Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials leader Andrew Nicholson will go for a career-first at the age of 53 on Sunday.
The genial New Zealander coaxed a cross-country clear round inside the time out of Nereo to remain on their dressage score of 37.8 penalties and preserve an overnight lead after a thrilling day of cross-country action.
Unlike last year, when soft going and strong winds compounded the degree of difficulty around Guiseppe della Chiesa’s course, this time 13 combinations went clear inside the optimum time of 11 minutes, 27 seconds.
And five of those were the leading combinations following dressage, with Nicholson remaining on 37.8 penalties, ahead of William Fox-Pitt (Chilli Morning) 39.0, Oliver Townend (Armada) 39.6, Ingrid Klimke (Horseware Hale Bob) 40.2 and Jock Paget (Clifton Lush) 40.8.
Normally, he is a good showjumper. I can’t see why he should lose that ability overnight.
The top 10 picture is completed by Paul Tapner (Indian Mill) in sixth, Nicholson (Calico Joe) seventh, Bettina Hoy (Designer 10) eighth, Mark Todd (Leonidas II) ninth and Paget (Clifton Promise) 10th.
It now all comes down to the showjumping, with all the pressure on last-to-go Nicholson, who has won eight four-star titles, but never at Badminton.
Nicholson holds the record for most Badminton completions with 33, but his current best Badminton performance was second in 2004
“He was superb,” said Nicholson, of Nereo’s display.
“I made a conscious effort to make sure that I jumped every single fence. He is a very sensitive horse, and last year when I fell off we were far too casual – it was all too easy.
“We had a little trip up the bank coming out of the water, and that helped me a lot. It got me really switched on, and the horse, to make sure we jumped everything.
“Normally, he is a good showjumper. I can’t see why he should lose that ability overnight.
“It is quite a different course to ride here when it is the opposite way round. The end of the course is softer than last year.
“Once the weather did what it did last year, it made the course a lot harder. Up until I fell off him last year, Nereo was making the course look very easy.”
Townend delivered arguably the class round of the day on renowned corss-country specialist Armada, and he said: “He is a special horse.
“As soon as he set off down the hill out of the arena and pulled me along, I thought it was going to be my fault if anything went wrong today.
“When you get a good horse like Armada, it feels amazing.”
A total of 62 combinations will currently progress to Sunday’s showjumping, with 10 cross-country eliminations, including Tina Cook (De Novo News) and both Andrew Hoy horses (Rutherglen and Lanfanco), plus six retirements.