The course has been the same since 1924.
The track is dead simple: right lead around the outside, up the center, left lead around the outside.
There are no bending lines, just a few related distances, nothing of what we would consider “technical” in the world of Grand Prix jumping. There are only two striped rails on the whole courses, there are no standards in the shape of Shamu, or painted in the sponsor’s colors. There are no flower pots filling out the jumps. There is nothing on this course but old fashioned, permanent or natural looking fences. The only nod to modernity are frangible standards that collapse when a horse hits them rather than causing a rotational fall.
It is the most difficult jumper course in the world, and just completing it is an accomplishment.
Normally, in the VIP tent at a Grand Prix jumping event, three quarters of the patrons are not even watching the horses, they are talking amongst themselves, planning evenings or sealing deals. Not so here. This is riveting. Everyone is watching as the first horse begins:
The left standard of the first fence is part of the arena rail, so the crowd is just inches from the white flag. There may be umbrellas, because the rain starts and stops. Children may be running toward you as you approach it. You will be followed by the boom of a flying camera. The second fence is a redwood colored oxer, which visually blends into a shaded part of the crowd behind it. The rails fall easily from flat cups. Make a right turn toward the in gate and jump up an Irish bank, drop down for one stride across the in gate access and launch up and over the second Irish bank.
Continue the right turn and head for the water. This is an open water: no leading hedge, no potted plants decorating and demarking the edges of the span. Just a wide expanse of blue water to be cleared. Stretch over it, take a half half and wait for nine or ten strides to a tall grey vertical. A sweeping right turn under the many eyes in the two story VIP tribune, and approach the Hamburg Bank.
Launch up over the first white rail onto the bottom step of the bank. It’s a forward two strides to the next up rail to the highest level. At this point, at the flat top of the world, a horse will pause to figure out how exactly to get down the nearly vertical 16 feet of the back face. It was more straightforward in the qualifying round, with a clear galloping path beyond it the landing. Now there is a 1.6 meter white vertical placed one stride from the bank, and here, vertical means vertical, not a hint of a ground line to help find the take off spot.
Horses deal with this top of the slide question in any number of ways. They stop and stare. They test the slope. They back up. They rear in confusion. The brave ones walk to the brink, fold their hocks, lower their haunches, slide down and then bound over the vertical.
Clear this and the crowd will go wild. You’ll need to get your horse’s attention before the next fence, which is another part of the redwood colored second fence, this one a vertical…. No ground line on this one either. Continue right hand up the arena’s center for a vertical redwood gate. Gallop straight ahead for the massive birch oxer, a fly fence, then turn left for a living hedge and white rails beside the main grandstand. The crowd is ten deep, and they are an arm’s length outside the red flag on the right standard.
The Railroad Crossing in and out that comes next consists of two rails. That’s all, folks. A rail at the top of the standards, followed in one stride by a rail at the top of the standards. No filler, no ground rail, just five feet of air with a four inch thick pole over it. Think thats easy? Hans Guenter Winklers’ horse, decades ago, decided to go right under it instead of jumping it.
Turn left toward the Pulvermans Grob, named so because Pulverman, the original course designer, was year after year eliminated here. If you’ve ridden cross country you’ve been over coffins like this one: vertical, one stride, ditch, one stride, vertical…. But there are no penalties for rapping them on crosscountry. Here those rails come down if you breath hard on them.
Left past the VIP tribune, over a wall that is made of real stone, not painted plywood. Past the grandstand again, straight for a two stride combination of ditches and rails, left turn up the middle of the arena and finish over a brick wall.
This year we are treated to a jump off: two horses tied with four faults each. There were no clean rounds this year…. But that is not unusual.