Equestrianism: Tait heads queue for daunting cross-country trial: All the leading contenders will be at Badminton this year. Genevieve Murphy reports on the entry for the Avon classic

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The Independent Online
NEW ZEALAND'S world champion, Blyth Tait, will be the first to tackle Hugh Thomas's 30 cross-country fences at the Badminton Three-Day Event, which runs from 6 to 9 May. He will set out on this daunting challenge with the mare, Delta, before partnering Ricochet later in the day.

There were 108 horses from 10 countries on the entry list yesterday and, since the limit is 80, some of those in training will have to miss this annual classic in Avon. All the leading contenders for the handsome Mitsubishi trophy and pounds 20,000 first prize are, however, guaranteed a place as long as their horses remain sound.

These include last year's winners, Mary Thomson and King William, Virginia Leng on the grey Welton Houdini, Karen Dixon, who is drawn last to go on Get Smart, with whom she finished sixth in the Barcelona Olympics, and Mark Todd, New Zealand's dual Olympic champion. Todd's first mount will be Kinvarra, the former partner of the Spanish airline pilot, Santiago de la Rocha. He also rides the talented Just an Ace, with whom he finished fifth in

1991 when he was a last-minute replacement for the injured Robert Lemieux.

The ground at Badminton, where mowing has encouraged a thick cover of spring grass, was in perfect condition yesterday. But memories of last year's relentless rain - and the fatal injuries sustained by three horses - means that everyone is prepared for another unwelcome deluge.

'We can't guarantee against injury, but it's our earnest desire to make the course as safe as possible,' Thomas, who is director as well as course designer, said. In order to preserve the ground, the take-off area in front of each fence will be roped off during the two days of dressage when many spectators walk the course.

Given the same conditions as last year, Thomas would not cancel the event. 'Having kept people away from the take-off areas, there would still be a good cover of grass,' he said. 'But we would probably go out earlier to grit any slippery surfaces.'

The first serious question comes at fence four, The Three Diamonds, which makes ingenious use of the Mitsubishi logo. The quick route involves four jumps over angled rails, but there are a couple of slower options.

The second of the Luckington Lane Banks, fences 10 and 11, is a new circular mound, designed to test the riders' ability to keep horses balanced and straight. Other critical obstacles include the Sigma Bridge (14), The Lake (17 and 18) and the uphill steps of the Beaufort Staircase (21).

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