Equestrianism: Tait's blithe spirit still intact

The Olympic and World champion hopes to break his Badminton duck at last.
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BLYTH TAIT has been runner-up at Badminton on three occasions, which some may regard as frustratingly close to getting his name on the roll of honour. But the New Zealander, who is reigning world and Olympic champion, chooses to look at it another way.

"I'm quite proud of my track record at Badminton, most times I've come away with a good result," Tait said. Ignoring the year when he withdrew after the dressage, he has had a horse in the top nine in all the six years that he has competed.

Tait would, of course, love to get his hands on the Mitsubishi Motors Trophy when it is presented by the Queen on Sunday, the day before his 38th birthday. But he will not have victory as his specific goal when the big event begins this morning with the first of two days of dressage.

"I'll set out with the intention of doing the best dressage I can with both horses, then aim to go clear in the cross-country and show jumping," Tait said. "If that's good enough to win I'll have a helluva birthday party."

Tait's first mount will be Ready Teddy, the little chestnut with whom he won his world and Olympic gold medals. The horse is not, however, always a paragon of virtue. This year Tait fell off him at Gatcombe, got stuck on a log in water at Rolleston and incurred 24 show jumping penalties at the PERA Dressage and Show Jumping Challenge.

"That might be just what the brat needs," Tait said affectionately after the PERA debacle. Ready Teddy's final pre-Badminton outing was at Belton Park, where he finished second, but the improved performance did not impress Captain Mark Phillips. "Ready Teddy... did not look like a Badminton winner to me," Phillips wrote in his Horse and Hound column. "In fact he looked uncharacteristically sticky in places."

Tait was by no means up in arms over the comment. "It was justified," he said. "I'm delighted that Mark wrote what he did. I was becoming conscious of being one of the favourites and he's taken the pressure off me."

Phillips may have put pressure on New Zealand's Mark Todd on Broadcast News and Germany's Bettina Overesch on Watermill Stream. Both horses are expected to be among the leaders after the dressage and to produce storming cross-country rounds on Saturday.

British hopes will rest with Ian Stark on his two New Zealand-bred mounts, Jaybee and Arakai, last year's victor Christopher Bartle, this time riding Oscar, and Kristina Gifford, whose two mounts include General Jock.

Ready Teddy remains Tait's favourite horse to ride. But he has also developed "a real soft spot" for Chesterfield, his second Badminton mount. He reckons that his two mounts' chances are just about equal - "Ted has more potential to win whereas Chesterfield is Mr Consistency." Having won at Burghley last year on Chesterfield, Tait needed two more victories - at Kentucky and Badminton - in order to collect a jackpot of nearly pounds 160,000. But that alluring prospect disappeared in Kentucky, where he rode Aspyring to finish two points behind Karen O'Connor of the United States.

But for the scoring system having changed this year, Tait would have won the American contest. And though he had been one of the foremost critics of the new formula, the Kiwi is not complaining. "Karen performed really well and I was delighted with the way my horse went," is all he would say.

Tait cannot expect too much sympathy from his fellow riders. Since coming here from Whangarei, in the north of New Zealand's North Island, he has won the pounds 10,000 award for global rankings five times in the seven years that the prize has been on offer. Having lived on a shoestring when he first arrived, these rewards (plus his current sponsorship from Toggi) have helped to make his life considerably more comfortable.

Two years ago, after it was announced that overseas riders would be limited to one horse at Badminton, there was an extraordinary outcry when Tait mildly suggested that the paying public might prefer to watch the top riders rather than "Samantha Clippoty-Clops". Poor little Samantha was seen to represent all those amateur riders competing with just one horse. Their families and supporters were enraged.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the sport has flourished in this country because of the British-based overseas competitors.