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|Here's another report from Horse & Hound reporter Ian
Russell, on his visit to the 2004 World Four-in-Hand
Championships at Kecskemet, Hungary.
Diary of a millionaire international sports writer
There?s nothing I enjoy more than a top-class driving trial, but the horse teams world championships came, for me at least, at a tricky point in the season. Arriving at Stansted airport at five a.m., I was already at the fag end of exhaustion, following a writing frenzy. I?d spent three 14-hour days covering driving, showjumping and showing at the New Forest and another two at Normanhurst driving trials. All five days had been written up for an excruciatingly tight deadline. I was square eyed and my head ached with information overload. As a result, my travel plans were neither complete nor very clever. I would fly to Budapest, get a train to Kecskemet (wherever that was), and er? figure it out from there. I?d had a few goes at schmoozing the Hungarian press office by email but they were always hugely busy, so I reckoned to sort things out on arrival. The journey began well, however, with a short flirt. Badly unshaven and felling rather groggy, I handed my papers to a pretty uniformed blonde girl at check-in.
?Business or pleasure?? she asked. When I explained my mission, she smiled and said - ?Ah, you are an international sports writer!?
My grogginess vanished at once. I practically danced into the departure lounge. International Sports Writer. So that?s what I was! Wow. I don?t know why I never thought of that before! I spent the entire flight designing new business cards in my head, but came back to earth at Budapest with a bit of a bump. Queuing to get off the plane, a baby was sick on my shoe. The uniformed lady at passport control looked like a Samurai warrior and made no flattering comments at all. However, when I changed a wad of pounds into Hungarian cash at the airport Bureau, they gave me several million Forints, and as I?ve never had a million anything before, I felt a whole lot better.
I usually get a bit confused abroad, and waste whole hours in pointless attempts at getting organised. This trip was no exception. I spent my first afternoon in Hungary blundering round the airport collecting maps, bussing into town, buying spicy things to eat in the street, and getting lost. On the plus side, I shed a reasonable amount of weight dragging luggage to the wrong places. I also lost a large amount of patience begging for help in sign language and accepting lots of useless advice. In the end I managed to board a train heading south to the driving championships. Three sweaty hours later (I decided to walk from the station into town ? bad idea) I tottered up to the reception desk of the biggest hotel in Kecskemet, gasping ?Have you a room??
They did not, and neither did anyone else. The receptionist shook his head in pity -
?I?m sorry sir, but it?s the world four-in-hand championships this weekend?you could try the Hotel Bastardo down the road??
Nobody had a room anywhere. By ten p.m. I was getting very hungry, and Hungary was getting very dark. Beer can sometimes be a wonderful help in times of crisis, so I hauled my bags into a bar and necked three long ones. For appearances sake, I added a steak to keep them company. I spread a few large pictures of horse teams on the tabletop and made extravagant hand gestures suggesting an important connection between myself and the world championships. I was hoping someone would shout ? ?Look! He is an international sports writer! Quick, Gregor, tell grandfather he must sleep in the chicken coop tonight? we have a guest!?
Instead, the waiter remarked, in rather good English, that the driving competition was way out of town and every room for miles around was taken months ago. I shuffled back into the street, looking and feeling like an international bag-lady. I began wondering if it was warm enough to sleep in a church doorway. Fortunately, after one last mile of pavement patrol, the receptionist in the last chance saloon ? the Hotel Central ? came to my rescue.
?Yes. We have one room left, for tonight only.?
Five minutes later I was in bed watching highlights of the first day?s driving action broadcast by the local TV station. Driving trials on the telly! I drank the entire mini-bar in celebration. Cor, I was thinking, televised dressage, how about that. There was a full hour of coverage on channel 14, so I guessed the Hungarian public must have a powerful appetite for carriage driving. (Judging by the content of channels 15, 16, 18 and 20 they have an equally powerful appetite for hard-core pornography, but that?s another story.) I went to sleep full of brandy and optimism.
The following day was yet more dressage, and I arrived bright and early at Kecskemet stadium in a clean white shirt. The security guards were impressive, although I had not anticipated that weight-lifters with truncheons would be needed to defend a horse-driving trial. These were the kind of blokes you would hire if you were planning to open a lap-dancing club in Baghdad. A short bout of grovelling got me past them ?it wasn?t half as hard as blagging your way into Royal Ascot, take my word for it - and in no time at all my photograph had been taken and attached to a laminated card to hang round my neck. This is the traditional method of humiliating journalists, but you always have to smile and say thankyou, exactly as if your greatest wish is to walk around all day with a naff yellow photocard bouncing on your chest at the end of a yard of crimson ribbon.
I emerged from the players? tunnel into the soccer stadium and blinked at the crowd basking in fierce sunshine. Britain?s very own Dick Lane was due in the ring in five minutes and I wanted to figure out the best vantage point. One of the Belgian squad was doing his routine for the judges, so I followed my nose to a long, rather attractive marquee at the far end of the pitch. Inside were around 20 tables laid for lunch, and at each end there were heaps of the kind of delicious-looking food that you know right away is heading for the tummies of people other than yourself. But it costs nothing to look, so I pulled up a chair near the front to watch Dick steering his Lipizzaners through the FEI routine.
On the subject of dressage, I believe I?m getting better at sussing out what?s happening, but only slowly. When I first attended driving trials I thought everyone?s dressage was super unless a groom fell on his head or a horse got loose, but I like to think I?ve moved on a bit since then. I thought Dick did well, and the judges weren?t too hard on him either. I stood up to clap as he exited the ring, which attracted the attention of Jozef, a nearby waiter. He zoomed in, intending, I assumed, to throw me out of the marquee for drooling near forbidden food. But I was wrong. Jozef wanted nothing more than to bring me a succession of chilled lagers. Then he invited me to help myself to consume anything else that might take my fancy. So I did.
* (Note to BHDTA ? any officials wishing to read flattering comments about themselves in UK magazine articles may wish to consider the potential benefits of supplying journalists with limitless food and drink at British driving trials, starting at Brighton next spring. Many thanks!)
The afternoon?s dressage passed in something of a daze, not least because of the surreal beauty of the horses orbiting the ring hour after hour. I have seen many thousands of horses at close range, but had never witnessed the spectacle of the world?s finest driven teams collected in one place. Throw in the marquee of milk and honey, and you have one very happy journalist.
Around five o?clock I began running around with my Dictaphone chasing quotes. I interviewed the overnight leaders ? Felix Brasseur, Chester Weber and Boyd Exell, attended the press conference, collected the results and the following day?s schedule, read it all in 35 seconds and grabbed a Coke, conscious that I still hadn?t arranged anywhere to sleep that night. Unfazed by my late request for help, the press office came up trumps with a room overlooking the following day?s marathon course.
It was so close that on Saturday morning I could have crawled to the obstacles on my hands and knees - and I very nearly had to, thanks to the company of a couple of jovial BHDTA fellows that I met in the bar on Friday night.
The marathon, as usual, was crunch-time for all concerned. I had a good idea of the layout, because I?d walked the obstacle course ? alongside a lot of competitors - at nine p.m. on Friday and again at seven a.m. on Saturday. (And If my editor at Horse & Hound magazine should happen to read this, I sincerely hope she appreciates what amazing lengths I go to for our loyal readers.)
The drivers had scouted the routes, but I had been hunting for good positions from which to take photographs. Around 40,000 spectators were anticipated, which had me worried that I might not be able to see anything at all, let alone take pics. Committing eight likely-looking spots to memory, I nipped back to the hotel for breakfast, reasoning ? correctly, as it turned out ? that I?d be stuck out on course all day. This time, there would be no miracle marquee to sustain me.
The crowds were streaming in by eight o?clock. There were thousands of cheerful Hungarians and groups of polite Dutchmen wearing orange wigs. In the cafes were gangs of excitable Italians, well-behaved Belgian families, and a few Yanks. And everywhere there were vast mobs of Germans equipped with everything money could buy. They had scarves and baseball caps and jumbo flags. They had cameras, binoculars, picnic hampers, shooting sticks, collapsible chairs, extending ladders and stopwatches. They had full-colour catalogues, carriage-shaped pastries and luminous 3D course maps. Some had global positioning devices in their shoes. And they had made camp in every spot I had chosen for myself - at every one of the eight obstacles! It was incredible. It was as if the Germans had sent someone out the night before to look for?but, silly me. Of course they had. There was nothing for it but to fall back on traditional British virtues, so I yelled at the Hungarian TV crew ??Let me through, I am an international sports writer!!? and elbowed a couple of elderly female stewards out of the way. Now, if I stood on tip-toe, I had a clear view of obstacle six.
The Brits and most of the superstars weren?t scheduled to go early, so I?d decided to work backwards through the hazards as the day wore on. I snapped away at six until around ten a.m., when two of the TV camera crew leaned against me to balance while snogging, which I took as a cue to move.
Unfortunately, as I attempted to cross the park from six to four, a horde of excited fans began sprinting from four towards six. It was like a cartoon cavalry charge, with flags swirling, voices chanting, and one specific idiot running in the wrong direction until he was knocked flat and trampled. When the dust settled, I got up and made a universally understood gesture of contempt involving a traditional arrangement of fingers.
I limped over to the water obstacle. I liked it there, and stayed for an hour. When it got too hot - about every twenty minutes ? I could wander into the lake to cool off, and it?s always fun watching the horses crash through the water. Boyd Exell came crashing along and got hooked on a post for a while, prompting some desperate hoots of encouragement from the Aussie fans in the grandstand. Incredibly, it rained, and then the sun came glaring right back. Steam came off the damp crowd. The Germans switched on their portable hair driers.
It?s a frustrating aspect of the job that you can?t possibly see all the vital action. You long to dash from hazard to hazard to catch your drivers of choice, but it?s just not practical, particularly when there are thousands of equally fanatical people rushing around with their own agendas. And it was hot the way a sauna full of sumo wrestlers is hot. I made it to six of the eight obstacles in all, purple-faced from running and shoving and arguing in four languages. It was, as usual, crazy trying to keep track of the leader board, with times coming over the tannoy from obstacle two at the same instant as the current trail-blazer entered number seven.. I was determined to get a decent shot of whoever won the marathon, and ended up climbing a fence to squat on the bank of the final hazard, where I snapped a nice shot of the ultimately victorious IJsbrand Chardon powering out of the last gate.
Around six pounds lighter than at breakfast , I trotted a mile back to the lorry park, where I found Dick Lane in a contemplative frame of mind. He?d had a gruelling afternoon, and while he was clearly glad of the experience, I could tell he?d been hoping for a better round. In the stadium, I found Karen Bassett appealing against a penalty the judges had saddled her with - a disputed whip offence. She gambled 50 quid on the appeal, and got the verdict ? cue whoops of delight, and rightly so. This lifted her from 18th to 12th in the marathon placings, a performance that confirmed her international standing. It would have been nice to catch up with Adrian Puddy or Wilf Bowman-Ripley, but it was time for another press conference, another dozen sheets of statistics, a chat with the new names on the leader board, another three-page schedule, and then, as on Friday, a long award ceremony in the stadium. I don?t mind going 13 hours between meals ? well, I can stand it? but I admit I was pooped by Saturday night. I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed. The last thing I remember was the sound of a local pop group in the bar downstairs singing ?Yellow Submarine? in Hungarian.
Sunday got off to a difficult start, with two different versions of the marathon results kicking around the press office. Unless you?ve got three separate brains, you cannot assess the performances of thirty-odd contestants from memory, so these are vital statistics. Everyone on the organisational end was getting pretty ratty ? it had been a long week for them ? and the atmosphere was tetchy, like kids on the last day of term.
But out in the stadium, the cones contest was delivering top-class entertainment. A huge crowd turned up to watch, the sunshine was remorseless, the horses gleamed.
Both the individual and team titles hung in the balance to the very end. Between times, the applause that rang out for Karen Bassett, the only female competitor at the championships, was rather moving. At the climax I joined a little clump of Brits by the trackside, and stood chatting with English horse-pairs doyen Sarah Garnett. We watched Michael Freund?s superb double clear round, and oohed and aahed with the spectators as IJsbrand Chardon cracked under the pressure, handing a fourth world title to his German rival. When the Hungarians realised they?d bagged the team title, there was an outbreak of civilised mayhem, involving lots of hugging and jigging.
I retired to the press office to play international tabletop rugby. This involves the press of all nations wrestling with crumpled bits of paper and grunting like hogs and demanding hard facts and not getting them. Another press conference and another lengthy award ceremony followed, with round two of the tabletop rugby not much more illuminating than the first. Then the organisers wanted to ship all the journalists out to a mystery address in the Hungarian countryside for yet another reception. But I had work to do, and was soon locked in my third hotel room of the week, gobbling crisps, listening to taped interviews, charging batteries, making notes, prodding words into my laptop, and wondering how on earth I was going to catch a plane out of Budapest at 6:30 a.m. the following morning.
I wasn?t, of course. As it turned out I woke up at four to find my torso resembling a sheet of bubble wrap. A platoon of fat mosquitoes lay burping on the pillow. After a short and messy series of killings, I slept for three more hours. Knowing I?d missed the plane, I got up late and walked into town, where I bribed a teenager to translate for me at the internet caf?from which I eventually sent my copy. Job done, I sighed with relief.
When I finally I got back to Budapest it was near midnight, inky dark, and the station was getting spooky, what with the junkies and hookers forming colonies in every corner. Right on cue a wheel fell off my suitcase and suddenly my lap-top seemed to weigh about three stone. Making an idiotic mistake, I allowed myself to be hustled by a Turkish taxi driver who will, I hope, spend eternity roasting in the flames of hell. This joker took me on a monstrously expensive tour of the city while actually transporting me around 800 yards. And he dumped me outside a hotel which was fully booked. He was not at all typical of the country?s inhabitants, as most Hungarians I had met were extraordinarily nice.
My last stop in Hungary was a motel near the airport. I checked in at two a.m. scowling and sober as ? Ian Russell from Horse and Hound magazine.? The receptionist smiled as I ordered two beers in quick succession. She gave me a bar bill for 870 Forints (about ?1.50). I gave her a thousand and told her to keep the change. You can do that when you?re a millionaire. She glanced at the register where I?d signed in.
?Horse and Hound?? she said, quizzically. ?Like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill??
?Yes, I suppose so,? I preened, and hoisted the kind of confident smile you?d expect to see on the face of an international sports writer.
?Your head is covered in terrible mosquito bites,? she said, and handed me an aerosol spray.
? Ian Russell September 2004
CLICK HERE for the results of the 2004 World Four-in-Hand Championships
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