Yesterday the pomp, today the hot and brutal circumstance. No competition so varies the challenges to horse and rider like the Badminton One Day Event. Yesterday World No 1 William Fox Pitt was slightly troubled beauty, today he has to be extra concentrated beast.
For seven and a half minutes yesterday afternoon in the hushed quiet of the dressage arena, Fox Pitt and his Olympic hopeful Cool Mountain put themselves through the trots, and canters and half-passes, shoulders-in and stops which makes dressage nearer to slow motion equine figure skating than to the steeplechasing game. But today they will have eleven and a quarter minutes of galloping over 4 miles and 45 separate jumping efforts as the world looks on still smarting from the worries raised by the very public fatalities at the Grand National.
“He was on edge for the first time in his life, when he came out he was not quite with me” said the impossibly tall 42 year old impossibly tall 42 year old whose 40 three day event successes outrank anyone in history. To the outside eye he and World Individual Silver Medallist Cool Mountain had been a model of stylish elegance, the swallow tail coat of the top hatted rider flowing out behind the saddle of the shining bay thoroughbred. But to the judges there was awkwardness in the trot and choppiness in the canter. They marked him down with 48.5 penalties, 30 places and 15.2 penalties behind the leaders Ruth Edge and Two Thyme, with Piggy French (36.0) 2ndand the 55 year old legend that is Mark Todd (36.5) in a hugely threatening 4th. Even with his rivals being penalised a full 20 points for a mere run out, Cool Mountain will have to be hot this afternoon.
“It will certainly be that,” said William, looking down from a face very chiselled from the eight hours he spends daily in the saddle. “It will be very warm and there will be a lot of jumping. It is his first time here so we will have to see what he makes of it all. But he is quite experienced now and I am looking forward to riding him round. I think it is quite demanding and trouble will be well spread out but it has got quite a familiar look to it which can sometimes be quite dangerous.”
Familiar for some, it is very close to the course from two years ago, but as UK Team Coach Yogi Breisner guided me round in the morning there was plenty of food for thought for this rider from the racing front. “We see these first five fences as something of a warm up,” confided Yogi. Well each to their own but any normal horses that agreed to jump through the lozenge shaped hole that constitutes the second obstacle would be highly likely to draw stumps at the massive open ditch in front of the third.
If you are watching on TV this afternoon don’t be deceived by the smoothness with which most combinations float round. The sixth fence is a massive barrel of rails jumped into a steep drop followed immediately by another so narrow that you have to do a sort of galloping “thread the needle” not to bypass it. But if you think that’s difficult, or that the three consecutive flowerpots (another euphemism for a massive obstacles taken into and out of a ditch) are bordering on the impossible, you won’t be ready for the series of six separate fences that surround the legendary Vicarage Ditch.
“Now this is very, very intense,” admits Yogi, “this is where some of the younger riders like Laura Collette (the 21 year old whom Yogi teaches who led the dressage on Friday) who haven’t ridden here before could come unstuck. The fences come up thick and fast and if you get thrown off balance the accumulated effect can put you out. This is where Ruth Edge and Two Thyme (last night’s leaders) came down last year.”
You should watch for the extraordinary trust horse puts into rider as he is sent into deep drops into water and jumps at seemingly impossible angles over challengingly placed rails. You should also imagine the effect of the 9 long minutes of galloping on horse and rider by the time they reach the huge tree trunks and steep descent around the quarry just three combinations from the finish.
“Turning back on yourself there is very tiring,” said William Fox Pitt, “it will take it will take its toll on them a bit. I just hope to be getting that far and having a good ride.” Modest words from someone of immodest achievement who all those ahead will still fear tomorrow. Fox Pitt and the others will have trained themselves and their horses to face the very limit. But don’t ever doubt the challenge ahead of them this afternoon.