Thursday 21 April 2011

Sam Watson Reflects on Today's Activities

Big Crowds For The Trot Up

As the sun begins its decent so too does the hustle and bustle of trot-up day. The second year of the Grassroots Festival has been a success, blessed by the weather and making no intrusion on the main event. The crowds today have been busy, thanks largely to the aforementioned Grassroots competition. However, when I was a youngster making my Badminton debut all of two years ago, the volume of people at the first horse inspection was one of the first things to really hit me.

It reinforces, in no uncertain terms, the enormity of the occasion. The first phase of the competition starts tomorrow, but I can guarantee that some of the competitors will already be feeling worn out. I’m not referring to the 40 metres of jogging required for the trot-up, although some did seem to be struggling! It’s the mental fatigue which will come and go, hitting you in unsuspecting bursts throughout the entire week. There’s a lot of pressure just to get here in one piece, and then when you arrive your heart rate is constantly higher than normal and a first taste of those crowds kicks in that adrenaline too. Then there’s the small matter of staking your claim in the biggest competition in the calendar year. It’s a long week….

The first inspection should be treated as the first phase of the competition. They say first impressions are everything and this is the initial glimpse that judges will have of you and your horse. You may not be able to win the competition at the trot-up, but some will say that you can influence it, and for some poor soles you can certainly end your event. No casualties this year. I’m no fashion expert, just a good old suit and tie for me, but with the wonderful weather we are experiencing I was definitely optimistic of less clothing amongst the female competitors. I suppose there’s always hope of a heat wave on Monday…

Fence 15

As promised I have had a brisk walk around the course. With any four star course it’s never usually about one particular fence, it’s the intensity of question after question which finds horses and riders out. The going will be the key factor of the final leaderboard. Expect low finishing scores, especially compared to last year where only the winner finished sub 45, and only one other was sub 50. The course will take its prisoners and if I had to pick a fence it would be the farmyard corners at fence 15ab. It’s easy just to single these out after the drama they caused last year, but despite being the other way round they appear even tougher to me. The time won’t be influential like it was 2010 so this is a definite ‘long route’ option.

So what makes the fence difficult? They follow the vicarage line of fences and a demanding colt pond so the confidence bank could be flirting around the overdraft level. The phrase ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ springs to mind. The approach is a sweeping turn so you have little time to find the very precise line through the fences. That line is also dead straight leaving no ‘wriggle room’ for adjustment. Then we have the infamous short back rails on the corners which horses ‘missed’ last year. Usually with a corner you protect against running out on the ‘point end’, but these back rails enforce 100% accuracy both left and right. Finally, we have the added question for which there is no preparation, the dreaded camera tower directly in the horses’ line of sight. As the first horse to tackle the fence will be Andrew Nicholson on the mischievous Avebury, who offended at this exact obstacle last year, could we possibly see a ‘big name’ victim at a very early stage??!

There’s still a long way to go before cross country and big decisions regarding long routes won’t have been made, or at least set in stone, at this early stage. The optimum time will be gettable with a long route so expect tactics to be a major feature amongst the dressage leaders. That will all be food for thought on Saturday night and for the later riders, as the competition unfolds on Sunday. For now though it’s time for rest and a bit of shut eye. A lot of horses went down for an evening workout after the jog but they’ll all be snugly tucked in for the night by now. I’m going to follow suit so I’ll see you tomorrow, refreshed and ready for the first day of action.

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