Country Life visits William Fox-Pitt at home..
Even William Fox-Pitt’s best friends wouldn’t accuse him of being obsessively punctual and, indeed, he eventually materialises for our interview at dusk, returning from cross country practice in a swirl of charming apologies and hurling the pigs their tea.
In the meantime, his sons, Oliver, seven, and Thomas, six, have been only too pleased to help: their father’s favourite pudding is apple crumble, they tell me, he likes dancing to the Rolling Stones, he’s banged his head on every doorway in the farmhouse (William is 6ft 6in tall) and his hobby is rare-breed chickens. It’s all accurate information. ‘It’s true, I could easily switch off and become a poultry fancier,’ William admits, still in jodhpurs but now ensconced in a kitchen armchair with a gin and tonic. ‘I’d like not to have to make that awful decision [about when to retire from eventing]. I’m hoping that one day I’ll wake up and say “You know what? I’ll give up”. I think Alice [his wife, Channel Four Racing’s Alice Plunkett] would drink three bottles of Champagne if I did.
He’s not allowed to retire quite yet, however. If he wins the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials this weekend-and it’s eminently possible, despite his reticence-he’ll achieve the Rolex Grand Slam of four-star victories at Kentucky, Burghley and Badminton and take home $350,000 (about £230,000), rare riches for this most dashing of equestrian sports.
It’s been achieved once before, by his friend Pippa Funnell 10 years ago, but there are so many variables involved in getting a horse to its peak for one competition of this highest level, never mind three, that it presents a frenetic challenge that can make all but the most level-headed nearly ill with pressure. ‘The sport is less forgiving nowadays compared with when I started 20 years ago,’ William points out. ‘There can’t be a weak link, or at least only an occasional one.’ Fortunately, William, whose autobiography is aptly entitled What Will Be, is famously calm under fire -outwardly, anyway (he deals with nerves by sleeping)-which is why he’s invariably been appointed anchorman in his 15 appearances for the senior British eventing team. He professes not to be worrying about the Grand Slam because ‘it’s so unlikely’. ‘I’ve never had too much of an obsession,’ he explains. ‘Every year, I have ambitions and aims for the horses, and when they get to those events, I want them to do well, but I’ve never worried too much about specific goals. I was lucky to win Burghley young [at 25 in 1994] and, although it didn’t stop the hunger, it did take the edge off the tension. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.’
The London Olympics was mooted as his swansong, but he didn’t win a gold medal-Britain took silver and he only finished 27th-and the rumours turned out to be premature. ‘The dangerous thing is when you set yourself a goal. When the Olympics were announced seven years before, I thought I’d be 43 and with no life left in me. I had it in my mind “what better time to retire?”,’ he says. ‘But then you spend seven years forming a close relationship with owners and you acquire several lovely horses that you can’t bear to sell. Now, I’ve got all those good horses that I don’t want to see anyone else on. Some will never be sold, some have been injured, and I’ve still got them all. How can I throw away that opportunity for the first time in my career? I’ve had amazing horses along the way, but I haven’t ever had them all at once.’
He mentions Chaka, the first of a record six Burghley winners; Cosmopolitan, provider of the first (disastrous) Olympic ride, in 1996, and first individual medal (European silver) in 1997; Stunning, the horse that got him back onto the British team in 2001 after a four-year hiatus; and two more Burghley winners, Ballincoola and the superstar of them all, Tamarillo, also responsible for his sole Badminton win, in 2004. He has some 18 horses to ride now, including the prolific winners Parklane Hawk and Oslo, which are his likely Badminton rides. William is undeniably blessed, not least with his Jilly Cooperesque good looks. His family is entrenched in the sport: his supportive mother, Marietta, represented Britain in the 1960s and organised a horse trials at Knowlton Court, the family home in Kent. An Etonian, he’s one of few riders to have a degree (in French) and probably the only one to have spent a gap year canvassing for George Bush. He has won more international competitions than any other rider, his horsemanship is peerless, and he is deservedly held in affection for his approachability and thorough niceness, for William has time for everyone. Best of all, he has a blissful family life in rural Dorset with a wife he says has taught him to laugh at himself, living on an estate he inherited from a cousin. It was not ever thus, however, for, whatever the naysayers think, no ambition that involves a horse is guaranteed.
After university and against parental advice, William set up an eventing business away from home with his then girlfriend, Wiggy, a union that ended in tears. There were highlights -he was the first Briton to be world number one in eventing-but at Badminton, in 1992, his horse broke its neck in front of thousands of spectators, resulting in vicious tabloid coverage, and his first senior cap ended ignominiously when the horse ground to a halt, thus eliminating the British team for the first time in decades. William has yet to win a European, World or Olympic title, and his sons like to remind him he’s ‘the second best rider in the world’-last year, he was ranked number two. He feels London 2012 was a missed opportunity. ‘The [team] gold medal was so close and yet so far,’ he recalls. ‘A few years ago, it was Britain’s cycle at the top and it’s such a shame it didn’t cover the Olympics. But you can’t become fixated.’ He adds: ‘For me, the greatest sadness was that it didn’t happen for Yogi [Briesner, team manager]. No one deserved it more. You could feel his pain. But I still loved it. London is etched on my brain, every single detail of it.’ Essentially, however, it’s William’s wholesale, uncomplicated enjoyment of the sport that drives him. He loves his horses-friend and teammate Mary King once said that any horse was lucky to be ridden by William-and can talk forever about their personalities. Ballincoola was ‘an Irish worrier’, Macchiato ‘would have chain-smoked if he was human’, and Tamarillo was ‘an unpredictable, spooky Arab’.
He’s always been sentimental about animals-aged eight, he made extra pocket money when his guinea-pig population exploded impressively from two to 86. The Fox-Pitt family now includes three generations of lurcher, a lop-eared rabbit (her mate met a traumatic end in a lurcher’s jaws), plus silkie bantams and Buff Orpingtons-the cockerel is on medication for concussion, thought to be caused by over-enthusiastic mating in a low-ceilinged chicken-house. Recently, William’s eyes lit up at an advertisement for an African grey parrot, but that was a step too far for Alice. However, she had to accept William’s present to her two days after the birth of their daughter, Chloe: a pair of pigs, Bubble and Squeak. ‘They were meant to be micro-pigs and I had a vision of [the fictional pig] Babe sweetly asleep on straw, but these were more like wild boars,’ laughs William. ‘I felt dreadfully suburban when I went to collect them, for some reason in a nice jacket and shoes and carrying a box labelled The White Company. Eventually, the man selling them wrestled one into the box and I carried it delicately back to the car, at which point, the pig torpedoed out of the box and covered me with muck.’ The world of eventing is not yet ready to give William up, but when it does, it’s going to be farming’s gain.
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Images: Phil Mingo/Horse and Hound