Badminton 2004 will attract more attention than ever in this Olympic year. Selectors will have their eyes skinned for any changes to long-listed riders form, while media speculation over Britain’s eventing gold medal chances is likely to reach an all-time high depending on British riders’ performances in Gloucestershire this weekend.
Hugh Thomas’ cross-country course is 30sec shorter than usual, although the 6,500m track will include the same number of fences. However, riders will be expected to ride at the usual speed of 570 metres per minute over the 32 obstacles, meaning that far fewer riders are likely to finish without time penalties.
Mr Thomas is adamant though, that timing will as always depend on a number of factors. “At the moment the going is absolutely perfect, and although rain has been forecast, it has been dry so far. If the going remains good, time penalties will be fewer and further between,” he said on Tuesday.
This is the third year that the cross-country will start and finish in the main arena. Notable omissions this year include the Beaufort Steps and the Vicarage Vee, which have been influential obstacles in the past. Nevertheless, designer Hugh Thomas poses plenty of questions to both horse and rider, but stresses that he “couldn’t say” which fences this year could prove decisive.
“We design courses deliberately to avoid having one fence which causes horse and rider undue difficulties. So saying, some fences are more difficult than others. I would expect the Shogun Hollow (fences 7 and 8), the Colt Pond (fence 12), the Hunt Kennels (fence 14) and the Lake (fences 17, 18 and 19) to prove a little less straightforward,” he explained.
Britain’s golden girl Pippa Funnell is the public’s favourite to take home the title for a third consecutive year, although she will be without Supreme Rock, who carried her to glory here in 2002 and 2003. She will be riding stallion Viceroy II, who will be making his Badminton debut, and Cornerman, who was sixth last year.
William Fox-Pitt will be a strong challenger for the title, fresh back from a successful campaign in Kentucky (where he was fourth with the relatively inexperienced Ballincoola and 11th with Coastal Ties). He rides Tamarillo, who was second here in 2002 but was withdrawn after the dressage last year. He also brings Moon Man, who hasn’t completed Badminton, but whose four-star record puts him well in the running.
Among the Badminton first-timers, Chris King will feel the weight of expectation firmly upon his shoulders. He brings Miss de Meena IV and Brer Rabbit II, both former rides of two of Britain’s top eventers. Six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green handed over the reins of Miss de Meena to Chris this year, while Brer Rabbit was 18th at Badminton in 2002 and 2003 with Leslie Law.
The foreign invasion brings a wealth of talent, as well as a host of newcomers. Of the Badminton veterans, Andrew Hoy and Matt Ryan will be returning to represent Australia. Matt Ryan has completed seven times, his best performance yet when he was runner-up in 1995. He will ride the relatively inexperienced Bonza Puzzle. Andrew Hoy returns with Mr Pracatan, who was seventh last year.
New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson has two rides: Flush Banker and Lord Killinghurst and will be hoping to improve on his fifth in 1999 and add to his 17 completions. He is joined by a wealth of young talent from the Southern Hemisphere, including Kate Wood, Tim Price and Jonelle Richards, who are all first-timers.
Olympic long-listed riders Zara Phillips and Mary King will be conspicuous by their absence. Mary King has been given a bye as King Solomon III has already proved himself at four star level, while Zara Phillips’ only four star prospect, Toytown, is recovering from an injury which has left a huge question mark over Zara’s Olympic hopes at Athens.