Sunday 24 April 2011

Sam Watson: Final Preparations

Cross country morning has arrived and even sun burnt faces will be looking a lot paler than they were last night. With a later start than normal, this morning is a great time to fit in the final course walk. Some of the riders, particularly the later ones, might have scheduled a bit of a lie-in with the intention of keeping as relaxed as possible.

There are very few preparations left to do, and the last thing a rider wants is to be sitting around aimlessly and allowing their nerves to eat away at their stomach. All the necessary riding gear, tack and equipment has been laid out and ready to go since last night. All the horses will go out for a leg stretch this morning, some in-hand with their dedicated grooms, but most will be under saddle having a pre-battle bonding session with their rider. The experienced competitors have been through all this before and their rituals and routines are now set in stone. That doesn’t mean they don’t get nervous, everyone gets nervous at Badminton.

Conditions today are promising to be slightly cooler than the past two days of competition. Riders will have welcomed the overcast conditions and the crisp cool breeze, perfect cross country weather. However, as I write, the sun is fighting to get through and, if it succeeds, the heat will take its toll on the eighty horses set to head out on Hugh Thomas’ 2011 Badminton cross country course. With perfect ground, good weather, and many familiar fences out on course, there is a huge risk of riders being lulled into a false sense of security. The form guide suggests that a lot of horses may make light work of the course, but one split second of a concentration lapse could put any rider completely out of contention.

With just half an hour to go until kick-off, the first horse will already be in the warm-up arena. The competitors’ tent will be filling up rapidly, where coaches, grooms and riders will have twenty four screens in front of them projecting every combination jumping every fence out on that course. No stones have been left unturned. The riders have walked around the course several times and know exactly where they need to be at every minute throughout their round. Despite that, many plans may change when the first few horses are out on course. If those corners take an early victim then some will abort their straight-route plans and go long. The same applies to the colt pond, the main water, huntsman’s close and all the other major questions out on course. At fence six, we have a huge table on a downhill four strides to a seriously narrow skinny. It walks a committed four strides, but if some go down on five and make it look the safer option then others will follow suit.

So much planning and preparation has gone into the eleven minutes of cross country that lies ahead of our riders today. For some it will all pay off, but for others their luck won’t be in today and it will be a day they will wish to forget. That’s the pressure that haunts Badminton today. For some disaster looms but for others they will become heroes….Enjoy the ride.

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