In a season disrupted by wet weather, this week’s 2018 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is going to get very hot, very quickly, with four key contenders in the first six names drawn and three former Badminton winners in the first 10.
In a sport that champions #TwoHearts, the horse of our generation taking on the FEI’s “horseman of the 20th century” was the key battle we were preparing to watch, but as the rain has continued to fall, a third contender joins the mix.
Michael Jung’s superstar La Biosthetique-Sam FBW (Sam) holds the record for the lowest ever finishing score in the history of the competition (34.4 in 2016) and will be making his final appearance at the venue.
Sir Mark Todd, who first won the competition 38 years ago on Southern Comfort III (and three times since — 1994, 1996, 2011) arrives with Leonidas II, an experienced 14-year-old owned by Di Brunsden and Pete Cattell, with two top-five finishes from his four visits here.
Jonelle Price and Classic Moet have a perfect six from six cross-country record at the top level, and they have shown us their speed, too. With the potential for tough conditions on Saturday, there is a good chance this pair can find themselves on the podium.
And we still haven’t mentioned the potential of a Rolex Grand Slam!
There are numerous angles on how this could play out. This will be the first time the event has run under the new FEI rules without the dressage multiplier. As we saw at Kentucky, the change means dressage scores are more tightly bunched going into the jumping phases and, at this level, cross-country will be the most influential phase — with dressage just behind and then showjumping (dressage is still the main influencer in the sport across all levels).
We are going to see much lower scores in the first phase — a 45 in the old system is a 30 now — so expect lots of scores in the 20s. If you want to break a course record, you might need to hit the teens in the first phase, with Andrew Hoy’s 2002 score on Darien Powers being translated to a 20.8 opening score under the new system.
Big opening scores won’t be enough at this venue, it will be about finishing on that score. Our early guide is to focus on horses who score 28 or below. Anything bigger than that will likely rule out a win.
With scores translated into the new system, defending champion Nereo is averaging 27.9 from 15 runs at this level under Andrew Nicholson, while Sam averages 25.5 from 11 runs. But eyes are drawn to the younger Leonidas II, who averages 28.9 (eight runs) and scored 24.5 at Burghley 2017.
Time for the girls
In the seven runnings of Badminton between 2000 and 2007, we had five female victories (Mary King, Pippa Funnell three times and Lucinda Fredericks) but we haven’t seen one since.
The change in the dressage multiplier has opened the door for Gemma Tattersall as well as Jonelle Price, two of the sport’s best cross-country riders. I expect to see Arctic Soul and Classic Moet in the top five after Saturday, and a win will be decided by their showjumping. Both can have a pole.
We can expect to see a leaderboard more tightly packed than ever before. Every second lost on Eric Winter’s course, and every pole down, is likely to see more snakes and ladders on the leaderboard than we are used to.
Even at 18, Sam will be a favourite for many — the most decorated and talented event horse we have seen deserves a fine send-off in his final Badminton appearance.
The home nation will have plenty to cheer about. Ballaghmor Class and new FEI world number one Oliver Townend are gunning for a grand slam, and Gemma is also likely to finish well.
While Saturday might be dominated by a female Kiwi, I am backing another New Zealander to show class in every phase — the time is finally here for Leonidas II, and for Mark Todd to make it five Badminton victories on five different horses.
Ref Horse & Hound; 3 May 2018