Sarah Carless ..
Eric Winter’s debut course for the 2017 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials has a distinct look to it. It greatly resembles the swashbuckling tracks of the 1970’s, but with the advantage of 21st century safety technology.
If there was one word to describe the 2017 course it could be ‘chunky’. Unlike many modern courses there is a deliberate lack of superfluous decoration with most fences using rustic timber.
Starting as ever in the main arena over the traditional ASX Starter, this year riders head in a clockwise direction over an inviting roll top brush the Rolex Rolltop, which is located at the bottom of the warming up area behind the grandstand – the first time a fence has been located here.
There is a new look to the Keepers ditch with a large but inviting table Keepers Question and another single fence Mike Weavers Haywain at Fence 4, with riders needing to pick a line through the undulating terrain to the fence which is at the top of a sharp slope.
The first real question comes with the four-part Savills Staircase at Fence 5. The combination starts with an imposing set of rails sited at the top of the staircase before two steps down and an angled brush away, which provides plenty of opportunity for horses to run past the fence. Balance and accuracy will be important at this fence and it could be an early influencer.
A gallop down the Avenue then introduces the substantial Countryside Birch. Here, the brave can angle it and save several seconds cutting inside a tree on landing. Or there is the option to take it straight and lose a few seconds. Eric feels this could be a major make or break fence, where you will see those who are in it to win it.
The Lake complex comes early in the course. First come the L200 Pickup Trucks followed by massive drop into the water, a right turn to a wooden cottage out and an angled brushed-up log out. The direct route will require attacking riding and a positive attitude to navigate cleanly. A slower and slightly easier route is available but this will waste valuable time. After jumping the L200s riders will circumnavigate the lake and jump a straightforward, and not overly big palisade, before entering the water and staying straight to a step out turning left to another palisade. To get back on track riders will then have to turn back on themselves to get away.
Instead of pockets of relentless action there is a flow to the course which next takes in an uncompromising white parallel in front of the House, the Offset Oxer at Fence 9 before riders tackle two wide corners with a dip between at the Shogun Hollow.
A longish gallop follows down to the Vicarage Ditch where Eric has reintroduced an eighties classic, the KBIS Bridge. The Bridge acts as Fence 11 and 12 for those who take it on, with an open ditch with a 180 degree turn back to a set of rails for riders taking the alternative route. It is then left to the Outlander Bank, which offers a choice of cottages on the bank set at slightly different distances.
The Rolex Grand Slam Trakehner (Fence 14) is a spectacular remake of a seventies classic but still offers really imposing question on top of a new mound over a deep ditch. The fence was designed to offer more undulation on the course as riders will run up a steep slope to navigate the fence. But for the horses and riders once you get to the top of the bank it doesn’t look so bad. This will be a real spectator favourite.
Following this, riders follow the track up one of the few inclines in Badminton Park to the Hildon Water Pond. This influential fence is at the top of a hill with the three separate elements made of fallen tree trunks. The direct route will see riders take all three elements on the angles. But Eric has been kind enough that if a horse leaves a leg at either of the first two elements riders can make a quick change of direction and take the longer route, albeit wasting valuable time.
As the course heads down the hill again, there is the let-up (although maximum dimensions) Sheep Feeder, before approaching the familiar Mirage Pond – two angled hedges with the pond between on quite a tight distance.
The Devoucoux Oxer is relatively simple but has a maximum size rustic spread, before riders come to the PHEV Corral (Fence 19). Riders come up the mound to an upright set of post and rails then down into the ranch’s ‘yard’ where riders can choose either the left or right side of the post and rail funnel on a tight angle. This fence requires a steady, very balanced approach and then careful steering to let the horse see the line out of the complex.
As riders come back in front of the House, the course celebrates the event’s charity of the year with the Event Mobility Dining Table (Fence 20). This is followed closely by the Joules Corners where a hedge sets riders up for a double of angled boxed brush corners which were previously sited in Huntsmans Close. Horses then get their feet wet for the last time, splashing through to a vast bullfinch, not seen for some time, at the Wadsworth Lakeside.
Most of the serious questions have been asked by this stage in the course, and the two log piles in the Irish Gateway Huntsmans Close are much kinder than in recent years but it still tests the handiness of the horses as they begin to tire.
To ensure riders don’t just go flat out as they may their way towards the Quarry, the World Horse Welfare Gates involve right angle turns and require the riders to balance their horses carefully.
The Horsequest Quarry (Fence 25 and 26) starts with a big brush spread on the flat, before riders drop down and have a choice of broom head ‘skinnies’ and up a steep slope to an upright wall, which whilst relatively easy still looks daunting. This combination of fences will find out whether the horses are still focussed on the job.
The last few relatively kind obstacles start with the double of FEI Classics Hedges then the Rolex Trunk, where the approach is deliberately awkward through the trees to make sure the riders pay attention.
The riders will have in the region of 11 minutes 46 seconds to come home under the optimum time. However, to achieve this times riders will need to take the direct routes – any alternative routes will see the time penalties racking up.
Of his course Eric comments: “I wanted to bring back to Badminton an old fashioned scariness to it. We have several fences on this course that you look at and think ‘wow’ that looks decent. We’re aiming to go back to that tradition.”