Too Smart just clever enough

Genevieve Murphy believes that Get Smart's successor can help Karen Dixon to her best finish at the Badminton Three-Day Event which starts tomorrow
Karen Dixon says that she would like to finish in the top 10 (for the sixth time) when she rides Too Smart at the Badminton Three-Day Event, which begins tomorrow in Avon.

It seems a modest aspiration for the second (and more talented) of Dixon's two Badminton partners. But it is a racing certainty that the 30-year- old rider's thoughts have sometimes strayed towards having the Mitsubishi Trophy on her sideboard and the record first prize of £22,250 in her pocket.

Too Smart is a wonderfully nimble nine-year-old gelding who gained many admirers when he won the Punchestown Three-Day Event in Ireland and the British Championship at Gatcombe last year, and went on to finish third at Burghley.

The little horse looks the obvious successor to Dixon's 15-year-old warrior, Get Smart, with whom she won team gold and individual bronze medals at last year's World Equestrian Games. The older horse remains at home in Co Durham this week, though he remains a lively contender for the British team at September's European Open Championships in Italy.

In his place, Dixon is riding two newcomers at Badminton. The first, Hot Property, a 10-year-old gelding, will do his dressage test tomorrow morning - almost certainly with some reluctance. The grey horse finds this phase a bore; as soon as he catches sight of the dressage arena Dixon can almost hear him sigh. It makes her spirits flag a little, too, because she knows that she will have to work extra hard as a result. The sight of a cross-country fence has completely the opposite effect, however, and Hot Property will be raring to have a go at Hugh Thomas's 30 demanding obstacles on Saturday.

Too Smart is equally thrilled by the cross-country, but then he finds pretty well everything exciting - including the dressage that he will be performing on Friday afternoon. "The great thing about him is that he always tries to please," Dixon said. "Even when he's trotting on air with excitement, I know he wants to do the right thing. It makes a change from Get Smart, who more or less tells me to get stuffed when he's feeling like that."

In fact, Dixon's biggest problem may come just before the cross-country on Saturday when her husband, Andrew, tries to tighten Too Smart's girths. This is the one moment that the horse loathes. "It's a desperate struggle to try to do up his girths without any of us getting eaten," Dixon said.

She is longing to ride Too Smart over the cross-country course. "He's very bold, but he's also a sharp little fellow who gets his feet out of the way quickly," she said. Having cruised round the big course at Burghley last year, Too Smart should be ready for this challenge and he could well be among the leaders as they go into the final show jumping phase on Sunday.

The quick-footed bay horse is normally careful in the show jumping, but he has been known to have the odd fence down. To prepare Too Smart for this phase, Dixon stopped off in Yorkshire on her way to Badminton yesterday so that she could have a lesson with the show-jumping rider and trainer, Graham Fletcher.

Though she has a splendidly consistent record at Badminton, having ridden Get Smart to clear cross-country rounds in all his six runs there, Dixon has yet to finish higher than fifth in the annual classic. That was with Get Smart in 1988, the year that she was selected for the Olympics and first rode for a senior British team.

Dixon is not tempting fate by suggesting that she might do better this time. When asked who was the likely recipient of the Mitsubishi Trophy, she had no need to pause for thought. "Todd," she said, promptly and succinctly. Mark Todd and his two horses, Just an Ace or Bertie Blunt, have both been in tremendous form this spring. The prediction does not mean that she or her three team-mates from the World Games - Mary Thomson, Charlotte Bathe and Kristina Gifford - intend to let the New Zealander get away from them lightly. "Mary must stand a good chance with King William, I hope we all go well," Dixon said.

If she goes well on Too Smart it will be further proof that her mother, Elaine Straker, has a wonderful eye for a horse. She spotted him when he was a two-year-old, grazing in a field among a group of 10 horses, and she knew that she had to buy him. Then a rotund two-year-old, Too Smart has been known by the stable name of Barrel ever since. Though he lacks the experience of Get Smart, the little Barrel could prove to be even more talented than his stable companion - and you can't get much smarter than that.