Nicholson rides out of the shadows

Andrew Nicholson deserved all the plaudits that have so often been heaped on his fellow New Zealand riders when he won the Burghley Pedigree Horse Trials yesterday, with a marvellous all-round performance on the hard-pulling Mr Smiffy.

Andrew Nicholson deserved all the plaudits that have so often been heaped on his fellow New Zealand riders when he won the Burghley Pedigree Horse Trials yesterday, with a marvellous all-round performance on the hard-pulling Mr Smiffy.

In the lead after Saturday's cross-country, Nicholson made sure of repeating his 1995 victory by completing a clear show jumping round yesterday. He would still have won with a single error, but the one fence in hand proved unnecessary.

Merran Wallis of Australia was runner-up on Gershwin III, followed by Clea Hoeg-Mudd on Feast of the Florios and her close friend, Vere Phillipps, who rode Coral Cove - formerly the mount of his late wife, Polly.

Phillipps received the award for the highest placed first-timer at Burghley, which can never before have had such a worthy recipient. After Polly sustained fatal injuries in a fall with Coral Cove last year, Phillipps set himself the task of qualifying to compete here. To finish fourth at Burghley in his first year of eventing was a phenomenal achievement.

A single show jumping error for Christopher Bartle on the 1998 Badminton winner, Word Perfect II, proved costly as it dropped him from overnight second to fifth. Mark Todd, competing in his last event in Britain, finished eighth after a disappointing dressage score followed by clear cross-country and show jumping rounds.

The victorious Nicholson has tended to be eclipsed by Todd, the dual Olympic champion, and Blyth Tait, the reigning world and Olympic title holder - both of whom will be his team-mates at Sydney. His mount, Mr Smiffy, had been tried and rejected by other good riders because of his tendency to dictate his own scorching pace.

Nicholson, however, proved his great talent as a horseman. Instead of pulling against the horse, which had the undesired effect of making Mr Smiffy go faster, he has avoided interfering with him between fences. And the horse, who is naturally careful, stopped fighting for his head.

The one near-miss came at the second part of the Waterloo Rails, fence eleven. "I had a bad stride to the first part, which was my fault," Nicholson said. "He put in an extra stride before the second part, hit it hard and I found myself sitting on his ears. I thought he would knuckle over. Then, when I realised he was going to get up, I thought I would fall off."

Nicholson flies to Sydney this morning full of confidence for the Games. Both he and Todd said that their performances here had given them a timely boost.

Todd retires after the Olympics and returns home to New Zealand. Yesterday's runner-up Wallis, who goes home for the Olympics as a spectator, intends to return to England where she has been based for the last six years.

"I wanted everyone to know what a wonderful horse I have," Wallis said, after tackling her first four-star cross-country track with such aplomb. She already has next year's Badminton in her sights, as does Phillipps with Coral Cove.

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