BRITISH star William Fox-Pitt will step up his bid to capture the richest and rarest prize in world eventing this weekend.
So difficult is the Rolex Grand Slam to achieve that only one rider has previously accomplished it – Fox-Pitt's Great Britain colleague Pippa Funnell, nine years ago.
It is awarded if a rider wins consecutive four-star events at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley in any order, and offers a financial windfall of just under £220,000.
World number one Fox-Pitt landed the Burghley title last September aboard Parklane Hawk and he will use the same mount at Kentucky, where victory would set him up for a Grand Slam tilt when Badminton begins next week.
The Sturminster Newton rider triumphed in Kentucky two years ago on Cool Mountain and when he returned to the same venue five months later with the same horse, World Eques-trian Games team gold and individual silver were collected.
Eventing’s Grand Slam represents a formidable challenge, but 43-year-old Fox-Pitt has both the ability and horsepower to emulate Funnell's 2003 success.
“It is all about the Rolex Kentucky this week, and then we will focus on Badminton and the big dream of winning the Rolex Grand Slam,” he said.
“My main aspiration for the week is that Parklane Hawk consolidates his form from Burghley.
“He is on very good form. He has undergone some good preparation and is feeling fit, so hopefully he will perform very well.
“The training has gone to plan, and so far it has been hitch-free. The horse has had three good runs, and he's on good form for the States.
“I haven’t seen the changes that Derek di Grazia (Kentucky cross-country course designer) has made, but from what I understand he is being a bit more authoritative this year, so I look forward to seeing the new course.”
Australian-bred Parklane Hawk gave Fox-Pitt a record sixth Burghley crown almost eight months ago, but competition promises to be stiff when the event begins with dressage tomorrow and culminates in Sunday’s showjumping finale.
Shropshire-based Oliver Townend, Badminton and Burghley champion in 2009, suffered a crashing fall from Ashdale Cruise Master at Kentucky two years ago that ended his Grand Slam pursuit, but the durable Yorkshireman returned to America last season and contested strongly.
This time, his challenge will be made on recent Burnham Market three-star winner Pepper Anne, while another British Olympic hopeful – an in-form Lucy Wiegersma – rides Granntevka Prince.
And considerable interest will surround California-based Briton James Alliston, who is considered by some to be a proverbial dark horse for London 2012.
Alliston, an Oxford graduate whose parents live in Gloucestershire, will have the two horses he guided to top-20 Kentucky finishes last year, Parker and Jumbo’s Jake.
“I am a little bit off the radar, a little bit of a long shot (for London), I think, but I want to do international events where people are watching me,”Alliston said.
“Ian Stark (former Badminton champion and Olympic medalist) course designs at Galway on the West Coast here, so I see Ian quite a bit, and I spoke with Yogi Breisner (British eventing performance chief) at Kentucky last year.
“I know there is a lot of strength in depth over in the United Kingdom, so I will just do the best I can.
“Last year was my debut year at Kentucky, and I hope to be really competitive with both my horses and improve on last year when they were 14th and 17th.”
American contenders are predictably out in force – notably Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin – while former Kentucky champion Karen O’Connor debuts her new four-star horse Mr Medicott, previously an Olympic gold medallist with Germany’s Frank Ostholt.
“The line-up of riders and horses entered in this year’s event is truly amazing,” Christina Gray, Kentucky's director of competition, said.
“William Fox-Pitt is clearly one of the most successful riders our sport has ever seen.
“He is a threat to win in every event he enters, and I have no doubt that with his eye on both the Olympics and the Rolex Grand Slam that he will be at his best when competing here.”
Meanwhile, Fox-Pitt claimed the Bovington one-day event Novice class title on one of his young horses, Freddie Mac.
Despite torrential rain, crowds gathered to watch the Dorset star ride the eight-year-old chestnut thoroughbred to victory with an impressive dressage score of 27 and double clear scores in the show jumping and cross country sections.
It was the first time that Fox-Pitt had ridden the Novice course at Bovington, following its construction late last year.
“It’s great news for the south west to get a Novice course here,” said the Olympic hopeful.
“Bovington has built a superb track, big, bold and imposing, with lots of interesting questions for upcoming riders and a little bit of everything – banks, ditches and water.”
Local up-and-coming event riders can follow in Fox-Pitt’s footsteps and experience Bovington’s cross country course by attending its summer camp (June 22-24).