Top event riders from across the globe are currently safely installed at Badminton, Gloucestershire, and preparing for The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials 2006 (May 4th – 7th). Badminton is the oldest and most prestigious three-day event in the world and taking home the Badminton trophy is a lifetime ambition for the 80 or so riders who compete each year.

Around 150,000 spectators are expected to attend the event which boasts hundreds of trade strands and food tents. But this year groundbreaking changes have been made to the event format; the roads and tracks and steeplechase phases have been removed completely. Thus for the first time in the competition’s history, riders must set off around the world’s most famous course without the warm up phases.

Riding for glory

A broad line-up of top names hope to clinch the “new” Badminton title, including Britain’s William Fox-Pitt (Tamarillo and Ballincoola) and Pippa Funnell (Ensign). Fox-Pitt won in 2005 with Tamarillo and Funnell took home the 2004 trophy with Primmore’s Pride. Mary King, winner in 2000, will also be competing with a newly acquired ride, Cashel Bay – formerly ridden by Terry Boon. Polly Stockton will be riding Tangleman, on whom she finished 9th last year and Rodney Powell will be partnering the handsome grey Liquid Ice, 11th at Burghley last year. Young hopeful Harry Meade (22) with Midnight Dazzler will be making their first Badminton appearance. Meade won prizes for Best U25 and Best Burghley First Timer following a stunning performance at Burghley last autumn. Beanie Hughes and Serena Russell will also be making their Badminton debuts.

International riders are also keen to triumph at the new-format Badminton. Andrew Hoy, Matt Ryan and Clayton Fredericks will be representing Australia, and Caroline Powell and Andrew Nicholson, will represent New Zealand. Susanna Bordone has come over from Italy, Dag Albert from Sweden and Thierry Meyssonnier and Pascal Leroy from France. For the full list of entries visit www.badminton-horse.co.uk.

But while the above make last minute preparations before this afternoon’s first horse inspection, young rider Sara Mayberry from Scotland is sitting her psychology finals in a room on the Cheltenham campus of the University of Gloucester. The 21-year-old is the youngest competitor at Badminton this year but she is also in the final leg of a psychology degree at Glasgow University and must sit the final paper this afternoon, over 300 miles from her classmates. Mayberry is partnering her 14-year-old gelding Tommy Pink at Badminton and is hoping to finish in the top half of the results list.

The cross-country challenge

Event director and course designer Hugh Thomas has taken the format changes into account when planning this year’s course which again starts in the ‘new’ area by the main arena, and goes on to head anti-clockwise for the first time in two years. This year riders must negotiate no fewer than eighteen new fences or combinations and the track crosses new terrain.

The course starts with the familiar Flower Bed in the main arena followed by two straightforward fences, giving horses and riders time to establish a rhythm. The Discover Ireland Quarry is the first major question: the brave will take the more direct option with a drop followed by the Outlander Tree Trunks at a severe angle. A revamped Countryside Close comes up next, opening with a choice of wooden huts and a double of narrow brush fences on the turn, exiting over a very upright gate (which caught out both Jeanette Brakewell and Pippa Funnell when the course was running in the opposite direction).

A long gallop gives horses and riders are respite before the Lake complex. The fast route involves four jumping efforts in very close succession and then the traditional Mitsubishi L200. Much work has been done over the winter to improve the going on the wetter part of the course which takes riders to the largely unchanged Shogun Hollow before heading down to Thomas’s most successful construction of recent years – the Hunt Kennels. However this year riders must negotiate not two kennels on the turn but three, making the combination even more challenging.

Mike Weaver’s Haycart is positioned at the furthest end of the course followed by the first crossing of the Vicarage Ditch which involves the new Willow Waves at the Colt Pond. This year’s Vicarage Vee is perhaps the most testing for a number of years, and horses and riders will have to concentrate hard to avoid clocking up penalties. The Rolex Treble consists of solid old-fashioned triple rails down to a log parallel, the ditch and a narrow final element. The familiar Colt Cabriolet Bank leads back into the park and the Giant’s Table brings riders back in front of Badminton House. The Riding for the Disabled Staircase has had a stone facelift but the question asked is also slightly different with a “skinny” fence at the top.

The final challenge is a new three jump complex over broken ground and then riders can breathe a sigh of relief over the Keepers Brush and Mitsubishi Garden.

The first prize remains at £50,000 but in a bid to reward riders who do well further down the order, the event has generously raised the total pot by 17% to a grand total of some £225,000. Badminton’s 2006 designated charity will be The Riding for the Disabled Association, who have the Stairs on the cross-country course named in their honour. Collection points will be found around the showground and there will be displays on Saturday and Sunday.

Keep in touch with H&H

As usual there will be plenty of trade stands to visit and entertainment to watch throughout the four days. Make sure you leave time to visit the Horse & Hound stand (15) for your chance to win a fabulous limited edition Ifor Williams trailer worth more than £4,000. Simply take your copy of Horse & Hound along to the stand and if the six-digit number on the front cover unlocks the safe, you will win the HB505 Epona trailer. There are also a host of other fabulous prizes on the stand, plus great deals on magazine subscriptions available.

If you can’t make Badminton this year, or you need to leave early, sign up to H&H’s exclusive SMS service to receive a text message at the end of each competition day. You’ll be notified of the five leading riders and their scores, plus any other exciting news.

To sign up for this service, simply text BADMINTON to 86611. All messages received cost 25p + standard network charges. You will receive a minimum of one and maximum of three messages per day – service commences 4/5/06. To stop the service simply text STOP to 86611.

As usual, the H&H Online team will be publishing updates of all action throughout the event, so make sure you visit www.horseandhound.co.uk regularly to stay up to date with the very latest news and reports. If all the cross-country action inspires you to have a go, don’t miss our fabulous competition to win a WOW Cross-Country saddle. Click here for more details >>

For information on how to get to Badminton and ticket prices visit: www.badminton-horse.co.uk.

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