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Equestrianism: O'Connor looks Custom Made for the job

IT MUST have felt like the longest day in the life of Mike Etherington- Smith, director and course designer of the Blenheim International Horse Trials yesterday, as almost 100 competitors set out to tackle the cross country phase. It was his responsibility to get it right and to his great credit, and undoubted relief, he did.

Setting a suitable test and producing a fair result from such a large and diverse field was a mammoth task. Only last weekend, at Burghley, a fourth experienced rider was killed in a horse trial in the last three months. Once more it was the stars who shone through, with the dressage leader David O'Connor, a regular US team rider, retaining his lead on Custom Made and completing the four phases without further penalty. He has eight penalties to spare over his closest rival Mark Todd riding Just A Mission.

O'Connor was bringing back the 14-year-old horse from injury and was clearly relieved that his patience had been repaid. He had to stay cool, knowing that the New Zealander had gone round with just one time penalty. Todd, who leads the world event rider rankings after his success at Burghley, had said this course looked on the easy side but found it rough in places. He was delighted with Just A Mission, although he regretted removing one of his reins from the bridle as the horse became stronger and at one point tripped going downhill to the water. Todd takes everything in his stride, but for most of these riders this was the strongest challenge of their eventing careers. In third place lies another American, Kimberly Vinoski, with Over The Limit, just ahead of the Frenchman Frank Bourny who won the Windsor International in May. The best placed Briton is Nick Croall, riding Tiger Rose II.

Although now an experienced master of his craft and chosen to design the Olympic course at Sydney next year, Etherington-Smith is well aware that no one could have controlled the appalling disasters of the last months. Everyone involved within the sport wonders why this has happened while others, mostly from outside, are looking for someone to blame. The course designer is one of the obvious targets. The speed expected of riders and standard of horsemanship are others.

Those who ask what steps should be taken to make the Blenheim course safer do not to understand the nature of the sport. Riding at speed over solid obstacles involves danger. The only way to ensure it is safe, is not to do it at all.

Blyth Tait interview, page 14