This year marks the sixth occasion when Badminton has been cancelled. Emma Sewell and Pippa Roome trace those other “lost Badmintons” and how their absence affected the following years’ events
“April without Badminton is like Christmas without plum pudding,” wrote H&H columnist Loriner in 1975. Unrelenting rain had left competitors and spectators wallowing in the mud and organisers with no choice but to cancel the event.
The event is now normally held in May, but Loriner’s statement echoes the sentiments of many this week, with coronavirus denying us our annual pilgrimage to Gloucestershire for “The Great Event”.
Badminton has been cancelled six times since its inception in 1949 and was run as a one-day event in 1963. So who has triumphed in the years following and what are the chances of combinations holding their form?
Badminton 1975 was already under way – 55 competitors had performed their dressage tests, with Lucinda Prior-Palmer (now Green) and Be Fair leading on a score of 39 – before it was abandoned.
“There is no doubt that when the rain came down in buckets on Thursday afternoon, many of the riders were thankful to hear that Badminton had been abandoned,” wrote Badminton director and course designer Colonel Frank Weldon. “Badminton Park would have been left looking like a battlefield.”
But a year on and Lucinda’s name was again at the top of the leaderboard, this time in the final reckoning with Wide Awake. However, sadly, her 1976 win was not the fairytale she had wished for when the horse collapsed and died on his final lap of honour.
It was a happier result for the 1986 winner, Ian Stark, who also won in 1988, after Badminton’s third cancellation.
Julian Seaman, who is now Badminton’s media director, noted in H&H’s form guide: “Few people have won these trials twice on the same horse, but it could happen this time.”
Ian also wrote a new page in the history book by taking second on Glenburnie.
“No one was more surprised than me,” recalls Ian. “It’s one record I’m managing to hold on to.”
But the loss of the 1987 running – which prompted a change to a slightly later date for the event – halted Sir Wattie’s bid to win three times in a row.
“Wattie was on top form,” says Ian. “It would have been a great chance to try the hat-trick, as he would be the only horse to have done that to date. But you never know what would have happened.”
There would certainly have been strong opposition from the Olympic champions Mark Todd and Charisma (Podge).
“1987 was the year the Whitbread Trophy had Podge’s name on it, or so I believed,” said Mark in his first autobiography, So Far, So Good. “I was devastated.
“If I kept him in training the following year as a 16-year-old, it would be to defend his Olympic crown in Seoul, which would definitely rule him out of Badminton, so he’d missed his last chance.”
So despite winning back-to-back individual Olympic golds, Charisma never won a British four-star. He finished second at Badminton in both 1984 and 1985 and at Burghley in 1987.
A high-class field
In 1963, Badminton was run as a one-day event due to the state of the ground, but 1966 was the first time it was cancelled.
“There’s no giant towering over the field for next week’s event,” said Col Frank Weldon in H&H’s 1966 Badminton preview. But there was much excitement surrounding the following year.
“Seldom has there been potentially such a high-class field,” wrote Frank, who was looking forward to a “vintage year at Badminton”.
National champions Celia Ross-Taylor and Jonathan were making waves on the one-day circuit, and were fancied to win.
“He [Jonathan] should be admirably suited to three-day trials, but – and it is a big but – this will be his first real test,” wrote Frank. “There would be few more popular victories among the highly critical circle of other competitors.”
Jonathan duly took the title.
A Badminton horse
Supreme Rock was another hugely popular winner, following the 2001 cancellation owing to foot-and mouth.
“When Rocky finished sixth in 1999, I felt he was really a Badminton horse,” recalls Pippa. “I didn’t take him in 2000 as we were saving him for the Olympics, so I was gutted when it was cancelled in 2001. It was so frustrating waiting from 1999 to 2002, as I was looking forward to returning with him.”
But 2002 was their year, and Pippa and Rocky led from start to finish.
“I remember riding into the park and feeling him grow,” says Pippa, who had been unable to ride in the weeks before Badminton, following a fall at Belton in which she hurt her ankle. “It was very special to win in front of a home crowd.”
They also won in 2003 — the year in which Pippa won the Rolex Grand Slam, the big-money bonus awarded to any event rider who can take Badminton, Burghley and the US five-star at Kentucky consecutively. They were just the third partnership to achieve back-to-back Badminton wins: Sheila Willcox with High And Mighty did it in 1957-58, as did Mark Phillips with Great Ovation in 1971-72.
“That  was very different,” recalls Pippa. “To win Badminton once is amazing, so that pressure was taken away. I came straight from winning Kentucky on Primmore’s Pride, and I was on a high.”
The most recent cancellation before this year was in 2012, owing to wet weather.
“It was extraordinary how people were ringing, emailing, posting messages on Facebook; almost as if we had suffered a bereavement,” says the event director at the time, Hugh Thomas. “We appreciated the support.
“The only saving grace was that it was an easy decision by the time we took it. There was no chance of running the event.”
The loss of the 2012 event meant William Fox-Pitt’s attempt on the Rolex Grand Slam was delayed a year – he had won Burghley 2011 and Kentucky in 2012, so just needed Badminton to complete the set.
But the story took an extraordinary turn when Andrew Nicholson – a long-term rival of William’s, who is now married to the British rider’s ex-wife Wiggy – won Burghley 2012 and Kentucky 2013, meaning he could also take the Rolex bonus if he won Badminton 2013.
The mainstream media interest in the event was unprecedented and “Team William” and “Team Andrew” T-shirts sold on the H&H tradestand proved popular.
“People are talking us up, like they did Kauto Star and Denman,” said William as the competition got started. “There’s a good old bit of rivalry between Andrew and me, and that just adds to the competition. I’ve been doing a lot media-wise in the last few weeks, which just goes to show how much interest there is in eventing at the moment.
“I’ve always respected Andrew as a rider; he’s a world-class jockey,” added William.
Andrew kept his typical laid-back manner, but talked of a Grand Slam win as “life-changing” and “a career-defining moment”.
“There’s always a lot of pressure at Badminton, it doesn’t feel any different,” he said. “I won’t be putting any extra pressure on myself. What will be will be. All I can do is my best. I’m sure my horses will give their best and I’d like to think our best together is good enough to win it. There would be some proper celebrations.”
The two Grand Slam rivals were both in the top eight after cross-country, Andrew with two horses. But in the end, the relatively unknown New Zealand rider Jock Paget – a Badminton first-timer – sprang a surprise by taking the title with Clifton Promise.
The brilliant German pair Michael Jung and La Biosthetique-Sam FBW, who led after cross-country and who most had considered Andrew and William’s main rivals, lowered the final showjump and had to settle for second, while Andrew landed third on Nereo and William fifth on Parklane Hawk.
“It’s a big relief it’s over,” said William afterwards. “It will be good to go back to normal life, and not have the phone ringing all the time and people jumping up and down wanting interviews. But it’s been an exciting time; it’s done so much to boost the sport.”
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics into 2021 will inevitably have some affect on next year’s Badminton field as riders weigh up their route to selection – whether they need an eye-catching result to secure a slot or decide to save their equine star for the Games in Japan. Regardless of who makes the line up, fans will be delighted to be back on the hallowed turn of the Badminton estate next May.
Taking the opportunity
Johnny Kyle, father of recently retired five-star competitor Mark and commentator John, was due to ride at the 1987 Badminton and, although he missed out on a proper ride round, he did pop over a couple of fences.
Still slightly nervous of being told off over 30 years later, he recalls: “The forecast was stormy so we left early and arrived on the Sunday night. The Irish horses were the only ones there — myself, Eric Smiley and Jessie Harrington.
“On the Tuesday, the Duke [of Beaufort] came into the yard and told us it was cancelled.
“I went out to exercise my horse, The Grey Duke, and said I wouldn’t leave Badminton without jumping a fence, so I popped him over two plain fences.
“The canteen was open so we had lunch and asked if we could walk the course. When Eric and Jessie saw the ‘footprints in the butter’ at the fences, I was caught out.”
The lost events
2020: cancelled, Covid-19
2012: cancelled, weather
2001: cancelled, foot-and-mouth disease
1987: cancelled, weather
1975: cancelled, weather
1966: cancelled, weather
1963: run as a one-day event due to ongoing poor weather
Badminton will be showing highlights from different years of the event, as voted for by the public and a panel of experts, on each day that the event was due to run this week. Visit here to watch.
Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020