Tomorrow sees the Battle of Belton pick up some serious speed, with showjumping taking place throughout the morning and cross country following closely behind. With just one rail separating second place from 22nd, we can expect to see a major reshuffle across the board, particularly as most horses are lacking in match practice and, in some cases, are having their first run of the season tomorrow.
Captain Mark Phillips always builds a thinking man’s course at Belton, with tricky combinations designed to prepare horses and riders for their spring CCI runs. This year is no exception, and, perhaps as a result of the late-onset-early-season phenomenon inflicted upon everybody by the mass cancellations this spring, it looks particularly challenging.
Several of its combinations ask modified versions of the questions to be seen at Badminton, making this an ideal litmus test, but not one to be taken lightly. The first real question appears at fence 6ABCD — look, it’s never a reassuring sign when there are THAT many letters — which reads like a toned-down facsimile of Badminton’s Joules Corners. Belton’s version features a wide hedge, two offset, reasonably narrow angled hedges, and a skinny hedge spread on the way out. We’ll likely see a few horses take the side route through this question, which tests horse and rider’s commitment to the line.
Further along, at 11AB, the Riverlodge Equestrian Hollow, we see the use of man-made undulations and airy timber uprights, which are used so liberally in next month’s Badminton course. There’s also a reasonably kind water combination (12ABC) with a very skinny arrowhead on the way out — yet another test of line and straightness, essential when tackling the tricky turns and offset skinnies featured in the water at Badminton — and the Lycetts Leap at 14ABC, a coffin with yet another angled, offset hedge.
From then on out, it’s reasonably plain sailing until 19ABCD, the Oldrids and Downtown Sunken Road, which features a curving line through, you guessed it, a sunken road – but preceded and followed by two big, airy timber open corners.
The beauty of a CIC3* course like this is in its ability to ask tricky questions, but offer respite from them, too, and Mark Phillips has done an excellent job of designing a course that allows horses to find their rhythm and flow easily around large swaths of the course, adjust, work hard through a tricky combination, and then move on again in a rhythm. It’s a system of ask and reward which, with any luck, should prove hugely beneficial in this early part of the season.
As Jonty Evans puts it: “any horse who can set a good, competitive pace around this track will find themselves in a very good place going into Badminton.”
Course length: 3610m
Optimum time: 6:20