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Keeping the flame alive
With the London 2012 Olympics seeing the medal-hungry British public absorbed in the eventing at Greenwich, Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials is raring to go.
Blenheim, in eventing’s most magnificent setting, follows hot on the trail of the Olympics — coming into view less than a month afterwards and will run from Thursday, September 6, to Sunday, September 9.
And organisers are hoping that the palace will be the perfect place to stage a celebration of British eventing in the warm glow of Olympic success.
Last year’s trials were certainly touched by the magic of the Olympics, with in excess of 60,000 attending the 2011 Fidelity Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials , one of the biggest crowds since Blenheim hosted the European eventing championships in 2005. For it featured an event qualifier for the London 2012 for Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Oceania countries.
With Blenheim featuring a demanding terrain, not unlike Greenwich, it certainly provided the perfect tough pre-Olympics test.
It was no surprise to see many Blenheim winners — including three-time winner William Fox-Pitt and Zara Phillips, who took the European title at Blenheim back in 2005 — winning places in the British eventing team for London 2012.
Another Blenheim winner and crowd favourite, Piggy French, suffered the heartache of having to pull out when her horse, DHI Topper, picked up an injury.
Mandy Hervieu, event director of Blenheim since 2007, said: “We would expect many of our riders who are at the Olympics to be here, although it depends if they have horses at the right level to come.
“I would be very surprised if we did not see people like William Fox-Pitt, Mary King and maybe Zara Phillips because most people now view Blenheim as the best CCI*** event in the world.
“Entries have just opened so we cannot yet say for sure who is coming. The New Zealand riders Andrew Nicholson and Mark Todd are already definites.”
It seems that riders — unlike other sports competitors — do not need months of recovery time after being in the Olympic pressure cooker.
“Most of them are out competing a minimum of five days out of seven at different levels, with different horses,” said Ms Hervieu.
Celebrated riders will use one star events to ride young horses, making eventing one of the few sports where enthusiastic amateurs can find themselves up against top professionals, with relatively inexperienced riders mixing it with Olympic medallists.
Ms Hervieu believes the Olympics has also highlighted how eventing is one of the few sports where competitors at the top level range in age from their early 20s to mid 50s, with an admirable balance between men and women, size and strength being less significant than skill and balance.
“No other sport in my view is so inclusive,” she said. “One of the things the Olympics has done through all the coverage and interviews is show that it is not just a sport for rich people.
“A horse doesn’t know if it is being ridden by a princess or pauper. People still say Zara Phillips is a member of the royal family and has got all that money, but she still has to be good at what she does.”
Blenheim will also be about looking ahead — and Ms Hervieu believes Blenheim can also be viewed as the pathway to the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“It would not surprise me if some of the eight- and nine-year-old horses here will one day end up competing at Rio.”
This year’s Blenheim crowds will be treated to a brand new cross country course to provide extra challenges.
“There are a lot of exciting new fences, remodelling investment and groundwork. They will even be going in a different direction.”
One novel idea is to incorporate quick response codes on to the fence name boards of all fences. The codes will allow spectators with smartphones to scan the codes and hear the course designer and leading riders’ thoughts about the fence and how to ride it.
Ms Hervieu said: “QR codes are frequently used on products. But we thought there was a great opportunity to use them to give spectators more information on the fences.”
But with the ground jury approving the course just hours before it is officially open on September 5 — to avoid riders being able to recreate fences for training — there will be precious little time to make the videos and upload them to the website.
Dressage will take place all day Thursday and Friday, with cross country from 11am to 6pm on Saturday and the show jumping finale on Sunday.
Blenheim also hosts the eight- and nine-year-old horse CIC*** British Championship, while the Riding Club and Pony Club Team Challenges and Tri-Zone BE100 Eventer Challenge will take place in the Bladon arena.
The number of shops and stalls this year is expected to pass the 200 mark there are inevitably new additions to the programme.
A bareback jumping class will take place in the Blenheim Arena on Sunday and on Thursday and on Friday master classes from experts in show jumping and dressage will be held.
But then, experts, like Olympic medal winners, are rarely in short supply at Blenheim Palace in September.
Spectators can choose between admission-only tickets and those which include allocated grandstand seats or VIP member passes which allow access to the main arena ringside members’ facility. All tickets include complimentary general public parking .
The advance online box office offers significant savings over the ‘on event’ gate prices. See blenheim-horse.co.uk for details.