Badminton springboard for Sydney Olympic hopefuls

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The death of Jemima Johnson, the sixth rider to be killed at a British event in less than 12 months, will have been on everybody's mind as riders assembled for the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, which begin today in Gloucestershire.

Johnson, who had twice completed the Badminton course, was well known on the eventing scene. Her death last Saturday cast another sombre shadow over the sport. Everyone will be hoping for a trouble-free Badminton and for nicer weather than last year's appalling deluge. Performances will come under the keen scrutiny of the selectors, especially as it is Olympic year.

Those hoping to earn a place for the Sydney Olympics include three members of Britain's winning team at the 1997 European Open Championships: Mary King, Christopher Bartle and William Fox-Pitt.

King, who has withdrawn King Solomon III through injury, relies on Star Appeal. She has ridden on winning world and European teams, but she came home empty-handed from two Olympic Games and is eager to be given another chance to add an Olympic medal to her collection.

Bartle, who rode for the Olympic dressage team in 1984 (he finished sixth, the best ever British place) will be riding his 1998 Badminton winner, Word Perfect II, and Oscar with whom he won at Achselschwang last year. Fox-Pitt also has two horses: the former Mark Todd ride, Stunning, and nine-year-old Moon Man. The latter is, according to his rider, a wonderful horse across country - "he has an old head on young shoulders, you could ride him on remote control".

Moon Man is also accomplished in the other two phases; he finished second in the PERA Pre-Badminton Dressage and Show Jumping Challenge at Grange Park last month. He was defeated there by Leslie Law and the grey Shear H20, last year's winner at Bramham and now one of the Badminton favourites.

In the expectation that the optimum time across country will be easier to achieve than last year, the dressage and show jumping marks will have a greater influence on the results. That could be to the advantage of Law and the Australian duel Olympic gold medallist Andrew Hoy (riding another impressive grey, Darien Powers) who has been taking lessons with the German dressage trainer Klaus Balkenhol.

New Zealanders can not be overlooked. Blyth Tait, the Olympic champion, is in great form, winning three advanced sections at Belton Park and the Kentucky Three-Day Event. He rides Chesterfield, one of his Belton victors. Mark Todd, at his last Badminton, will be on Eyespy II. His other intended mount, the 1999 runner-up Word for Word, is injured.