Philip Barker

One of the great pleasures of the Tokyo Olympics was to visit the equestrian events. These were staged in an arena that had been part of the Games in 1964. And, when Britain took the team eventing crown, it also brought back memories of a previous golden era.

Exactly 50 years ago this week, a promising 21-year-old rider became the European eventing champion. Her participation meant the sport attracted more media attention than at any other equestrian event other than the Olympics. The reason being, this was Princess Anne.

At the presentation ceremony that year, she was congratulated by her mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who has enjoyed equestrian sport since childhood and had clearly passed the passion on to her only daughter. It was the Queen who gifted Doublet, a thoroughbred gelding originally bred as a polo pony. The pair began competing together in 1969 and soon gelled into an impressive combination. "He possessed the X factor, he enjoyed what he was doing and was on your side," the Princess wrote later.

In the early stages of her career, Princess Anne was mentored by the Queen’s equerry Sir John Miller and coached by Alison Oliver. At the 1971 Badminton Horse Trials, her first at that level, she placed fifth, which she admitted was "beyond our wildest dreams".

The selectors then met to choose the team for the European Championships. "We have been greatly impressed by her performance on Doublet at Badminton," chairman of selectors Captain Martin Whiteley admitted. "There are a large number of experienced combinations available and, as this was her first international competition, it was not thought advisable to include her on the shortlist."

Princess Anne in action at the 1974 Windsor Horse Trials ©Getty Images
Princess Anne in action at the 1974 Windsor Horse Trials ©Getty Images

It was perhaps unsurprising, for the British trio of Mary Gordon-Watson, Richard Meade and Mark Phillips had won gold at the 1970 World Championships, a feat they were destined to emulate at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The Princess was invited to enter as an individual, but only two months before the competition, she was taken ill and hospitalised for an emergency operation on an ovarian cyst - she later described this as "having various revolting bits removed."

A cautious Buckingham Palace statement said: "The Princess has not done a lot of riding lately because of her illness. It depends very much on how she gets on this weekend in the horse trials at Eridge."

This was a small show in the South of England which nonetheless attracted a high standard of competitor. All seemed to be going well until a refusal by Doublet at the water put the pair out of contention. The Princess noted that the selectors "forgave my sloppy fall."

It was soon confirmed that she would be one of 28 individual competitors. The setting was at Burghley, the ancestral home of the Marquess of Exeter, himself an Olympic gold medallist over 400 metres hurdles in 1928. Organisers reported the participation of 50 riders, a record for the event, and it was sponsored by the cycle firm Raleigh to the tune of £3,000 ($4,112/€3,497).

From the first day of dressage, the Princess and Doublet were installed at the top of the individual leaderboard.
"The Princess attacked the cross country fences like a veteran," wrote an admiring Colonel Frank Weldon, who won gold at the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm. "I watched her over two of the more difficult places where seconds could be saved by taking a slight risk. She could not have ridden better."

Although Doublet stumbled at the Trout Hatchery, a famous obstacle that gave many riders problems, the duo came home in the second fastest time of the day to preserve her overall advantage. "Doublet is a good show jumper and if Princess Anne keeps her head as she has done so far, she will be the new European Champion," wrote Weldon.

In the jumping, with the spotlight on them, the pair went clear to clinch gold. "I did not think about any particular fence," Princess Anne said. "If I had done, I would not have been able to concentrate on the others. The part I enjoyed most was the end."

The Queen was on hand to present the trophy and later the Royal party flew back to Balmoral. Many observers now saw the Princess as a realistic contender for the 1972 Olympics, though the Princess herself admitted that "it is a long way away and there is a lot of work to be done."

Princess Anne, behind the camera at the 1972 Olympics, was often found chased by them ©Getty Images
Princess Anne, behind the camera at the 1972 Olympics, was often found chased by them ©Getty Images

Even so, Princess Anne had no little hostility from outside the ring. Showjumper Harvey Smith, arguably the highest profile equestrian star of the time, was reported to have said "I shouldn’t like them to select her for the Olympics next year", though many in the equestrian community lept to her defence, including Brigadier James Grose, director of Burghley and manager of the 1968 Olympic team.

"It is absolutely nonsense for Harvey to suggest she is not good enough for the Olympics," Grose said. "She is right at the top of the tree and proved her worth in the championships which in my view are second only in standard to the Olympics."

In fact, the Princess was only able to watch the Games as a spectator, alongside her father Prince Philip, as Britain retained the team title and Richard Meade won individual gold for good measure - Doublet had injured his front leg at Burghley and developed tendon trouble which became all too apparent at the start of the following season, such is the relationship between horse and rider that her Olympic prospects were dashed.

By the time of the next Olympics, she had forced her way into the team. Now riding Goodwill, her place was cemented by another individual medal at the 1975 European Championships behind compatriot Lucinda Prior Palmer. 

By now, if not before, she had become very aware that this was a sport proved with no hiding places. Photographers stalked her every move, particularly on the cross country course where the prospects of an unseated rider were greatest. Her then husband Captain Mark Phillips revealed as much in an interview with our insidethegames colleague Alan Hubbard, then editor of Sportsworld Magazine.

Phillips admitted: "It perhaps makes it more difficult for some of the others. Suddenly, everyone else gets more attention from the media, much more clicking of cameras and people pestering them the whole time."

Princess Anne, centre, presents a silver medal to daughter Zara Phillips, right, at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Princess Anne, centre, presents a silver medal to daughter Zara Phillips, right, at London 2012 ©Getty Images

The Princess herself said: "I wouldn’t be doing myself justice as a competitor if I didn’t actually think I would like to go to the Olympics. "It wouldn’t bother me because the eventing world knows me well enough now. It’s never caused any problems to date."

The spotlight intensified with a television documentary, Montreal - A Royal Pursuit, which was transmitted shortly before the Games. Fronted by Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart, it chronicled her preparations.

The Games themselves were declared open by The Queen, the first instance in which a dignitary had opened an Olympics in which one of her children was participating. The photographers trained their lenses on her as Princess Anne entered with the rest of the British team wearing a red cape and broad-brimmed hat.

The competition was held at Bromont some 91 kilometres outside Montreal. The Princess was in 26th position after the dressage phase but came to grief at the 19th fence of the cross country. "I was going well, then I had a fall, I cannot remember anything else," she said.

Bertie Hill, a gold medallist from 1956 and now a team official, had been on hand to assist her as she had remounted and completed the course but the chance of any medal, individual or team had disappeared. 

Team-mate and defending gold medallist  Richard Meade later recalled: "There was a little bit more security, but it all worked out very well and when it came to the cross country competition she and I were the only ones to finish the course."

Although the Princess spoke in positive terms about returning for Moscow, the 1976 Games were to prove her only Olympic appearance, although she later succeeded her father, Prince Philip, as President of the International Equestrian Federation and also became a member of the International Olympic Committee. And, when her daughter Zara won team silver at the London 2012 Games, the Princess herself presented the medal, completing the love affair between Princess Anne and the Olympic Games.