The start of the course has a familiar look as competitors set out over the user-friendly Dubarry Boot (1) and the Land Rover Feeder (2).
As ever at Gatcombe, the opportunity to settle nerves is then over as horses and riders turn in the trade stand area to the brand new Venture Ski Jump (3). Courage and determination will be needed to launch out down the steep slope into the darkness of the wood, if riders are to avoid an early disappointment.
The Hi Ho Silver Bangle (4) needs a little care as horses come back in to the bright light before crossing to the Goodyear Safety Pinned Rails (5) and the roller coaster ride up over the EHOA – Martin Collins International Stables (6).
The next big test is at the Dodson & Horrell Crossing (7), which is unchanged from last year. Here both power and accuracy are needed as riders jump the first narrow log, before a bending two strides to the step and bouncing over the second narrower log. The fact that these fences are not in a straight line means riders will have to be very careful not to miss the last element. For the unfortunate, there is an easy alternative over to the left as we always try to give the not so brave or inexperienced combination, a ‘get out of jail’ option.
There is an opportunity to make up some time over the Bouvet Ladubay Log Pile (8) and the ABS Feeder (9). Then its time to concentrate though at the Hamptons International House (10), as it would be easy to trip over the gate going in with the ground running away, before the big jump over the Table in the House and the oh so easy to miss Wall Garden on the way out.
The BETA Steps (11,12) is another new combination, where riders will need a little pace to jump the impressive triple brush before having to steady and turn up to jump the pallisade with its precipitous decent down across the lane to the oh so skinny triple brush after. It will be with a feeling of relief that riders descend down the bank to the Bedmax Stick Pile (13).
The impressive looking new Pet Plan Equine Corners (14) were taken in all manner of directions last year, many of which were not thought possible by the course designer! There are again numerous lines, depending on whether riders are brave enough to risk the time saving inside turns, but hopefully I have restricted the riders to the planned options this year.
The Peer Traditional Limework Wall (15), the BGC Garden Hedge (16) and the Casalier Chambers Birch (17) will be something of a let up before the most intensive part of the course in front of the house in the famous Park Bowl.
The Land Rover at the Folly (18) fences are always some of the most influential on the course. This year horses travel under the bridge to jump a big looking table, before a related distance to a squeakier version, and a blind turn around the Folly to the last narrow element. Time is not the essence here but rather a good smooth rhythm to ensure safe passage.
Down in the bottom of the valley is the brand new Maui Jim Beach Punts (19). This is the first time horses have jumped the water in this direction and will make the already difficult time at Gatcombe that much harder to achieve.
Horses then climb up the other side to a little respite at the Burleigh Court Hotel (20) before going back down to the impressive new Darby Solicitors Footbridge (21). There is no rest as they turn over the British Eventing Angle (22) and quickly on to the feared BETA Splash (23, 24). The jump in to the water is unchanged but riders will have to have their reins about them and be going purposefully forward to negotiate the new offset houses on the way out.
Riders can start to think of home as they leave the park over the Hamptons International Punt (25), although the Joules Picnic Table (26) and the British Eventing Festival Finale (27) have to be negotiated before they reach the welcome site of the finish.
As ever this year’s track is very much a championship track. The winner will be a worthy champion and will deserve to join the Gatcombe roll of honour that really reflects a who’s who of great riders in the sport, past and present.