A palpable sigh of relief went round my table as the starter was brought into lunch today, at the press preview day of the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials. After a year’s break in 2013, baked eggs were back. None of us could quite remember what we had last year instead, but we knew it was DIFFERENT — that we had been denied the sublime cheesy, creamy, hard-boiled egginess — and we didn’t like it. Business as usual was a huge relief.
Except of course, it wasn’t business as usual today. The pre-lunch cross-country drive had had a new frisson, because we were viewing for the first time the creation of new designer Giuseppe Della Chiesa. Event director Hugh Thomas designed Badminton’s track for 25 years prior to stepping down last year and, while some members of the press are more “senior” than others, few present today would remember a Frank Weldon course. So viewing a Badminton created by someone other than Hugh was a whole exciting new world.
And what was it like? The press preview day is a fairly fleeting glance — we drive round in a fleet of Mitsubishis and get out at perhaps five fences — but on that acquaintance, it looks like a testing challenge.
The fences are generally sited in the same spots as previously, with the notable exception of the Gatehouse New Water (fence 14, above) near the Luckington Lane. Giuseppe was not present today, so Hugh was our guide, and explained that the fences are fairly soft here this year, while they test how the pond — made suitable for a jump at considerable effort and expense — works. But “the investment in this jump has got to last a long time” and we can expect to see more tricky things here in future.
As an aside, Hugh revealed that the use of silver birch here is deliberate, in the hope the uneven colour makes it easier to pick out the rails in what can be a confusing meddly of water, trees and shadow. It’s certainly a picturesque site, with a view down to the side of Badminton House.
My prediction for the most difficult complex is the Swindon Designer Outlet Mound (fence 18, right). Here, riders run up a newly sculpted mound, over a narrow tree trunk and down the other side, making a fierce right-hand turn to another skinny trunk, then a sharp left to a further accuracy test. I’ll probably be wrong and everyone will sail through, but those twists look tough, especially if horses are tired after the Vicarage Ditch section.
Other themes? Truly long long routes — not that there are many of them — plus more fences which demand a break in the rhythm means it’s likely the time will be more difficult to get than in recent years (which should be applauded). Goodbye to some “staples” (the pick-ups at The Lake) and hello again to some old traditions (the PHEV Vicarage Vee, left, is back and even more fearsome when followed by a second skinny rails in the ditch).
Plenty more will be said about this course before and after the event. Hundreds of thousands will watch competitors tackle it live at the event, many more on television. People will judge “how it rode” and we stats geeks will crunch the stats.
I can’t wait. Bring on Saturday, 10 May.
Read Lucinda Green’s thoughts on the cross-country course in the first part of H&H’s preview, out Thursday, 1 May.
Full form guide for every competitor and more in a special 24-page pullout guide to Badminton, included in the issue out Thursday, 8 May.