They are among the greatest names in British equestrian history – and with a combined age of 147, William Fox-Pitt, Michael Whitaker and Pippa Funnell simply keep on winning.
A quick tour over the past two weeks from Badminton, via La Baule on the west coast of France to the stunning setting of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, and one would have found these British champions on winning form.
Do not be in the least bit surprised, therefore, if the riders in question are integral parts of the Great Britain equestrian team at next year’s Rio Olympic Games.
Their performances during the past week to 10 days underlined the old sporting adage of “form is temporary, class is permanent,” and could have left no-one in any doubt about an enduring quality that augers well for Brazil in 15 months’ time.
At 46, Fox-Pitt’s second Badminton title 11 years after his first one rightly won universal acclaim. It was the 14th four-star title of his stellar eventing career, but never could one have been so popular as he steered the 15-year stallion Chilli Morning to a memorable victory.
Form and fitness prevailing, Chilli would appear to be Fox-Pitt’s Olympics horse, but he is in the enviable position of having so many others to choose from – proven four-star winners like Parklane Hawk, Bay My Hero and Cool Mountain – plus arguably the rising star at Fox-Pitt’s Dorset yard, Freddie Mac.
Across all the olympic sports, Fox-Pitt would probably be the nearest thing to a British shoe-in selection that is currently out there, and it would no surprise if three-time Olympic medallist Funnell joined him on the flight.
Funnell, also 46, enjoyed a mesmeric run of success during the early 2000s, when she followed up her achievement as European individual champion by winning Badminton three times in four years and becoming the first, and still only, rider to complete the Rolex Grand Slam, a lucrative cash prize to awarded to anyone clinching consecutive Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky titles.
Fast forward to 2015, and Funnell’s performance at Chatsworth should not go unnoticed, winning the CIC three-star for a record third time on Sandman 7, while also landing one of the one-star sections aboard Billy Walk On.
German-bred Sandman is owned by Funnell and her mother Jenny Nolan, and they gave a third share to Funnell’s long-time trainer Ruth McMullen for her 80th birthday. “He is getting better and better and is a horse for the future,” Funnell said, while of Billy Walk On, she added that the horse has been “freakily quick to progress.”
A quick hop across the Channel, and showjumper Whitaker could be observed at his brilliant best, anchoring Great Britain to a thrilling victory at the La Baule Nations Cup.
Whitaker, 55, faced intense pressure, knowing he could not afford a fence down if Britain were to take top honours, while his first round aboard Cassionato had been far from straightforward, with the Yorkshireman requiring all his renowned horsemanship skills to conjure a clear round.
But he duly delivered the goods, showcasing exactly why he has won 15 major championship medals by once again leaving every fence up and ensuring that together with his team-mates Joe Clee, Spencer Roe and Guy Williams, Britain continued a hugely-impressive start to Di Lampard’s reign as chef d’equipe.
“I knew I had to go in and have less than four penalties, so the time really mattered,” Whitaker said. “The first round was a bit difficult, but the second round was great, he really went well and gave me a good ride.”
And Lampard added: “Everyone was exceptional, and for Michael to pull it out the bag in the way he did made it spectacular.”
Roll on Rio!