Equestrianism: Dixon's reward for doing the leg work

A `long shot' made it to Rome for the World Equestrian Games, which start tomorrow
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The Independent Online
KAREN DIXON has kept an unusually low profile for most of this year. She does not, however, intend to shun the limelight during the World Equestrian Games, which have their opening ceremony in Rome tomorrow night.

Unlike other leading three-day event riders who began 1998 with realistic expectations of being selected for the Games, Dixon was struggling to get fit. A horrible fall in August last year had left her with a broken leg and a severed knee ligament, which had to be repaired with surgery. In the spring she regarded herself as "a long-shot" for the World Games.

"It's been a struggle," Dixon said. "In the past I've always bounced back, but this time my legs felt incredibly weak. It seems to have taken endless physio to get fit again."

Having been out of the saddle for six months, Dixon enlisted the help of Capt Mark Phillips. "I needed to build up my confidence again, because it was so long since I'd ridden. Mark advised me to go for good, confident performances rather than trying to win." Though Dixon says that she would have been ready for Badminton in May, it may have been a blessing in disguise when the 12-year-old Too Smart developed a corn and had to miss the big event in Gloucestershire. For it was post-Badminton when everything began to go right for her and horribly wrong for most of the others.

Dixon had been unobtrusively aiming for "good, confident performances" when she was added to the Games short-list after finishing sixth at Bramham in June with Too Smart. "I had such a good ride at Bramham, I felt I could wave goodbye to my injuries," she said. "By the time we went to Gatcombe a couple of months later, I was ready to put my foot down."

She motored on to such effect at Gatcombe that she became British champion by finishing runner-up to Blyth Tait and Ready Teddy, holders of the Olympic title and part of New Zealand's powerful team for the World Games.

By then it was known that Mary King was pregnant, so the minor injuries sustained by her two horses were unimportant. But that was certainly not the case for other prime contenders (notably William Fox-Pitt, Christopher Bartle, Ian Stark and Kristina Gifford), who seemed to be queuing up to announce details of their horses' injuries.

As a result Dixon went from long-shot to probable linchpin of the Great Britain team that defends the world three-day event title, which she helped to gain four years ago in The Hague.

The experience of the 34-year-old rider, who has competed in three Olympic and two World Games, should be invaluable. Gary Parsonage, who was with her at the 1996 Olympics, is the only other member of the squad of six who has been on a senior team before, though Polly Phillipps and Nigel Taylor have competed as individual riders at European championships. Jeanette Brakewell and Peta Beckett are newcomers at this level.

"We're a new bunch and we seem to be getting on fine, there have been no battles in camp," Dixon said. "We all know what we're up against. I doubt whether we can beat the New Zealanders, but if we have a lot of luck on our side, who knows?"

Considering the vicissitudes of the year, Giles Rowsell, the British chef d'equipe, will be anxious to avoid any further fall-out before the dressage phase gets under way on Thursday at Pratoni del Vivaro, near Rocca di Papa, about 30 miles south east of Rome.

Too Smart is a great favourite of Dixon's mother, Elaine Straker, who does some of the fast work with him on Denys Smith's Bishop Auckland gallops. He is no angel, though, and he has been known to play the fool in dressage. Exasperated after one such occasion - at Bramham last year - Dixon invited pupils from Queen Ethelburga's School to her Co Durham home, where they cheered and banged clapper-boards, while she put Too Smart through his paces. It seems to have done the trick.

"He's been much more settled in his dressage this year, which is a relief because he can do a very good test," Dixon said. The little horse is also a great cross-country performer (running-out now seems a thing of the past) and he is normally a careful show jumper.

Dixon has always been a doughty fighter, as was evident in 1989 when she show jumped at Badminton with, it transpired, a cracked fibia and four damaged vertebrae. Remembering past pains, had she never considered hanging up her boots? "With such lovely horses in the stable, I wouldn't even think of it," she said.