Equestrianism : Stark looms large

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The Independent Online
The speed and Endurance Day at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials never lacks excitement or incident, and despite perfect ground and weather conditions, and shorter steeplechase and cross-country courses than usual, yesterday was no exception.

World-class riders stood out among the 77 starters chasing the pounds 24,000 first prize. Less than four penalties or one show-jumping mistake divide the leading four, headed by Scotsman Ian Stark, who last won here in 1988 on Sir Wattie. Now riding Stanwick Ghost, Stark edged ahead of David O'Connor, the dressage leader, by finishing easily inside the optimum time of 11min 25sec. O'Connor was just 0.02sec outside this time, and incurred a .04 penalty - enough to put him behind Stark.

Mark Todd, who came so close to victory last year with Bertie Blunt, is a close third with him this year. Todd may find the horse inspection more nerve-wracking than the show jumping. But he will have to be at his best to stay ahead of fellow New Zealander Vaughn Jefferis, on his world champion winner Bounce, who lies in fourth place. Every fence on the 30- obstacle cross country demanded full concentration - even the first, a simple bench, claimed Mary King, who fell there from Star Appeal, and Georgia Bale had a refusal with Man in the Moon.

As so often, Andrew Nicholson was drawn first to go, and was the ideal pathfinder on Cartoon II. Theirs was an impressive, almost perfect round, going most of the direct routes and coming in comfortably with seconds in hand. When the next to go, Mary King on King William, did the same, it seemed that, perhaps, the course was not as severe as usual. But these performances were deceptive. Falls and refusals were scattered around the course, but 34 combinations still managed to jump clear.