The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials press preview day, which took place yesterday, is one of the best perks in the H&H eventing editor’s calendar.
It’s a chance to see this year’s course, catch up with fellow journalists after the winter, hear some snippets of news — and have a lovely lunch in Badminton House, courtesy of the Duke of Beaufort.
The morning’s course drive, in vehicles provided by title sponsor Mitsubishi, with comments from Badminton director and course-designer Hugh Thomas is the highlight of the occasion. It’s the first chance for anyone not directly involved with the event to see the track.
This year’s course runs in the opposite direction to in 2008, so it flows clockwise, with riders turning right out of the main arena after fence 1. This gives a different feel to the course to last year, although in terms of the fences it hasn’t been radically changed — which makes sense as last year’s track was hailed a great success.
There’s a new combination at fence 6, where riders bypass the Beaufort Staircase this year and take on the Alterian Hillside, a big log pile followed by a fierce downhill slope and a very skinny skinny. It’ll catch out anyone whose horse is a little full of himself early on.
A new complex at fence 7, the John Whitaker International Corral, is followed by the Puffa Shooting Butt — the brush height limit has been raised this year, so at 4ft 9in, this is the tallest fence ever seen at Badminton.
The Vicarage Ditch area remains the “meat” of the course (fences 9 to 15), but Hugh has made a deliberate decision to soften the intensity of the test a little this time. With this in mind, the Colt Pond (fence 13) involves just running through the water and out over a hedge, and the skinny has gone from the bottom of the Outlander Bank (fence 10).
Riders won’t have it easy here though. Last year, when Jeanette Brakewell walked the course for H&H, she was horrified by the HSBC Hexagon Hedge, a skinny hedge set at an angle in the gaping ditch (Lucy Wiegersma is pictured jumping it).
This year, there are two of them. Yes, really. You have to jump one, ride a curving line and then back over another (fence 12). Nine horses faulted at the single hedge here last year. Two is a tall order and I predict this will be the most influential fence.
At the end of the course, the biggest change is to the penultimate combination, the Rolex Turn (fences 25, 26, 27). There’s a hedge, then a picturesque owl hole, and then a triple brush arrowhead, all on a curving S-shaped line. Tired horses will have to be kept up to the mark here.
Predicting a course’s influence at this stage is setting yourself up for a fall, but if I’ve got to stick my neck out I think this track will be influential, but slightly less so than last year — my get-out-of-jail card if I’m wrong is that I think, in terms of horses, this year’s field is slightly less experienced than last year’s, so maybe that will even things out.
After lunch yesterday, H&H dispatched triple Badminton winner Ian Stark to walk the course with Hugh Thomas for our preview. Don’t miss reading what Ian thought of the track in H&H, 30 April.
Horse & Hound’s full preview of Badminton’s 60th anniversary is out 30 April: course-walk with Ian Stark, great Badminton horse heroes, shopping and more