Photos: Kit Houghton/Mitsubishi Motors
A tepid sunrise made its way over Badminton house this morning, heralding the start of cross-country day at the 2017 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials. Before the spectators arrived in their thousands and the trade village opened for business, grooms could be spotted grazing their charges on the immaculate front lawn of the Duke of Beaufort’s stately home and riders, too, took the opportunity for a final walk around Eric Winter’s formidable cross-country course.
The course, which director Hugh Thomas described as a ‘back to the future Badminton’, will ask tough questions of the competitors. Favouring big, old-fashioned design over excessive decoration, it’s nonetheless a serious test of bold riding and accuracy.
“I want to reward proper jumpers who are good in the air and riders with balance and rhythm who feel and adjust as they ride,” says Winter, who is making his debut as Badminton designer this year after 10 years as course designer at Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials and stints designing at the Pony, Junior and Young Rider European Championships. “I didn’t want to give riders something they could build in the arena – I wanted to make good use of the ground and terrain, too.” He admits that he’s spent the past 10 years walking the course and imagining how he’d build it if he was given the chance, and says that when the chance did come, he needed to build a ‘gut-feel’ track.
The decisions he’s made on the course may have been instinctive to him, but they’ll also reward instinctive, forward-thinking riding. The course hearkens back to vintage Badminton, with rustic timber fences, tricky lines and ample brush, but employs the best of 21st-century safety technology – something that Hugh Thomas has been able to help with. Thomas has been a pivotal part of the extensive safety research done within the sport, particularly on deformable fences, which give way to excessive pressure and are tested with artificial horses in controlled crashes. As a result, he’s very aware of which types of jump benefits from the addition of frangible or deformable technology, and which is likely to cause more harm than good. With the combined efforts of Winter’s design experience and Thomas knowledge of safety, Winter hopes for his ideal Badminton – 50% of the field clear across country, with six inside the time and no fallers.
The field in question hasn’t been resting on its laurels, either, with riders undertaking multiple course walks to create a plan of action that suits their riding style, the horse that they’re riding and the conditions on the day.
One question on the course that has made them all sit up and take notice is 15, the Hildon Water Pond. The direct route involves a tricky line over three skinny logs over a hill and through the water, and will be a major test of riders’ accuracy. Winter says that the logs were moved incrementally multiple times during the building of the course as he tried to find the fine line between jumpable and impossible. An alternative route is available, but will cost the riders precious seconds in what will be a tight optimum time of 11 minutes, 35 seconds.
Fence 22, the Wadsworth Lakeside, has been the subject of much discussion in the lead-up to today’s competition. Featuring a bullfinch – or brush fence – out of water, which horses will have to push through, the fence has been dubbed too old-fashioned for modern courses. Several riders worry that their horses, which are taught to jump high and clean by today’s courses, won’t know what to do, and may stop or attempt to clear the full height of the obstacle. However, others argue that a bullfinch is one of the most straightforward obstacles and will reward confident riding.
So who should you be watching as the cross-country kicks off today? The first of the top ten after dressage on course is France’s Astier Nicolas, riding the Selle Francais gelding Piaf de B’Neville. Together, they won team gold and individual silver at the Rio Olympics and scooped the CCI4* at Pau in 2015. This will be their first international since Rio, but both horse and rider are immensely cool and calm under pressure and can put in a blisteringly fast clear on their day. They leave the start box at 12:10.
Germany’s Bettina Hoy and Designer 10, lying in 8th place overnight, will start at 13.02, followed shortly thereafter by 7th-placed Thibaut Vallette and Qing du Briot ENE HN at 13.10. Hoy will be hoping for a steady clear round – Designer 10 is consistent across the country, with only two jumping faults on his international record since 2010, but they’re likely to come in over the optimum time. The Cadre Noir’s Vallette, mounted on the slightly less experienced but hugely talented Qing du Briot, will also be hoping to shave a few seconds off his time to preserve his place in the top 10 at his first Badminton.
Crowds will gather to watch the master of modern eventing try to defend his title when he sets off at 13:18. Currently in 9th place, and fresh off the back of his Rolex Kentucky CCI4* win last week, Michael Jung will be aiming to deliver one of his trademark unbeatable rounds aboard La Biosthetique Sam FBW. Although only just within the top ten, the pair has a record of climbing the leaderboard to take the win at this level, most notably at the London Olympics, where he climbed from 11th after the dressage to take the individual gold. La Biosthetique Sam FBW has only notched up a combined 0.8 jumping penalties across his record six CCI4* wins – so Jung will once again be aiming to finish on his dressage score.
Don’t miss the double-bill at 15:50, as Ireland’s Jonty Evans – currently in 3rd place aboard Cooley Rorkes Drift – heads out, followed by Germany’s Ingrid Klimke, who sits only an 0.8 penalties ahead of him in 2nd. Evans, who describes Cooley Rorkes Drift as his ‘horse of a lifetime’ performed a personal best dressage test yesterday to earn a 37.2. The horse, who hasn’t had any jumping penalties across the country since early 2015, may struggle to come in under the optimum time – but his recent form, and his ninth place finish in Rio, mean that he’s certainly one to watch and could find himself moving up the leaderboard if he can pull an efficient clear out of the bag. Klimke and Horseware Hale Bob OLD have had a successful start to their 2017 season, with two international wins already at the 2* level. Klimke will be hoping that these lower level runs have built up the horse’s confidence and that he’ll be in an attacking frame of mind to take on the formidable course. If they can bag a clear round today then they can be certain that their enviable record over the poles will stand them in good stead tomorrow.
Current leaders Chris Burton and Graf Liberty will start at 16:34 and will aim to set a lightning-fast pace. Known as ‘the fastest cross-country rider in the world’, Burton won’t be easy to catch, and Graf Liberty hasn’t had a cross-country jumping penalty at any of the international events he’s contested. If both are on form today, their round will be an example of forward-thinking, calculated riding at its very best – don’t miss it.
Hoping to cheer on the British contingent? Badminton first-timer Alex Bragg flies the flag at 11:38 this morning aboard Zagreb. Crowd favourite Oliver Townend rides Samuel Thomas II at 11:54 and ODT Ghareeb at 16:46, followed both times by Tina Cook, riding Calvino II at 11:58 and Billy the Red at 16:50. Rio team member Gemma Tattersall takes to the course with the ex-racehorse Arctic Soul – 3rd here last year – at 15:22.
For full start times and live results, visit the Badminton website
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