Following a Badminton star in the making
Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire
"When people ask me what I'd love to win, I say Olympic gold. But Badminton would be very shortly afterwards."
Piggy French is 30 years old, one of the best three-day eventing riders in Britain, and nervous. Badminton Horse Trials are a month away, and a BBC Sport camera crew - in the shape of me - will be following her all the way.
Badminton sends shivers down her spine. It is her sport's equivalent of the British Open golf or Wimbledon tennis.
The sport of eventing requires that you pilot your horse through the technical drill of dressage, the strategic endurance test of cross-country and the pressure cooker of a showjumping finale.
At Badminton, all three push both horse and rider to the limit - and, this year, Olympic qualification is a factor as well. I'm following French and her horse, Jakata, to find out what goes on behind the scenes at a competition this big.
Highlights: Final day of Badminton Horse Trials (UK users only)
The only problem? French has a terrible Badminton record. She has competed three times: on the most recent two occasions being eliminated before the finish. A 31st-place finish on her Badminton debut in 2003 remains her best record to date.
"Badminton has not been a great place for me. It's been an unlucky place," she says. "It'd be fabulous to put the ghosts to rest, and that's what we'll try to do."
I'm taken down to the stables to meet Jakata, a violent-brown machine of a horse whose muscles bubble like pistons with every movement. Jakata is developing a reputation for both liveliness and excellence, having surprised many in the sport by proving good enough to go to the World Equestrian Games with French last year. Few people expected the pair to get selected. They finished 16th, which doesn't sound marvellous, but French came back confident that her horse looked "very exciting for the future".
Now here we are in the future - but things are not going to plan. This year's Badminton preparations have been hampered by an error in an earlier competition where Jakata took an unexpected dip in a water jump, up to his ears. The horse emerged thoroughly discombobulated and is now ginger, to say the least, around parts of the cross-country. More importantly, the soaking has made the horse a little sceptical of his rider. French needs to regain his trust, sharpish.
"He fell in a water jump - for no reason, he just stumbled down - and he didn't like that much. We're going back to basics and working on getting his trust back, showing him it's alright and that doesn't need to happen again," she says.
Eventing is as much about the horse as the rider, if not more so. In almost all Olympic sports, the athletes follow a strict dietary regime, receive regular sports massages, and have teams of people dedicated to their welfare. In equestrian sports, the horse is substituted for the human. Over the coming weeks I'll see Jakata receiving ice baths, electronic massage blankets and blood tests. To do well at Badminton, French must be on her game but Jakata must be in phenomenal form.
Fast forward three weeks later and I'm sat in French's horsebox, en route to Badminton with the competition only a couple of days away. She drives, with head lad Stuart Ward - charged with keeping the yard ticking over and the horses in top condition - accompanying a small Jack Russell in the combined kitchen-and-bedroom behind us. Jakata is in the back, presumably going through some positive-mental-attitude stuff.
This is not a cheap sport. Even the horsebox cost £35,000 and that was six years ago, when it was already 15 years old. When we stop for fuel, the reading on the pump is an eye-watering £359 and that's not a full tank. As for the price of horses, French herself - along with many other riders - could never afford them on her own. Like a top football or Formula 1 team, wealthy owners and sponsors are the financial guarantors.
Not what most of us want to see at the pumps - the cost of filling up a horsebox.
And this is a team sport, too. French is front-of-house, riding the horse and doing the interviews, but there is a small armada of stable staff - led by Ward - propelling her to Badminton. There is also a secretary for all the paperwork, while vets, physios, farriers and horse dentists enjoy frequent cameos at the yard.
"It's scary to think how many people are behind you and do so much for you," says French as we swap the horsebox for Jakata's regal stable inside the main Badminton complex. This is the heart of one of the world's biggest equestrian events and it is awash with the finest three-day eventers alive, people who have trained legendary horses and become legends themselves. This will be the strongest Badminton field in years.
As the weekend progresses, it becomes slowly evident that French is a contender.
The first sign comes at the end of the dressage, a discipline in which the immaculately presented horse and rider, replete with top hat and tails as tradition demands, must demonstrate a series of precise movements and around predefined coordinates in the arena.
It is near-impenetrable for untrained spectators but three judges sit at various points, marking each element of the routine. French and Jakata are among the last of many dozens of competitors over a two-day span, and with their very last movement they score the only perfect 10 to be awarded to any horse at the event.
French is not a dressage specialist and Jakata is not dainty. That score, and the second place to which it helps her after Badminton's first stage, are enough to moisten her eyes as she dismounts Jakata to cheers from the crowd and a hug from dad Wally.
Wally French has in some respects been the architect of this partnership. Eighteen months ago, he and friend Michael Underwood set out to find a horse that they believed would match his daughter's talent. "You're not going to get anywhere if you haven't got the horsepower," he reasoned. They came back with Jakata.
Getting an unexpectedly excellent dressage score is a fine start for French, but Badminton is so gruelling that the dressage can end up almost forgotten by the end - particularly after Sunday's daunting cross-country stage.
Here, horses must mount a four-mile dash across uneven ground and a series of challenging jumps, each designed to make horse and rider think and test their communication. You earn penalties if your horse refuses a jump and riders who fall are eliminated entirely from Badminton, but you must also be quick as you are further penalised for every second you take over a specific time - 11 minutes and 16 seconds.
Badminton Horse Trials: Cross-country helmet-cam (UK users only)
This year, the Badminton cross-country proves viciously tough. Three riders are hospitalised (though all three, and their horses, recover quickly) and 18 horses in all are wiped out of the reckoning one way or the other.
Again, French is one of the last to go - her fate for having ended up as number 120 out of 131 when drawing lots at the start of the week. She avoids any mishaps on the course, but Jakata slows up and the duo receive time penalties as a result, pushing them down to fifth.
For someone who has never beaten 31st place, heading into Badminton's final day in the top five might seem pleasing at the very least. But that night, back in the stable, French seems closer to mortified.
"I wasn't happy," she later confesses. "I felt I had missed the chance to finish in the top three for the sake of five or six seconds. On a scale of 11 minutes, you wonder how you couldn't make five seconds up."
But a strange thing happens on Monday: a showjumping course that initially appears easy slowly starts to bite competitors as the day wears on. Riders are penalised four points for each jump they knock over and, since fewer than four points separate the top 12 competitors on a congested leaderboard, one fault is enough to blow anyone's challenge apart.
Piggy French on her way to a clear showjumping round aboard Jakata. Photo: Getty Images
French, fifth-last to compete, goes clear. And then all the two of us can do is watch, and listen - French with her team and family, me with a camera hovering about five feet away. As we do, the next three riders all clip a fence. French is in the lead with only New Zealand veteran Mark Todd, a three-time Badminton champion already, to go.
The 90 seconds that Todd takes to complete the course feel like a lifetime for me filming, let alone French. I can't see the action as I'm filming her, so the only cue I have is the sound of the crowd. There is an audible gasp as Todd's horse grazes the first jump, but leaves it intact. Then, aching silence. Applause in the middle of proceedings is not the done thing here.
An explosion of sound, however, greets Todd as he successfully clears the final fence to win his fourth Badminton title. French, who has barely been able to watch, receives supportive hugs. I'm wondering how happy she is. Is second OK? Or is it devastating to come that close to first place?
Second, it transpires, is more than OK. After an hour of laps of honour, presentations, press conferences and autograph sessions, French is in a state of near-collapse. She can barely articulate her happiness. Second to Todd, one of the legends of equestrian sport, will do for her.
"It's everything," she says. "The very best in the world were here this year and it's an incredible feeling. I haven't got anywhere near being competitive or even in the top 10 before. It's very, very special to be the best of the British at one of the biggest events in the world.
"I've been in this sport long enough to see other competitors do well, congratulate them, see what it's all about... and wish, and hope, that one day that would be me."
Her father fights back tears as I speak to him. He says: "I am so proud of her, I can't even begin to tell you. She has worked hard, hard, hard. She's always been knocking at the door - she has the skill, she has the ability, she's always believed she's had these things and we've always believed too.
"She's never had a proper, big win. She's had some good wins but never anything too big. This is a big occasion for her. She may not have won it but she's proved her ability."
Jakata gets a reward, too. By completing the Badminton event, one of only seven top-class eventing tournaments in the world, he qualifies himself for the London Olympic Games. There is no guarantee he will be selected to compete for Britain, but it means he and French have their names in the hat.
"We're qualified for the Olympics, that in itself is now a pressure off," says French. "But we've got to be in form this good this time next year. I'm definitely not home and dry just because this week's gone well. I can't just relax and say I've done it. I'm still a million miles away.
"Next week we're eventing a load of horses down in Kent. Tomorrow morning I'll be up preparing them - you're back down to earth very quickly. But I think it's important not to miss what has come of this week, and to enjoy it. For the first time, we've done it."
You'll be able to see our footage behind the scenes with Piggy French on BBC TV and the BBC Sport website at a later date.