The son of HRH The Princess Royal and Capt Mark Phillips is now running the Festival of British Eventing, started by his parents almost 35 years ago. He spoke to Kate Green.
Peter Phillips can’t remember a summer without the horse trials in the valley bowl beneath his mother The Princess Royal’s Bathstone home, Gatcombe Park. His parents – one a European eventing champion (mother), the other a four-time Badminton winner (father), both of them Olympians – started the competition, now known as the Festival of British Eventing, in 1984 ‘to give something back’ to the sport they love.
He and his childhood friends, many of whom are still involved, gradually progressed from roping and errand-running to creosoting, cutting grass and driving buggies as part of Sir Jackie Stewart’s ‘Menial Task Force’ (MTF). The former champion racing driver, a long-time friend of the family’s, wanted to help and, not being a horseman, this was his lasting contribution: the MTF remains the glue that binds the festival.
‘As we got bigger, we became more – or perhaps less – useful,’ says Mr Phillips, who last year took over as director, with his father, Capt Mark Phillips, as chairman and cross-country course designer.
Although Mr Phillips didn’t follow his parents or sister, Zara, the 2006 world champion, into the multi-discipline horse sport of eventing, it remains a world in which he’s entirely comfortable.
‘When I was about 16, I was at the stage at which I would have needed a new horse to take it seriously and, as I was enjoying my rugby, I made a conscious decision not to pursue it,’ he says.
‘Eventing was, however, very much a part of growing up. It was great fun for the camaraderie. That’s not unique in the sports world, but eventing is like a travelling circus, a big family.
‘Rugby is more of a bonding experience because you’re there to fight for each other. With eventing, you can be world champion one day and the next go to a novice horse trials in Devon and fall flat on your face, and that’s what keeps the egos in check. You see the same people at every level…
‘It’s the same at Gatcombe, which is a landmark event, with three sought-after national titles [advanced, intermediate and novice] to be won, but also the Corinthian Cup, which gives amateur novice riders of all ages something to aim for and the chance to say they’ve ridden around Gatcombe, plus a class for retrained racehorses.’
Mr Phillips’s working background has long been in motor-racing – he met his Canadian wife, Autumn, at the Montreal Grand Prix.
‘Formula 1 was an amazing experience,’ he says. ‘There’s no better place to learn the sports-marketing world; it’s where the commercialisation of sport really started. Whether it has stood still is up for debate, but it’s a good place to cut your teeth.’
He now runs his own London-based sports and entertainment agency, SEL, and hopes to bring new energy to a much-loved occasion; one senses that his old MTF mates might see a more serious side to him.
‘When I set up SEL, I knew it was a crowded marketplace in which someone would always beat you on cost, so you have to be unafraid to do things differently, to ask “why not?”’ he explains.
‘Here, there are elements of the crowd experience that need tweaking and we need to make the festival more efficient and, dare I say it, modern. It’s a well-established event that we want to evolve and that’s a different challenge.
‘We’re in a conservative sport where you can’t manage without the volunteering aspect, but, at the same time, things have to move on. And you have to weigh up trying new things without alienating people. Or losing money! Eventing isn’t flush with cash; the issue is how to make it more attractive to sponsors and the public, who you want to leave with smiles on their faces.’
He admires what the Duke of Richmond has done at his family home with the Goodwood Revival: ‘I’ve never been a petrolhead, but some of the cars are amazing and the atmosphere, with everyone dressing up, is fantastic.
‘It’s like the Cheltenham [National Hunt] Festival and Ascot: people go to these things because they’re an “event” and that’s the point – it’s what you create around a sport that matters.
‘That’s what people worked out after the London Olympics, in which the spectator experience was brilliantly mapped out, from getting off the bus at the start of the day to getting back on it at the end.
‘London changed the whole view on spectators, who haven’t always been well served, but they’re our lifeblood and they need to arrive and to leave happy.’
Mr Phillips has already found a new title sponsor for the festival, the Australian bloodstock agency Magic Millions. ‘Katie Page-Harvey, president, wants to get the brand into Europe and her big push is to involve women in racehorse ownership, so there are synergies. Britain is the home of international eventing and it’s a good fit.’
It’s often been said that Mr Phillips is a thoroughly grounded person and a loyal friend whose idea of a day off is being at home in the countryside with his family and two working labradors, Bernie and Snipes (‘I insisted on having some male company’). He’s also got great charm and it’s a pity that his inevitable caution around the press means that his intelligence and opinions don’t get a wider audience.
His choice of politicians as dinner guests (see below) takes me by surprise, but he points out: ‘You can’t not be interested in politics at this time. The decisions made in the next few months will change our lives. We’re in exciting times, but we just need someone to make a decision!’
Decision-making looks to be something Mr Philips won’t shy away from himself.
The Magic Millions Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park, Gloucestershire, is on August 3–5 – see www.festivalofbritisheventing.com for more details.
Peter Phillips: On The Record
Where is your favourite place in Britain?
When the sun’s out, there’s no better place than the west coast of Scotland.
What is your favourite building?
St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where I got married.
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)—I loved it so much that I can’t bring myself to watch the film; I had to switch it off on a flight.
I’m a rock/pop person, from U2 to The Killers.
I’m a massive fan of Asian food—living in Hong Kong cemented that.
I’d like to sit between Bill Clinton, whom I haven’t met, and Sir John Major, one of the most captivating, likeable people I’ve met – that was a fascinating time in politics.