Two Australian eventers have hit Kiwi shores in a bid to take the country's World Cup round title back across the Tasman for the third year running.
Clarke Johnstone and Orient Express
Megan Jones took out the Kihikihi World Cup round for the last two years running, winning on Kirby Park Irish Jester in both 2010
. She is not making the trip this year.
Beijing Olympic silver medalist Shane Rose (Taurus), and World Equestrian Games team member Chris Burton (Holstein Park Leilan) have brought their top horses to the FEI World Cup event at Kihikihi, which starts tomorrow.
The pair will join a field of 15 New Zealand entries vying for a share of the $37,500 prize pool and secure World Cup points.
In previous years, there has been a sizable gap between the score of the winning Australian rider and the best-placed New Zealander at Kihikihi. But this year, things may be different.
"I think for the last couple of years, we felt slightly beaten before they [the Australian riders] arrived!" said Eventing High Performance Leader Erik Duvander.
"We now have a bit of a turn on that. No guarantees, but I think it is more of a level playing field. Our riders have stepped up to a new level. It is going to be a really exciting weekend."
Frontrunners among the New Zealand entries are Lizzie Brown and Clarke Johnstone. Both riders are part of the current New Zealand Eventing squad and both will be shifting to Britain after Kihikihi to campaign for the 2012 London Olympics.
Brown has entered her top horse, Henton Attorney General, who has an impeccable competition record in New Zealand. The World Cup class at Kihikihi remains one of the few titles which they haven't managed to snare. She is also starting Push Play.
World Equestrian Games bronze-medallist Clarke Johnstone is also bringing his top mount, Orient Express, and will be hoping to win his second World Cup class. The former Otago rider will also start KS Secrets and Incognito in the main class.
"These are young people with big ambitions putting themselves on the line," Duvander said.
Johnstone was third last year on Oakley Vision, and fifth on the same horse in 2009. Orient Express finished eighth. In 2010, Johnstone finished fourth overall in the World Cup series, taking home $US18,000. He was the only New Zealander in the top 15.
Kihikihi is the first event of the 2011 FEI World Cup Eventing series. It will be followed by a round in Sydney (6-8 May) and then 5 rounds in Europe. The title of FEI World Cup Eventing Champion 2011 and final cash prize will be decided on points gained from the FEI World Cup Eventing rounds.
Competition at Kihikihi starts with the dressage on Friday, April 8, cross-country on Saturday, and concludes with show-jumping on Sunday. Aside from the equestrian competition, there will be a trade village, a novelty fun run over the cross-country course, live music and a classic car picnic.