Friday 22 April 2011

Sam Watson Watching The Dressage

Andrew Nicholson & Avebury

So what does it feel like to wake up at Badminton Horse Trials on competition morning? Well, sometimes getting to sleep can be a tricky one, this mainly applies to the newcomers but everyone has nerves to deal with in some shape or form. The emotions swing like a pendulum all week, ranging from euphoria for those who dare to dream about winning to pure fear, which everyone experiences. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the fear is in relation to those big scary jumps out on the cross country course, but it isn’t really. It’s the fear of failure.

There is only one Badminton to win each year and most of us have just one horse with which we can attempt to land this most coveted trophy. So, when a rider wakes up on competition morning all thoughts turn immediately to the job in hand and, more specifically, not throwing away this chance of a lifetime.

Those riding in the first session of dressage this morning have been out and about on the horses since first light. It’s a great time to ride but Badminton without crowds can be both peaceful and eerie. The work at this late stage varies from horse to horse. Some just need a leg stretch and the odd finishing touch to what is already a well oiled and well rehearsed routine. For others, the first phase can all be about damage limitation….these horses are at peak fitness and some are absolute lunatics at the best of times. These are generally the cross country specialists and while they put their riders through hell today, it will be paradise on Sunday. The rare gem is the genuine article, the flamboyant mover, the brave heart, the real athlete. It’s those horses that win Badminton, so whose your money on this year??

Avebury, with Andrew Nicholson on board had a chance, but he’d have wanted a lower score than 48. On this good ground there will be a lot of catching up to do. His test was lovely but the changes let him down a bit and it rapidly dropped from early forties or possibly even a late thirties test. Watching these tests this morning reinforces just how much has to go right to win at this level. It’s a three day competition with 7 minutes of dressage, 6,400 metres and thirty fences of cross country and another 16 or so light show jumps in shallow cups on Monday. And yet a couple of ‘late’ flying changes could scupper your chances of a win….it’s tough at the top!

Someone who hasn’t done any harm to her chances is debutant Laura Collett. Her record through the youth ranks is nothing short of phenomenal and Gold medals are in plentiful supply in her already congested trophy cabinet. Her test onboard the impressive Raeph was outstanding and thoroughly deserved a score of 36 to take a massive early lead. That score will still be at the top end of the leaderboard tomorrow night and it will be very difficult to beat. Can you really win your first Badminton? 99.9% of the time I’d answer with a resounding no, but if any rider could ever defy those odds it’s this one. There’s no doubt that she’s the next big thing in this sport but it’s still one hell of a big ask. I wish her the very best and I wouldn’t wish the mental strain that she’ll be under on anyone. A top ten finish in this company with your first effort and you’re a hero Laura! Oh, and while I’m on ‘behind the scenes’ reporting, Laura’s groom for the week, Zanie Tanswell, ex-groom of Pippa Funnell and fiancĂ©e to Chris King, has a whopping great hoof print on her forehead thanks to dressage wonderkid Raeph…I hope it subsides before the wedding….!!

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