Catherine Witt is unsurprisingly feeling rather nervous at the moment with the recent departure of Easy Target and Bay My Hero to Kentucky. They have both arrived safely and are settling in well to their new surroundings and we have just heard have both been accepted.
Catherine’s string of elite horses (Fernhill Pimms, Luxury FH, Parklane Hawk, The Soapdodger, Seacookie TSF, Alexander NJ, who is with Bill Levett, and Fernhill Highlight amongst others !!) are famous the world over and are rarely unplaced at the major events. This year’s Rolex 4* will see her cheering on 2 riders, William Fox-Pitt and Francis Whittington.
The Gaitpost enjoyed a chat with Catherine just before she left for the States and heard about her own inspirations, her role as an owner, dealing with the pressures on competition day and having the horses at her home, Rookery Park.
Generally, it has been mixed but that isn’t unusual. What is unusual is that William has won 2 one day classes already. By now he normally has a few time penalties and I get my money’s worth! I have never known him to have won a section so early.
The novice to intermediate horses have started to come to 2* events with some quiet runs but at this time of year, it is understandable that William has to concentrate on the 4* horses so the others have to go on back burner and as an owner you have to accept that.
Not at all, I knock off each stage as they go up the ladder. I feel a bit nervous for Easy Target. He has got the heart of a lion and he thinks he’s a thoroughbred but his breeding isn’t! I am conscious of that and the horse always comes first. Bay My Hero always looked like he could do it and I couldn’t have had a better rider to make the partnership what it is.
With this sport, it is a three-way partnership: owner, rider, and horse – it is a round ring – nobody is more important than the other.
The highs were definitely winning Rolex, but also right up there are Luxury FH winning the Intermediate and Francis becoming the British Eventing National Champion, which were both won at the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe.
Another very special moment was Francis coming second to Andrew Nicholson at Barbury in the CIC 3* and of course, Francis and Easy Target giving me my third win at Blenheim (both Seacookie and Parklane Hawk have also won there).
The lows were both horse and rider eating dirt at Badminton when Parklane Hawk fell at the fourth last and it was a huge relief to see him and William get up. Another massive low was making the decision to withdraw Parker from Pau when he was the joint leader with Ingrid Klimke. The ground had not softened at all and we had more to lose than to gain. We had won the year before with Seacookie and it is a much tighter track.
I have never regretted making a decision and I never want to feel that a rider is obligated. I give my view and opinion and I respect the rider. I would never judge them on their decision.
It was by a dear friend, Caroline Pratt, who has now departed. She evented and I used to have horses that went point to pointing. As the youngsters came up the ranks, I got concerned that they horses would get hurt, so she asked if she could take them eventing and I said yes and have never looked back. That was back in 2000 and I had lower novice horses then. It took about 6 years to get decent results. I remember one year when I had 4 horses in the final 10 at the Burghley Young Event Horse competition and I didn’t know that you could only have one rider per horse! I had to go and find people to ride them! Antonia Brown rode Bay My Hero and I finished with 1st 2nd 3rd and 4th. It was amazing! I was so naïve but it was all really fun.
We then had our friend Michael Wynne ride our horses. He rode a few novices for me and won an Advanced but I knew Michael was really a showjumper, and didn’t want to go up the levels. It was at this point that he met Rachel Wakefield and went on to have a great partnership with her, but it meant that I didn’t have a rider at home. I had a chance meeting with WFP one day when he played football with my son at an event, and we got chatting. I went home and said to my husband that one day I’m going to have a horse with WFP.
It wasn’t long after our football meeting that William called to say he had found a horse so I told him to get it vetted before I got over excited and that was the start of our partnership with WFP and the brilliant Seacookie. Lo and behold William called to say he had found another horse the following year but in New Zealand! We got him vetted before we flew out and travelled out together to see him. That was Parklane Hawk.
So everything to do with me and the horses has happened by chance and that’s what I love.
We were at an event at Thirleston Castle and Francis was parked next to us and I had never met him before. We chatted every morning about how the competition was going and made small talk and we had a really fun time. Francis went on to win and I sent him a message to congratulate him. Francis rang me later in the week, and told me that he had to sell a horse, one that he really believed in and didn’t want to sell and he said that he would love to sell him to me.
Easy Target arrived at ours and for some reason, horses for courses, Easy Target and Michael just did not click and Michael called Francis to tell him that things weren’t going very well. One day I was looking out of the window and saw a lorry that I thought was Francis’s. Francis had told Michael that he would come and pick him up and when I went out to see that it was Francis and he told me that he really believed in Smokey so I said well if you believe in him, you can ride him! Smokey was only 5 at the time doing Pre-Novices and now he’s in Kentucky!
I love the day before the trot up but as the week goes on, it gets more serious. I get awful butterflies in my tummy but I have a brilliant partner in crime who comes with me to many events and that is Carol Gee.
I always go the arena to watch the dressage with my sunglasses on and Carol has a habit of chatting the whole way through and asking lots of questions, but it is only afterwards that realise that she is trying to keep my mind off it all.
At Badminton last year, I was in the Owners tent watching on the screens when WFP fell. You go into shut down – a sort of silent mode takes over so you don’t hear anything that is going on. You just wait for them to get up and luckily they both did.
I have got 30 stables at home and 200 acres and the horses do mainly tend to come back to me during their break at the end of the season.
After Burghley last year, Bay My Hero came home and they tend to come as they each finish their season and get spoilt to death! Whenever WFP comes to visit them, they pretend they haven’t seen him – acting as if they have never seen him before as they are enjoying their holidays so much! Fernhill Highlight and Easy Target haven’t come back yet as Francis runs a different training programme to William but all the horses have quite a fan club and get lots of visitors.
I have all my retired horses at home as well. Seacookie, Primitive Lock and Foxtrot are all here – any horse I have ever had comes home. I feel obligated to let them see their life out here and I have no excuse not to let them come home. Even my retired pointers are here – one is 27 and one is 29! There is no hope !!
I think it is really important to remember that there are highs and lows for everyone involved. If anyone is thinking of becoming an owner, I would recommend you approach the riders. They may have other people who are interested in getting a small syndicate together. It is all about communication and other supporters and crucially, it is all great fun.
There are riders out there that need to find owners and with the powers of social media, there has never been a greater opportunity of getting like-minded people together.
To be fair I have to say that the organisers inspire me. They do so much for everyone and sometimes we don’t always get to see all that hard work. We go on the day and enjoy ourselves but there is so much behind the scenes work and most of us have no idea what goes into it. The late Bill Allen worked tirelessly for his events and he was not alone in doing so. We are all busy but it is important to recognise what the organisers do.
I can’t choose a horse so it would have to be my Dubarry boots – I don’t go anywhere without them!
Michael Owen’s racing stables are quite close to me and I was seriously impressed by his amazing set up, but if I had to choose, I love my own.
The UK of course! I think it is because we are so on top of the organizational side of things and we have fantastic attention to detail. I also think we are very fair. It is very encouraging for the sport to have so many international riders based here and there are more events here for everyone to get experience at.
I would like people to say that she looked like she enjoyed her eventing and that you can’t take life too seriously.
I have 2 …William Fox-Pitt and Francis Whittington
A good eye, a nice mover and a generous heart in equal measures
I’d be a funeral parlour owner. We have always had very special moments at funerals and have always made sure that they are special occasions. I’d love to help other people go through it – a lot of people are afraid of death and you only get the one chance to say goodbye. I’d want to help people get it right and not have regrets of wishing they had done it differently.
The most valuable advice I have been given is that from every adversity comes a greater and more fruitful opportunity and it came from my special friend who is also the most positive person I know, Carol Gee who owns Fernhill Sports Horses in Ireland.
I carry rosary beads everywhere.
When we went to Pau last year, on the Sunday after we had withdrawn, I went to Lourdes for the afternoon with William. We went to the Cathedral and lit candles for friends and family and it was incredibly special. Out of the adversity of withdrawing Parklane Hawk, came the fruitful positive that we got from our visit to Lourdes. I was the happiest owner there despite the set backs.
Always look ahead, never give up and find the positive – and if you follow that, you can’t go wrong. It doesn’t always go right for me, but I look for the positive. At the end of the day, life is 50:50 and I believe you might as well be happy with 50% than miserable with the other half. We can sometimes be around people who dwell on what has gone wrong, like having a fence down, but if the other 14 have stayed up, then you should be happy with the positives.
No – fate works as fate is going to work. My main thing is that horse and rider get round in one piece and if it’s not my day, it is someone else’s and I’m happy for them.
I enjoy going over the days’ competition and I love a cheeky glass of Pimms or champagne – and I love my spin class. It is a good 45 minutes of being told what to do! Not many people get away with telling me what to do!
Horses – and my cheeky glass of Pimms
Mints and carrots for the boys
My Dubarry boots
And my sunglasses – you can hide a million smiles behind the sunglasses!
Dick Francis or Jilly Cooper? Dick Francis
Royal Ascot or Cheltenham Festival? Cheltenham
Badminton or Burghley? Burghley
Sand or Snow? Sand
Tea or G&T? Pimms
Bay or grey? BOTH !!!!
Huge thanks to Catherine for her time speaking to us and to Alex van Tuyll, Nico Morgan and Lucy Hall for the photos.
Watch all the action from Rolex Kentucky on FEI TV (a subscription is required)