Badminton Horse Trials designer Hugh Thomas defends his course

  • Discussion about this year’s cross-country at Badminton failing to pose enough of a challenge started before the first horse had set out.

    Sir Mark Todd described it as “three-star with some four-star elements”. Later, after 59 horses jumped clear — 25 of them within the time — Oliver Townend questioned whether “the biggest event in the world was pushing boundaries [enough] to keep that reputation”.

    His comments were echoed by Irish international Sam Watson, who finished 22nd with a double clear. He told H&H that, while Badminton is still “the world’s greatest event, it isn’t the biggest or toughest”.

    That accolade, he says, now belongs to Burghley, which is “massive and terrifying”, while Pau is “extremely technical and challenging”.

    Time for a change?
    Olympic silver medallist Tina Cook went further in her H&H column last week (23 May) — and asked whether it was time for horse sport’s governing body, the FEI, to implement a course-designing rotation at the top events.

    Unusually for a four-star, Badminton’s director, Hugh Thomas, is also the course-designer. He took over from Colonel Frank Weldon in 1989.

    Badminton has, said Tina, “lost its ability to scare riders”.

    She recalled when “the fences over the Vicarage Ditch used to put the fear of God into us.  You had no choice but to find your line early, shut your eyes and kick like hell.”

    Bringing in a new designer every five years would “bring a fresh look to events,” said Tina.
    Other top tracks could benefit from such a policy too, she suggested.

    Change for the better
    H&H put those comments to Hugh Thomas. He told us he has no plans to invite a new designer to Badminton, despite the vocal criticism from some high-profile figures.

    Mr Thomas said that the “sport has changed for the better”, meaning people “no longer want to see falls and retirements”. And he will not be pressured by calls from purists for the classic scary fences, like the old Vicarage Vee.

    “Those who talk about building more rider frighteners have failed to understand that these are the sort of fences where rider error causes the horse to be damaged,” he told H&H.

    “Fences from the 1970s with no built-up take-off, no pinned rails and a ditch on the landing side into which a horse could easily land will not be reappearing.”

    But six-times Badminton winner Lucinda Green — who believes the event has now been superseded by Burghley as the world’s premier four-star — said that it should be possible to “give riders a sleepless night” without building unsafe fences.

    “If you look back over 60 years, you see some seriously imaginative and difficult fences that weren’t any more unsafe,” she said.

    “We don’t want to see injuries, but nor do we want a cross-country test that has no effect on the results. This is the Wimbledon of horse trials and we want to keep it so.”

    “Badminton has become just another four-star — rather than the one every rider aspires to,” she said.

    The full version of this news story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (30 May 2013)

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