Badminton Horse Trials: Don't Bet Against the Kiwis--And Here's Why

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Do you remember when Great Britain fought a war with Argentina over the tiny Falkland Islands? This weekend the British will fight over a tiny bit of land in Gloucestershire, southwest of London. Their opponents will be from a faroff corner of their own empire: the New Zealanders.

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo clear The Staircase at Badminton in 2010 (Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography)

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo clear The Staircase at Badminton in 2010 (Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography)

The prize: winning the 2013 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, and perhaps even the coveted Rolex Grand Slam of the sport of eventing

New Zealand may be a long, long way from Gloucestershire but more Kiwi riders will line up for the trotup Wednesday in front of?the Duke of Beaufort's Badminton House than from any other country. Ireland is right next door, France and Germany and all of Europe are right across the Channel. But it's the New Zealanders who have turned out in force to defend the title won in 2011 by Kiwi Sir Mark Todd.

(The event was canceled for weather considerations in 2012.)

Start with top rider Andrew Nicholson, the current king of the four-star event, and winner of last week's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event here in the USA. He's facing the biggest challenge of his career as he tries to become just the second person ever to win the Rolex Grand Slam.

But with a stellar field attracted to the prestigious English event, it won't be a walk in the park, and Nicholson's arch rival , Great Britain's William Fox-Pitt, is also eying both prestigious titles. The start list also includes reigning Olympic, world and European champion Michael Jung (GER), along with most of the combinations who featured on the podium in London. There are seven previous Badminton winners entered this year.

Nicholson himself has been around the cross-country course at Badminton no less than 32 times in the past. And he's never won.

Nicholson spearheads a solid New Zealand contingent, which also includes his London Olympic bronze medal winning team-mates Sir Mark Todd, Jonathan Paget and Caroline Powell - all of whom have two mounts apiece. London reserve Lucy Jackson has two entered. Their fellow Kiwi Megan Heath and her horse St Daniel are the only combination on the New Zealand card that are not yet members of the high performance squad but you know they'll aim to earn that stripe this weekend in Gloucestershire.

Nicholson has Avebury (owned by Mark and Rosemary Barlow and Nicholson) and Nereo (owned by Deborah Sellar) on the card; they are two of his most experienced horses.. He's made no secret of his focus on the HSBC FEI Classics Series, which he is leading, and is in a plum position to take the cash rich Rolex Grand Slam. The rider who wins Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky consecutively pockets $US350,000 and Andrew is two-thirds of the way there.

"It's going to be a very interesting weekend," says the number one world ranked eventer, who has never won Badminton, and yet holds the record for the most completions there. This year, he's on a mission.

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While New Zealand's Sir Mark Todd is the defending champion at Badminton, having won it in 2011 aboard NZB Land Vision, he is not trumping himself as the one to beat.?"There are a lot of very established horses there this year . . . it is a very strong field and could be anyone's," he says.

Todd's horse Ravenstar (owned by Team Rutledge) will be having his first four-star start and Todd is confident if everything goes well, they should be in the top ten. His other horse, Major Milestone (owned by Diane Brunsden and Peter Cattell), is more than likely going to be "playing a bit of catch up" after the dressage.

"It is always good to be at Badminton and I would love to be there this year with Campino, but he's out with injury and won't be doing anything until next spring."

However, Equestrian Sports New Zealand high performance director Sarah Harris is picking a winner.?"Andrew (Nicholson) is our pick to win, but never underestimate Jonathan (Paget)," she says, referring to Nicholson and Todd's London Olympics teammate.

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Paget will ride both Clifton Promise (owned by Frances Stead), on whom he finished seventh at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, and Clifton Lush (owned by Lucy Allison and Frances Stead). ?Harris remarked,?"Lush is a lovely horse who hasn't really had the opportunity to reach his potential yet . . .. it could be his turn, and Jonathan is a serious talent."

Harris says a Badminton win is all part of the wider high performance plan for the Kiwis to dominate all the world's four-star events, the highest level in eventing.

Caroline Powell is another one who can't be discounted, particularly on Onwards and Upwards (owned by Cameron and Mary Crawford).
Harris is optimistic about this horse's future: ?"He's a bit green, with just one four-star under his belt, but he is a super horse for the future and Caroline will be keen to cement her place in the starting line-up at the World Championships (in 2014)."

Powell's little superstar Lenamore, who retired earlier this year, will be honored at a parade in the main arena on the final day of competition. The combination hold a record seven consecutive completions, which saw them just once outside the prize money.

A few final facts: The cross-country course at Badminton has been designed by Hugh Thomas.?Just 85 combinations will line up at Badminton. The event will be broadcast on FEITV.org. And it will be one to remember, whether you are from New Zealand or not.

Thanks to Diana Dobson, Libby Law, Henry Bucklow and Equestrian Sports New Zealand for background material and photos used in this article.

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