Badminton.jpgFEI – Or perhaps the epitomy of Englishness, depending on your inclination – but one way or another Badminton is the place to be this weekend for the 2008 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials.

The 4-Star three-day-event has an appeal that is the envy of sports promoters all over the world. Few fixtures can draw the kind of crowds that show up, come rain or shine, on cross-country day to see the best in the world do battle in this toughest of disciplines. The chance to rub shoulders with society’s elite, and to shop until you drop in the most amazing trade-stand village, will prove simply irresistible to almost 120,000 people next Saturday.

There is an extra bonus for competitors this year. Badminton is the second leg in a brand new series linking the five 4-Star three-day events currently on the international calendar, and the top ten finishers will earn points on the HSBC FEI Classics leaderboard. In a three-year sponsorship deal, the leading bank will contribute US$ 1 million to the highest-ranking riders in the series that also includes Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event, Mitsubish Motors Badminton Horse Trials, Luhumhlen CCI****, Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials and Les Etoiles de Pau where the final will take place in October.

America’s Philip Dutton took the early advantage with victory in Kentucky last weekend, but it is still wide open and with US$150,000 up for grabs for the leading rider, and further prize-money down to fifth place, the incentive to shine in this 4-Star season is stronger than ever.

Of course in an Olympic year competition is always super-sharp, and the 2008 Badminton line-up is another star-studded affair. Five previous winners will be returning including Britain’s Pippa Funnell who scooped the honours in 2002, 2003 and 2005, William Fox-Pitt who secured the trophy in 2004, Rodney Powell whose single win was recorded 17 years ago, in 1991, and Mary King who secured her place on the roll of honour in 2000. Australia’s Andrew Hoy looks a very strong contender with his 2006 winner Moonfleet this time around but King has tipped herself to do the double so she’s clearly feeling pretty positive!

At close of entries there were representatives from 14 countries including Brazil, Japan, Croatia, Italy, Denmark and the USA in the mix and hoping to make it to the starting line. Such is the demand for a chance to make a mark at this highly-prestigious event that a waiting-list system had to be introduced and World Champion Zara Philips has benefited from a withdrawal to take her place, but she will need to be on her toes because double European champion Nicolas Touzaint from France will be hoping to add the Badminton honours to his hit-list while things must surely go the way of New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson sometime soon. The 46 year old Kiwi knows every nook and cranny of the Duke of Beaufort’s elegant estate having ridden around the park on an astonishing 26 previous occasions and, with three horses entered, this exceptionally talented rider has his best chance yet of taking the trophy in his hands.

Following problems with the going in recent years, extensive work has been carried out on course-designer Hugh Thomas’s cross-country track which promises to be in tip-top condition although, as ever, eternally testing. The fear-factor is often the rider’s biggest challenge, and formidable fences will be the order of the day with character-checking questions about courage, accuracy and determination at every turn.

The Badminton tradition goes all the way back to 1949 when the then relatively new sport of three-day-eventing was in its infancy. The previous year a British team fielded at the first London Olympiad produced a poor result so the 10th Duke of Beaufort offered Badminton Park as a venue for an annual training event in order to improve British prospects – and the rest is history. Badminton continues to be the toughest Olympic testing ground and any rider who reigns supreme here earns the greatest of respect.

The list of past winners includes legendary names like Lt Col Frank Weldon, Sheila Wilcox and Bill Roycroft. Lucinda Green holds the record for the most wins with six in total – her first recorded under her maiden name Prior-Palmer in 1973 with Be Fair and the last eleven years later riding Beagle Bay. It is an extraordinary achievement by any measure, and Lucinda continues to play a significant role in the sport as a commentator and writer. New Zealand’s Mark Todd was another rider who attracted a huge following, and one abiding memory of his spectacular career was his thrilling tour of the track with Bertie Blunt in 1995 when equipped with only one stirrup. Horsemanship at its best is key to the sport of eventing, and Todd was a truly gifted horseman.

Before the thrills of cross-country day however the riders must first show their skills in the dressage phase of the event which begins today (Thursday) and then on Sunday the 2008 winner will be decided in the show jumping ring. It’s guaranteed to be another great sporting weekend as Badminton beckons…..