Reg Little talks to the Olympian who is unable to defend her title at Blenheim
With Blenheim glory beckoning, speed did not look to be too much of a worry for star eventer Aoife Clark as she headed for the annual international horse trials at the palace.
The Blenheim trials is firmly established as one of Aoife’s favourite events, with Woodstock only a short distance from her home at Middle Barton.
But the flash of a speed camera meant that, with so much resting on her Sunday performance last year, the final day did not get off to the best of starts for the rider known on the circuit as being a touch superstitious — apparently never wearing anything new before a race, and even once carrying a four- leaf clover with her at one Blenheim event.
The luck of the Irish was, however, to be very much on her side that day.
There would be no speeding notice, instead Aoife would ride her way into eventing history by become the first Irish rider to win the Blenheim trials.
Looking back to her victory a year on, as we await the 2014 Blenheim International Horse Trials running from September 11-14, which is again being backed by The Oxford Times, she now recognises her success at the palace to be a turning point in her life.
Aoife, 33, had arrived last year established as one of Ireland’s leading riders, ranked 11th in the world rankings.
At the London Olympics she had finished seventh individually, as her country’s top placed rider, helping her team to an historic fifth place in the process.
But Blenheim saw her win her first three-star level event, staying cool under the most intense pressure to jump clear on her horse Fenyas Elegance — destined to be only the second chestnut mare to win at Blenheim — to hold her slender cross-country 1.5 penalty lead over Frenchman Jean Teulere.
Soon afterward the Irish Olympian was sweeping to victory at the three-star Bramham International Horse Trials, climbing ten places from her opening dressage score, when she badly trailed the popular British rider Izzy Taylor.
Soon there was to be a silver medal at the World Breeding championships in Lion D’Angers, on Fernhill Adventure, and an eighth-place finish at what was regarded as the highest quality field ever assembled at the prestigious Badminton CCI**** on her London 2012 ride Master Crusoe.
Aoife celebrating her 2013 victory
When we spoke, Aoife was preparing to head for Normandy to compete in what is billed as the world’s biggest equestrian event: the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which are expected to attract 500,000 visitors.
Aoife will then be back at Blenheim, but sadly this year only as a spectator, for she will not be there to defend her hard-won title.
“Both my horses have stepped up from three-star to four-star events,” she explained, four-star being the highest level of competition, for horses with serious experience and success in international competition.
Sadly, none of her other horses are presently ready to compete at Blenheim, at what has long been viewed as the most prestigious of three-star events.
“Winning Blenheim was a dream come true,” she said. “It was so very close. It is difficult to win. But as well as being a prestigious event in its own right, it is a great yardsick. You come out of it with real knowledge as to whether your horse is capable of competing at the very top level.”
The trials at Woodstock also provide the opportunity to compete against the magnificent backdrop of the palace in a competition firmly established in the eventing calendar, attracting the world’s best riders and some 60,000 spectators who come most years to watch the event.
There are two international classes held at Blenheim over the four days of the event, with the show jumping test taking place in front of the south face of the palace, and the cross-country course running around the stunning Capability Brown parkland.
The cross-country phase is for many the most exciting part of the whole competition. Riders take on the challenge of big solid fences and the famous water jumps across the River Glyme. The cross-country courses are designed by Eric Winter and built by David Evans — both are internationally acclaimed for their course building and design skills.
Aoife receiving the trophy from the Duke of Marlborough
The plethora of other activities, trade stands and stalls also guarantees large and enthusiastic crowds every year to what is Oxfordshire’s biggest sporting event. It is all very familiar to Aoife, who lives in Middle Barton with her husband Simon, a freelance helicopter pilot. While she admits to having a fear of flying, her husband certainly is no stranger to the equestrian world.
His sister is Polly Stockton, who rode to victory at Blenheim on West Lord in the 1990s. It means that Aoife is the second member of the Clark family to win at Blenheim.
She first began dreaming about competing at the Olympics and Badminton soon after taking up riding as a young girl in County Kildare. She went on to take a 1st class degree in Maths and Classics at University College, Dublin, and regularly returns across the Irish Sea, often on the lookout for young horses.
She moved with her husband to Sycamore Farm two years ago, which has 14 stables and impressive cross-country schooling grounds.
Competing at Blenheim, despite the short journey, proved to be one of the most tiring experiences of her life. For she disclosed that after competing she would return home not to rest, but to get on exercising some of her other horses.
But this year, like the rest of us, she can simply enjoy the 24th annual Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials as a spectacle.
Her sights may already be set on the Olympics in Rio in 2016, but most suspect that she will not be far away from Blenheim action for very long, if she can just slow up getting there.
To book visit the website blenheimhorse.co.uk — tickets over the four days range from £10 to £22 with a season pass costing just £46 in advance. Tickets are available online at the advance discounted price until September 10. Tickets will also be available on the gate. VIP Members Upgrades are available in advance, in addition to hospitality packages. For further information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org