Equestrianism: Leng rides pressure with polish

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VIRGINIA LENG rode Welton Houdini to a wonderfully polished clear round in yesterday's final show jumping phase of the Badminton Three-Day Event before receiving the Mitsubishi Trophy and the pounds 20,000 first prize.

With the marks so close after Saturday's cross-country, the pressure was intense. 'And I certainly felt it, I nearly lost my way several times,' Leng said, with a grin. 'I'd come here feeling hopeful, rather than confident, this was the biggest surprise of my life.'

As usual, competitors jumped in the reverse order of merit and to mounting tension. Mary Thomson, who cruised round Saturday's awesome cross-country course on King William, proved how much can be lost over the tamer show jumps when the horse clobbered rails out of six fences. Thomson plummeted from fourth to 20th place as a result.

New Zealand's world champion, Blyth Tait, lying third overnight on Ricochet, put the pressure on with a clear round. This was the last event before the 15-year-old horse retires and it was still possible that he might end his career with victory.

Tanya Cleverly dropped one place below Tait, with a mistake on Watkins. Leng would have slipped back, too, had the 10-year-old grey, Welton Houdini, dislodged one rail, but he jumped clear in hushed silence that erupted into emotional roars for Leng's third Badminton victory.

Tait, formerly a show jumper, had watched with resignation. 'I wanted to win, but I didn't want to wish bad luck on anyone else,' he said, after finishing runner-up for the second time in only his second ride here.

Cleverly, 28, had intended to retire before her fine performance for third place on Watkins. 'It's become a financial crisis, I'm doing this on a shoestring without a groom,' she said. 'My lorry broke down on the way here and that means another big bill.' The pounds 12,000 that Cleverly won for finishing third will help her through the crisis. It may also persuade her to stay in the sport, at least until September's European Championships, for which she is now an obvious candidate for Britain's team.

The British selectors must also have been pleased with the performances of other riders in their twenties: notably William Fox-Pitt, 24, seventh on Chaka, Charlotte Hollingsworth, 27, eighth on last year's Burghley winner, The Cool Customer, and Nick Burton, 25, ninth in his first Badminton on Bertie Blunt.

BADMINTON THREE-DAY EVENT (Avon): 1 Welton Houdini (V Leng, GB) 43.0 penalties; 2 Ricochet (B Tait, NZ) 44.8; 3 Watkins (T Cleverly, GB) 48.2; 4 Chief (V Latta, NZ) 50.0; 5 Mr Punch (A Hermann, Swe) 54.4; 6 Quart du Placineu (M-C Duroy, Fr) 55.85; 7 Chaka (W Fox-Pitt, GB) 56.25; 8 The Cool Customer (C Hollingsworth, GB) 56.6.

(Photograph omitted)