for selection, “All three horses did their first 4* at the end of last year and performed incredibly well.  I think all three have strengths and weaknesses, but they are obviously horses that I think will cope, otherwise they wouldn’t be up for selection.  Lionheart needs to relax in the dressage but is fantastic across country and in the showjumping, Oslo is the best all-rounder as he is unflappable but he might think the hills are a bit steep as he is lazy and Parklane Hawk will just have to turn at the bottom.  They are all good horses mentally and very confident.”

William’s Kentucky WEG individual silver and team gold medallist Cool Mountain was naturally his first choice for London 2012, but he broke some unfortunate news to us regarding the gelding during the interview.  “It’s sad that Cool Mountain is off this year as he’s done incredibly well and he was my banker, the horse I thought I would be riding, so I am very lucky to have the other three.  The horse injured a tendon in Luhmulen 3* at the end of last season; it’s not very serious but we’re going to give him a whole year off to give him the best chance of recovery for the future.  It’s hard not to change your mind but that’s the decision we made and we’re sticking with it.  By 2013 he will have had 18 months off and it’s not worth risking the rest of his career.”

Contrary to other riders up for team selection, William hasn’t yet decided if he will run any of his campaigned mounts at a Spring 4* before the final Olympic selection date.

“Historically the horses that have done well at the Olympics haven’t done a big spring three day event; that is a generalisation, but the best British horses in Athens and Hong Kong [Beijing 2008 Olympics] didn’t do Badminton Horse Trials.  I’ve yet to make a decision as to whether I do any three day events with them.  All three are entered for Badminton but I don’t think I will run them there.  I will most likely do Neuf Des Coeurs and Seacookie,” said William.

This just goes to prove the depth of William’s horsepower at the moment.  There are very few riders that can boast five fit and running competition horses at 4* level, let alone with some in reserve and a number of novices and young horses coming up the ranks.

Olympic Team and competition rules are slighly different to World or European competition format, where there is the usual team of four.  An Olympic Eventing Team consists of five members with thethree best scores counting towards the final result.  There are also two final show jumping phases; the first determines the team results then the second decides the individual medals with roughly the top 20 combinations going forward to show jump again.  There is much debate as to whether this gives selectors an easier or harder choice and whether having the fifth member actually affects their overall selection of team members.  “There is a different dynamic in an Olympic team, I think” said William.  “When you have only four members you want to have one that is your banker, not your gold medal individual, but your rock.  But when you have five then you lose that and selectors can go for five combinations that on the day could win individual gold.”

With regards to threats and competition however, William is of the opinion it won’t be a hack in the park for Team GB whoever is selected.  “The Germans are the biggest threat without a doubt, but you don’t know, New Zealand is coming back to the mark and the French re-appeared last year who have been off the cards for a long time.  It’s certainly going to be a scrap for the medals.”

There has been much debate as to what type of horse will most suit the twisting course and undulating terrain of Greenwich Park, so much so the mythical perfect creature has now been dubbed “The Greenwich Horse”.  So what type of horse does William think is needed?  “A bombproof gymkhana pony I think!  The venue is certainly unique; it is a different competition to [last year's] Europeans and a different sport almost.  You need five horses that can do really well and are Greenwich-friendly, which isn’t easy.  One of the downsides of the venue is that it is going to be specific; some horses will cope fantastically well and some just won’t.”

So according to William, the Greenwich Horse needs “Stamina, athleticism, obedience, concentrations and confidence…  It was very claustrophobic at the test event and it felt pretty packed.  You need a horse that is looking for the next fence and a concentrated one that doesn’t mind coming down tunnels of people.”

William is famously nicknamed Mr Cool for his level headedness and he is determined to remain that way in the lead up to Greenwich.  “I’ve got to treat it the same as any other year really; it’s important for me to remember that I’ve ridden in three Olympic Games and this is just another one.  Saying that, it is quite hard for me to keep that in perspective as this is something that has really focused the mind for a long time and been a target.  Suddenly you find yourself in 2012 and the challenge is to try to be as normal as possible.”

That may seem like a small ask but let’s make no mistake, the challenge that lies ahead of William is massive.  To make sure his mount is as fit and as ready as can be on a specific date without mishap or injury and is working to the best of his ability, ensuring  both horse and rider are at peak physical and mental condition, whilst prior to this puttig in championship performances worthy of Team GB selection, is only scratching the surface of what lies ahead of him and Team Fox-Pitt on the road to Greenwich.

Some may think lucky William for having three opportunities to get it right with his fabulous horses; others might see it as three times the amount of work and effort to put in to guarantee selection and a medal.  But all William can say is “the aim is simply to get selected, get to the Olympics and be in one piece at that time, beyond that I’m very fortunate to have some superb horses to ride that I know can do well if they get there.”  All I can say is…  just like that William!

(This interview with MUSTO equestrian ambassador was originally published in Chiltern and Thames Rider magazine)

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