Bravery and blessed relief

Badminton 2000: A stricken sport takes a tentative step back on road to recovery
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The collective intake of breath began at one minute to midday at Badminton yesterday and lasted until tea-time, nearly five hours on. Every fall, every slip, every refusal quickened pulses and when Sarah Daly crashed into a fence ominously nicknamed the Coffin followed closely by her horse, Sweet Icon, all she could hear were the screams of a crowd as mindful as the competitors of recent grizzly statistics. But bravery comes in many guises and little Sarah, tackling her first cross-country course at Badminton, remounted, survived two further run-outs and the loss of two horseshoes yet was still buzzing at the thrill half an hour later, despite a tally of penalty points resembling a cricket score.

"It was just over-boldness," she gushed. "After he fell, he began to think, well, he started not thinking at all actually." A state that seemed about to overtake the rider, too. Badminton is full of routine acts of heroism, often unseen, usually unspoken. "You'll write nice things about him, won't you," she enquired tentatively. Say what you like about the rider, but don't slander the horse.

No one who drives through the gates of the Duke of Beaufort's estate in Gloucestershire on the morning of the equestrian world's biggest day exits absolutely the same person. Take young Tristram Owers, the lorry driver's son who has stretched his 15 minutes of fame over three whole days on his first trip to Badminton. "I was petrified every time I came to a fence," the 21-year-old said after Hatherden's Riverdance had negotiated his way through the crossword puzzle of a cross-country course. "I could've fallen at any fence at any time," added Owers. "But I didn't." And if he never rides here again, that is an achievement to savour. In fact, punctuality was the only threat to his clear round, at the beginning, that is, not the end. While others duly arrived at the start with a minute or more to spare, Owers flew into the starting gate as the clock struck. "I was so nervous, I couldn't do up his girth," he explained. The horse's ex-owner had a more plausible explanation. "He's always late for everything."

What eventing desperately needed after five deaths in five months was a degree of normality, a return to blessed anonymity. Yesterday was all about survival, for riders and sport after Jemima Johnson's death last week at the Wilmslow Horse Trials had added a sixth name to a list of inexplicable tragedy. "How many more will die this year?" was the simple screaming headline to a centre-page spread in one tabloid last week. And the sport knew it was no nearer answering the question or to sifting out a definitive solution to the problem. Collapsible fences, folding poles, more lenient time penalties, compulsory veterinary inspections between the steeplechasing and the cross-country sections of the pivotal day's competition. The sport has been spinning in the dark, knowing it has to do something but not knowing exactly what. Perhaps an element of fear underpinned the day too because rarely have so many experienced riders on top-class cross-country horses made so many strange errors.

No one could recall when Darien Powers, the overnight leader, had refused a fence. But he refused the 18th yesterday, causing his rider Andrew Hoy to hold up his hand. "Definitely my fault," he said. "I let down the people who have looked after him and I've let down the horse." Or Blyth Tait, who suffered an elementary breakdown in communications on his faithful Chesterfield.

The words of Antoinette McKeowen, who embarked on her first cross-country round at Badminton at 12.50 yesterday and arrived back safe and sound roughly 12 and a half minutes later, provided a timely reminder that working with horses is not a precise science. Her account of her round on Time to Shine, more commonly known as Fred, gave a precious insight into the sort of checks and balances, compromises, negotiations and differ-ences of opinion which underpin a skill where, as one rider put it, "you're having to deal with two brains instead of one".

"He made it seem as if he was playing with the course," McKeowen said. "It was almost as if he was getting himself into a bit of trouble sometimes just to see if he could get out of it. Everytime I asked him to do something it felt as if he was listening and if I made a mess of it, which I did a number of times, he just said, 'Oh for goodness sake, this is what we'll do'. I trust him 100 per cent and, hopefully, he trusts me the same. Good crosscountry horses are strong characters and if you try to dominate them too much, you are in danger of knocking that character out of them. The horse has to want to do it. You shouldn't have to force them."

Maintaining its position as the premier competition in the calendar while ensuring the safety of the competitors is a balance that has fallen to Hugh Thomas, the course designer. By nightfall yesterday, he must have felt a sense of utter relief that the course he had constructed had prompted confusion but no destruction. There were even some moments of comedy, Keystone Cops on horseback, as Karen Dixon overhauled the rider in front of her and found her line blocked like a backmarker in Formula One. Though the overtaken rider is supposed to give way, the pair matched strides for the last few fences of the course. "It was like Cheltenham," Dixon said. "I was just about to get my whip out and ride a finish."

For Owers, the high will be never-ending, whatever happens in the decisive show-jumping discipline today. "I began the week as 'Tristram Owers, who's he?' and everyone kept asking me questions that I couldn't really answer. Now, I think people are starting to know who I am and I can't wait to come back." Three-day eventing cannot wait to move on as well, to stop looking fearfully over its shoulder. Yesterday was a tentative step on the road to recovery and for a sport so wary of its past, that was the biggest leap of all.