Equestrianism: Fox-Pitt avoids spills to take lead

William Fox-Pitt, 35, riding Mary Guinness's Tamarillo, kept cool across country to take a hard-fought 2.6-penalty lead on an eventful day at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials yesterday.

He heads the dressage leader, Andrew Nicholson, on Lord Killinghurst, after a thrilling but gruelling cross-country phase, in which survival became the main challenge. Andrew Hoy, riding Mr Pracatan, is in third, just ahead of long-time leader Bumble Thomas on The Persephologist. These horses needed their experience as well as expert handling to survive without jumping penalties in testing conditions.

Time faults were inevitable as relentless rain had turned the ground to slippery mud, with the steeplechase course sapping valuable energy from less fit or gifted horses. Predictions beforehand were dire, but the first to go, Caroline Pratt on Primitive Control, skipped round, making the obstacles look easy, only an expensive loss of direction costing heavy time penalties.

The course was clearly jumpable, but a surprise result began to look likely as most of the fancied two-horse riders met with problems. Finishing high in the dressage order, for once, seemed unimportant as good old-fashioned stickability took over.

Not here the perfect, manicured terrain that top riders are beginning to expect. The elements saw to it that cross-country riding skills were fully tested. It was not unfair, just difficult. Faults were spread all around the course, although the cluster of five uprights and spreads through the Huntsman's Close (fences 21-25) took their toll, twice accounting for Pippa Funnell, last year's winner. Her first ride, the stallion Viceroy, ran out of steam and fell at the gate going into the Copse, injuring Funnell's arm. After a hasty trip to hospital for X-rays that showed no break, she returned to ride the classy Cornerman, only to fall at the same gate, and retire.

Fox-Pitt's first ride, Moon Man, also tired to a standstill in the holding conditions, at the Quarry, while Shear H20 also struggled, landing steeply into the lake and depositing Leslie Law in the water. Time faults were heavy as many took longer alternative routes and conserved energy.

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