By Nancy Jaffer
Feb. 14, 2017
It wasn’t just an ordinary announcement. Word that former U.S. eventing coach and Olympic medalist Mark Phillips will be the new cross-country course designer for the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event looks like it could be a game-changer in several ways for the 15-year-old competition.
That’s how Dr. Brendan Furlong sees it. He believes in the event, and has been putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. The veterinarian’s Oldwick-based practice, B.W. Furlong & Associates, is investing $30,000 in the May 11-14 competition at the Horse Park of New Jersey.
“I think it’s great to have Mark on board. He’s a world-renowned course designer. I can’t wait to see what Mark will do with it,” said Brendan.
He won’t have to wait long. The designer said he already has devised his plan for the property in Allentown. Mark laid out the route this month for the highly successful Land Rover Eventing Showcase in Wellington, Fla., and handles a number of other events, including Britain’s Burghley 4-star (considered by many the toughest three-day event in the world). He also has developed the cross-country facilities for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C.
Having Mark involved “will be a very positive step in helping Jersey Fresh stay on the map, and I think the riders will welcome it,” Brendan commented.
Several riders last year mentioned that the tracks for the featured CCIs (the longer routes) were too twisty, blaming the need to compress them on a lack of sufficient land. Additional property has been made available for the course this year, so Mark will have more acreage with which to work.
While as Mark pointed out, there are turns in every course, his will be “completely different” from what has been done in the past.
“I promise you, it has mix and flow,” he said.
Holly Payne Caravella, a Jersey Fresh regular who has competed over Mark’s courses at Burghley and the Eventing Showcase, said riders wanted a change at Jersey Fresh, where John Williams has been the only designer for the last 14 years.
“I think people were definitely behind Mark designing it. His courses are not easy, but he makes them fair and definitely is good at using different terrain,” said the Gladstone resident. “I think everybody just wanted some new development there.”
She added, “The organizers are trying really hard to make it work. Over the years, they’ve done such a good job getting more sponsors behind it and drawing more people in. I think getting the land for the cross-country is a really big game-changer, too. That, combined with Mark, can bring a different feel to the event.”
The presence of such a high-profile designer also puts a bit of shine on the reputation of the event and the Horse Park, as Jersey Fresh organizer Jane Cory noted, while adding she hopes members of the park board who “are not so pro-Jersey Fresh, might help them see this is a really, really good thing.”
She added, “Anything Jersey Fresh does, if it turns out well, is a plus for the Horse Park. The member of the Horse Park board and chair of the Jersey Fresh committee, Dan Wunderlich, has been very helpful to us and is very onboard with the whole thing. Knowing he’s extremely positive about the progression, it has to help.”
John Williams had an extremely long run, but as Brendan pointed out, “It seems to be a trend that all the great events rotate course designers after several years. It brings a different flavor and perspective to it.”
An example is Rolex Kentucky, America’s only 4-star, where Roger Haller was succeeded by Great Britain’s Michael Etherington-Smith, who in turn moved on as Derek DiGrazia took over.
“To be able to get Mark is a great coup,” commented Brendan, formerly the veterinarian for the U.S. eventing team.
“Our hope is that potential sponsors see it’s a world class course designer coming on board with us, so I think it’s a very positive thing for the event and hopefully to increase awareness among potential sponsors,” Brendan observed.
“I think we’ve got an opportunity to up the ante,” added Brendan, whose son, Adam, serves on the Horse Park’s board. It may also help the park, which has not had much luck with fundraising, to buy new footing for the grand prix ring. More money needs to be invested in upkeep of the park in general as well.
“State land is the future of equestrian endeavors, particularly ones that require space, like driving and eventing,” Brendan commented.
Indeed, Mark is working with Richard Nicoll, who designed the driving marathon route at the park. The two, both natives of Great Britain, also are in touch through their work for the WEG, where Richard is laying out the marathon for the four-in-hand driving that is one of eight disciplines comprising that competition.
Richard told Mark he hated the Jersey Shore water complex on the marathon/cross-country route, because the island was too high.
“I said, `If you hate it and I hate it, why don’t we get together and do something about it?’’’ Mark asked him.
The resulting proposal calls for taking “the revetting off the island and lowering its height by about a foot,” so it in effect becomes a mound and the slope into the water is 30 degrees, not the much steeper 60 degrees that it has been.
“It will become a lot more user-friendly, both for the drivers and for us,” Mark maintained.
Fixing it involves a procedure “we think we can do relatively cheaply and the plan is to get the driving community to contribute in a small or major way,” noted Mark.
The water complex is a popular area for tailgating, which has increased at the event over the years. For the CCIs, the competitors will have three fences there, but “it’s very un-intense,” said Mark, because it comes relatively early in the course. The CCI 3-star is the only division that will meet the water both coming and going. There also will be another combination in the area, which tailgaters will be able to see.
Riders won’t have to wonder what Mark has up his sleeve for a twist in the course, the way he did a jump in the VIP tent at the Eventing Showcase.
“I have tried to be totally unclever,” Mark commented.
“I see my role this year as producing an enjoyable, educational fun course for horses and riders, to start to get the thing back on track. Depending on what budget we have in the future, that will determine what else we can do,” he said.
“This was a late decision obviously, so therefore the time and scope and budget for this year was limited. The mission was to make it user-friendly as possible for the horses and riders. It’s still got some 3-star questions—don’t get me wrong. Don’t go to the Jersey Fresh CCI 3-star and think it’s going to be a 2-star plan. It’s not. That wouldn’t be Mark Phillips if I did that.”
What is a Mark Phillips trademark? Every course designer has them. In Mark’s case, one is making sure fences are “up to height,” with an optic that means the fences appear big because of the way they are placed in the terrain.
“I think I have a reputation for making the distances and the questions work for the horses,” he added. Mark will be working with course builder Morgan Rowsell of Long Valley, who is also a course designer certified at the 2-star level. As Mark noted, this can be a learning experience for Morgan, and who knows? Eventually, he might wind up doing the Jersey Fresh courses himself someday. Morgan also is involved with the revival of the Mars Inc.Essex Horse Trials in Far Hills this June.
Already, Mark is getting feedback on his appointment to Jersey Fresh, reporting that riders have come to him and said, “ I wasn’t going to go this year and now I’m going to go.”
He remarked that, “the more that message goes out there, the more people are going to go, the more entries there are going to be; the more entries, the more sponsorship there will be. And if just as a start, (with) the driving and eventing working together, like on the island, we’re all standing together in a good and positive direction.” If between us, we can bring the eventing and driving back to life, God willing, that’s going to have a knock-on effect on the Horse Park.”
Another draw could be riders’ interest in competing over a course designed by Mark with an eye on Tryon 2018.
For someone who is “thinking of going to the WEG, it’s not going to do you any harm to jump a Mark Phillips course somewhere in your preparation,” Mark observed. Although the FEI hasn’t published its list of what needs to be done for riders to qualify for the WEG with a certificate of capability, for previous championships it has been either a CCI4* or a CCI3* and a CIC3*, according to the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s managing director of eventing, Joanie Morris. Jersey Fresh has both the CCI and CIC 3-stars.
“I’m hoping that having some new things happen this year will help to bring in some more bigger sponsors,” said Jane. One change will be to have all the show jumping phases, for both the CCIs and CICs, running on the final day of the competition. Previously, when show jumping was the second phase of the CIC, “it didn’t suit our property,” she noted.
Another attraction will be a 5K run and a 1K pleasure walk for people with or without their dogs on the Sunday, under the auspices of FlyPups. The organization transports dogs from desperate situations to foster homes, no-kill shelters, and forever homes. It also delivers trained dogs to veterans for service and companionship. Additionally, it brings aid to areas of natural disaster.