Equestrianism: Get Smart gets wiser before the event: Kiwis mounting a serious challenge at Badminton which starts today

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BLYTH TAIT will be first into the dressage arena when the Badminton Three-Day Event begins this morning, which gives him an early opportunity to show why New Zealand riders are well fancied to win the Mitsubishi Trophy and the pounds 20,000 first prize.

Both Tait, the world champion, and fellow Kiwi, Mark Todd, the dual Olympic champion, will be riding two horses. If they can make a good start during the two days of dressage, it could be hard to peg them back during Saturday's cross-country and Sunday's final show jumping. Tait's first ride is on the fast little mare, Delta, who rose from 45th after the dressage to be runner-up at Burghley last year.

The draw means that Delta will also be the first horse to tackle the 30 cross-country fences on Saturday, when the riders' view of the obstacles will be restricted by the 200,000 people swarming across the Duke of Beaufort's estate.

'Going first means I will have to make up my mind about which routes to take without seeing anyone else jump, but I'm not too bothered by that,' Tait said. He will have ample opportunity to watch the closed-circuit television before riding his second partner, Ricochet.

Todd's first mount, 15-year-old Kinvarra, was ridden by his Spanish owner (Santiago de la Rocha) to finish 19th in last year's Olympics. Todd was reunited earlier this year with his second mount, Just an Ace, who was fifth at Badminton in 1991 when he was a late replacement for the injured Robert Lemieux.

If the Kiwis are to be thwarted, it could well be through one of three British women: Mary Thomson, Virginia Leng or Karen Dixon. Thomson had serious braking problems at the Olympics with King William, last year's Badminton winner, but these seem to have been solved.

Leng and Welton Houdini had an unlucky fall on treacherous ground at Badminton last year, when the horse slipped on take-off. 'He's grown up a lot since then,' Leng said of the grey gelding, who has been given some extra experience of cross-country jumping with 12 days of hunting this season.

Dixon rides two horses: Stepney Bartholomew, who will be third to go, and Get Smart, who will be last of all. Get Smart, now 13, finished sixth (the best British placing) at the Olympics last year; he also has a fine record at Badminton having finished in the top 10 in all four of his outings there.

'Smart's in cracking form, wilder than ever at the moment,' Dixon said. 'I thought I'd be kind and ride him in a plastic bit that was very mild but that was a big mistake - he definitely thought he was the boss. He's now back to his old bit, a French link, which means that he listens to me a bit more.'

Younger riders in contention include Pippa Nolan (the national champion), Kristina Gifford (22- year-old daughter of racehorse trainer Josh Gifford), Charlotte Hollingsworth (who partners last year's Burghley winner, The Cool Customer) and William Fox-Pitt (who now has the ride on the 1991 Burghley runner-up, Chaka). You can expect to see all four of them tackling those daunting obstacles with relish.