When Andrew Nicholson (NZL) goes into action at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials (GBR), the second leg of the 2010 HSBC FEI Classics™, he will find – perhaps nerve-rackingly – that he is viewed as the red-hot favourite to win.
The first horse inspection takes place this afternoon, and the evergreen New Zealander’s many supporters in Britain feel this could be the year for Nicholson, 48, who first rode at Badminton in 1984 and has completed more times (27) than any other rider.
After a stellar spring season on the national circuit, Nicholson, whose best previous Badminton result was 2nd in 2004, has perhaps his best chance of lifting the Mitsubishi Trophy, worth £65,000, with the Spanish-bred Nereo, winner of Bramham CCI*** (GBR) last year, or the home-bred grey Avebury, first at Saumur CCI*** (FRA) in 2009.
It will be like old times for Nicholson, as his former team mate Mark Todd has finally come in off the wait list – the event received a massive 150-plus entries and will run about 80 - and competes at Badminton for the first time for 10 years. Todd, a triple winner (1980, 1994 and 1996), rides the New Zealand Thoroughbred NZB Grass Valley.
Although last year’s winner Oliver Townend (GBR) is a notable absentee – he had actually withdrawn before his fall at Kentucky last weekend – the Kiwis face stiff British opposition. An equally popular winner would be Kristina Cook (GBR); the reigning European Champion. Known as one of the best Cross Country pilots in the business, she first competed at Badminton in 1993 but has never yet finished in the top three.
However, that could all change this time, as she brings her dual European gold medalist Miners Frolic, also the dual bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympics, and all eyes will be on the exciting Thoroughbred as he makes his debut at a British 4-star.
Cook’s team mate, the always hard-to-beat William Fox-Pitt (GBR) comes to Badminton with the advantage of a winning 4-star ride under his belt. Just last weekend, he captured his first Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event – he is the only rider in the world to have won four different 4-stars - and, at Badminton, which he won in 2004 on Tamarillo, he has the choice of three proven horses.
The winner of the inaugural HSBC FEI Classics™ and the current series leader can choose between the magnificent long-striding chestnut Idalgo, Badminton runner-up last year; the German-bred Sea Cookie, 6th at Kentucky last year; and the Argentine Thoroughbred Macchiato, winner of Luhmühlen in 2008.
Alongside these veterans of the sport, such as 48-year-old Mary King, a former dual winner (1992 and 2000), a host of younger riders will be hoping to make an impression. They are headed by the European silver medalist Piggy French (GBR); Juan Carlos Garcia (ITA), the only rider to win silver medals in Eventing and Jumping in the same season (2009); Ireland’s premier couple Michael and Patricia Ryan, plus Sam Watson (IRL) and Elizabeth Power (IRL); Portuguese first-timer Duarte Seabra; South African debutant Alex Peternell and former Young Rider European Champion Emily Llewellyn (GBR).
In other international firsts, Aistis Vitkauskas is the first Badminton competitor from Lithuania, and Alex Hua Tian, 20, the first from China. 12 nations are represented in all: Australia, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, Portugal and South Africa.
Former triple winner Pippa Funnell (GBR), who is not competing this year, has been allowed a preview walk around event director Hugh Thomas’s (GBR) Cross Country track and predicts that there are questions on it that might be more familiar to the older riders.
“I’m pleased to see him reviving old-fashioned tests, such as open corners that demand accuracy and drops that need to be ‘hunted’ down,” she says. “He’s trying to get riders to react to what’s happening underneath them instead of planning everything.”
Follow the competition on www.badminton-horse.co.uk
HSBC FEI Classics Standings(updated after 1 of 5 events)
1 William Fox-Pitt (GBR) 15 points
2 Phillip Dutton (USA) 12
3 Becky Holder (USA) 10
4 Boyd Martin (USA) 8
5 Stephanie Rhodes-Bosch (CAN) 6
6 Karen O’Connor (USA) 4
7 Selina O’Hanlon/Colombo (CAN) 3
8 Hawley Bennett-Awad (CAN) 2
9 Michelle Mueller (CAN) 1
HSBC FEI Classics™ Calendar of Events in 2010
1. 21-25 April - Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event (USA)
2. 30 April - 03 May - Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials (GBR)
3. 17-20 June - Luhmühlen CCI**** presented by E.ON Avacon (GER)
4. 2-5 September - Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (GBR)
5. 4-7 November- Les Etoiles de Pau (FRA)
HSBC will contribute US$ 1million to the series over the next three years. Prize-money is awarded, as follows, to the top five riders on the leaderboard after the fifth and final event:
WINNERS OF THE 2009 SEASON
1. Oliver Townend (GBR) - US$ 150,000 (Series champion);
2. Dirk Schrade (GER) - US$ 75,000;
3. Andreas Dibowski - (GER) US$ 50,000;
4. William Fox-Pitt (GBR) - US$ 33,000;
5. Sam Griffiths (AUS) - US$ 25,000
HSBC, the world's local bank, is a platinum partner of FEI and global sponsor of the eventing discipline.
As part of this partnership, HSBC is title sponsor of the HSBC FEI Classics™ and HSBC FEI World Cup™.
At the centre of all HSBC’s sponsorships is a commitment to youth, education and community. The Pony Club and HSBC have teamed up to create the HSBC Pony Club Eventing Training Programme.
Photos: William Fox-Pitt and Cool Mountain at Rolex last weekend by Diana DeRosa
Oliver Townend by Phelpsphotos.com