Fox-Pitt leads British charge
British success at world eventing's flagship Badminton Horse Trials used to be common-place - but the tide may well have turned.
A record Badminton first prize of £80,000 is on offer over the next four days, starting with dressage tests on Thursday and Friday for an 80-plus field assembled from 14 countries.
Newly-installed world number one William Fox-Pitt is set to spearhead a British challenge that includes such stars of the sport as 2009 Badminton champion Oliver Townend, Fox-Pitt's fellow Olympians Mary King, Tina Cook and Nicola Wilson, plus exciting prospects like Izzy Taylor, Gemma Tattersall and Tom McEwen.
But the statistics scream loudly that British eventing at senior international level is seemingly struggling, despite Fox-Pitt's continued brilliance.
Since London 2012, Britain has enjoyed a poor 25 per cent success-rate across major four-star events at Badminton, Burghley, Kentucky, Luhmuhlen and Pau, and there are currently only two British riders - Fox-Pitt and Wilson - among the world's top 20.
Germany, New Zealand, Australia and the United States all have greater top-20 representation, while Britain's failure to win a team medal in Malmo last September was the first time since 1993 they did not secure a European Championship podium place.
To underline the perspective of that result, it should be noted that Britain won eight successive European team titles between 1995 and 2009.
Fox-Pitt and King were the solitary British top-15 Badminton finishers last year, so it is a trend that unquestionably needs addressing little more than three months from Britain's world title defence in Normandy, and with Rio 2016 looming ever-closer.
The bookmakers are predicting a clear two-way tussle for glory between Fox-Pitt and Wiltshire-based New Zealander Andrew Nicholson, whose career is littered with major championship medals and four-star victories, but never at Badminton, where he first competed in 1984.
Yorkshireman Townend, who triumphed on Flint Curtis five years ago, is an enticing 14-1 chance, riding Nicholson's former four-star challenger Armada. They warmed up for Badminton by winning the Burnham Market three-star last month.
"Four-stars are still four-stars, and you need an awful lot to go right for you in these big competitions," Townend told Press Association Sport.
"It is definitely a higher level than anything else. I think it is going to be a serious, serious Badminton.
"Without doubt, if you are not in the top 10 after dressage, you are not going to win, generally.
"Everyone is getting better and better all the time, especially with the amount of training that goes on and also the quality of horse-power. The standard of horse-power is just getting higher and higher.
"Obviously, we are going to be going for it. In all three phases at Burnham Market, he felt as good as have I ever had him. That was our last run, so hopefully I will keep that in mind and it will be kept in his mind."
Townend and Armada made light work of the Badminton cross-country course off a number one draw last year, being among 20 combinations that jumped clear inside the optimum time.
Competitors will face a new-look course on Saturday designed by Italian Giuseppe Della Chiesa, who has taken over that key role from Hugh Thomas and introduced fresh challenges, including a new water complex and a re-creation of the famous Vicarage Vee fence.
"I hear there are a lot of big changes on the course. I hear it is going to be very impressive and back to how it used to be in a lot of ways," Townend, 31, added.
"It is difficult to say with a horse like Armada. He made it feel ridiculously straightforward last year, but at the same time Badminton is Badminton, and anything can happen.
"It did feel a straightforward course (12 months ago), but I don't think we are going to be going there expecting the same this year."
Townend, twice a European gold medal-winning British team member, has not attracted the selectors' interest since 2009 - the year he won Badminton and Burghley - and there are many followers of the sport who believe he deserves a recall, either for August's World Equestrian Games or 2015 Europeans at Blair Castle in Scotland.
"Who knows?" he said.
"We will just keep our heads down and keep producing the results we are producing. It is is up to them (selectors) whether they pick the phone up or not."