For gutsy sporting action of the highest calibre and for Christmas shopping. Burghley has a friendly rivalry with Britain’s other four-star (top level) horse trials, the famous Badminton. The latter, started in 1949, remains very much the sport’s ‘Wimbledon’; Burghley, the younger by 12 years, and started by Olympic hurdler the 6th Marquess of Exeter, scores higher on shopping, setting and, generally, weather.
The late-summer sun creates a mellow atmosphere as it lights the house’s yellow Barnack rag stone and turrets, the ancient trees and the unbothered fallow deer herd. Burghley also boasts a royal winner, Princess Anne on Doublet in 1971. Last year, it was the seventh most highly attended sporting occasion in the UK, with a crowd of 178,000 over four days.
Best day to go
Cross-country day (Saturday, September 7), when course designer Capt Mark Phillips will test horse and rider communication and nerve around a four-mile track that’s considered the toughest in the world. This is equestrian sport-actually, any sport-at its most heroic, and the undulating nature of the Capability Brown-designed parkland means there’s a good view at each fence. The action starts at 11am, but gates open at 7.30am when the park is at its most magical and the traffic at its quietest.
Where to watch
The Trout Hatchery water complex (fences 12, 13, 14) is the best value-thrilling when it’s done well and lively when there’s a dunking. The Leaf Pit (7, has the most awesome drop into space and the Cottesmore Leap (21) has a ditch big enough to accommodate a Land Rover. The Lord Burghley Hurdles (4) is in the main arena, so you can sit down and park less enthusiastic walkers. The Anniversary Splash (27) through the river beside the Lion Bridge makes a good picnic spot.
In the afternoon, loll in front of the big CCTV screen and see competitors do the whole course, or hang over the rails at the start/finish area for a fascinating microcosm of human and equine life and emotion. If non-horsey friends become bored, send them into Stamford and meet them later at The George.
What to buy
Brogues from Church & Co, moleskins from Cordings, Melton Mowbray pork pies from Dickinson & Morris, terrier-sized tartan ‘kilt’ from Dogs & Co, The Little Book of Burghley from Equestrian Vision, holiday from Hartley’s Safaris, dachshund mug from Hogben Pottery and a subscription to Country Life.
What to buy
A picnic, supplemented by interesting extras from the Foodwalk: ice cream from Birchfield Family Dairies, Bedazzled Cupcakes, Morecambe Bay shrimps, smoked meat and fish from Chesil Smokery, and charcuterie and cheese from The Ham & Cheese Company. There’s even The Cool Ice Box Company to help keep it all fresh, plus plenty of emergency presents for your kind host.
Who will win?
Jock Paget, riding Clifton Promise or Clifton Lush, is tipped to join the elite band of riders who have won Badminton and Burghley in the same 12 months. Unusually, the 29-year-old Kiwi could barely rise to the trot 10 years ago; a former brickie, his introduction to horses was as a rodeo rider. New Zealanders have a great record at Burghley; Paget’s compatriot, Andrew Nicholson, the defending champion and world number one, could easily win again on Avebury-named after the Roman settlement near where the home-bred grey gelding was born-Nereo or Mr Cruise Control. William Fox-Pitt (Interview, May 1), who holds the record for six Burghley wins, is the Kiwis’ main threat, on 2011 winner Parklane Hawk or Neuf Des Coeurs.
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The fairytale result
Tears will flow if the popular Pippa Funnell, who won 10 years ago, bounces back to the big time on Redesigned, a beautiful big chestnut gelding whose promising career has been dogged by soundness issues.
Look out for?
Britain’s Oliver Townend on Armada, the most athletic horse you’ll see all day; rising star Izzy Taylor, great-niece of Burghley’s first winner (in 1961), Anneli Drummond-Hay; the flamboyant Ingrid Klimke, a German Olympian; and New Zealand’s 57-year-old comeback king Sir Mark Todd, a double Olympic champion who’s won the event five times before.
The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials at Stamford, Lincolnshire is on September 5-8 with dressage on Thursday and Friday, cross-country on Saturday and the showjumping finale on Sunday. Gate admission from £15 plus £12 car parking (01933 304744; www.burghley-horse.co.uk).
The website offers accommodation ideas, from The George to the caravan park. Dogs are welcome-on a lead-and there’s a crèche. Burghley House, one of England’s finest Elizabethan houses and a Treasure House, is closed during the horse trials