Last year's winners, Paul Tapner and Inonothing.
© Kit Houghton/FEI
The Classics series includes five of the world's top-level horse trials events, and the opener has attracted arguably the strongest international field for many years, with riders from 11 nations and seven former winners entered.
Oliver Townend, 28, the 2009 victor, wasn't even born when the double Olympic champion Mark Todd, 55, made his Badminton debut - and won - 31 years ago. Both riders have been in dominant form on the British national circuit this spring. Townend rides the grey Ashdale Cruise Master, fifth at Luhmühlen last year, while Todd has Major Milestone, 11th at Burghley last time, and is last to go on the former Townend ride NZB Land Vision, guaranteeing a gripping end to cross-country day on Sunday.
Last year's winner, Paul Tapner does not have his 2010 winner Inonothing in action, but he still has plenty of ammunition in Kilfinnie, a horse with good CCI4* form. His compatriot Lucinda Fredericks, who triumphed in 2007, has come off the waitlist with the good mare Prada. Much anticipation surrounds the return to Badminton of Pippa Funnell, a three-time winner, after three years. She brings the exciting 10-year-old chestnut Redesigned, a winner of Bramham CCI3* and fifth individually at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky (USA) last year, plus Mirage d'Elle, 15th at Burghley in 2010.
Mary King, 49, has been competing at Badminton since 1985. The winner in 1992 and 2000, she has two good rides in the CCI4* veteran Apache Sauce and the handsome Imperial Cavalier, fourth last year and on whom she won a world team gold medal.
But the man they may all have to beat is William Fox-Pitt, who last tasted victory here seven years ago. He has won more CCIs - 40 - than anyone else, and is the only rider to have captured four different CCI4*s. He also won the HSBC FEI Classics last year, for the second time. He rides Navigator, second at Pau, and Cool Mountain, winner of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event 2010 and team gold and individual silver at the World Equestrian Games.
Many people feel, however, that Badminton is due a new name on the magnificent Mitsubishi Trophy, and Andrew Nicholson could be the one. He has a record number of Badminton completions (29) under his belt and has two good rides, Avebury and the Spanish-bred Nereo, on whom he took world team and individual bronze medals last year.
To riders such as these, and Karen O'Connor, who has the longest Badminton record of all having started competing here in 1979, much will be familiar about Director Hugh Thomas's cross-country course. But all the riders know they can never underestimate the enormity of the occasion on cross-country day at the world's oldest CCI, when vast cheering crowds line the tracks, especially around the iconic lake fences.
The track runs clockwise - it is reversed every year - and 2006 winner Andrew Hoy, who has had a preview walk around, has given one combination, the sharply angled Carisma Pond, 10 out of 10 for difficulty. This is followed by a set of open corners, which were highly influential last year, and there's a tricky new angled bounce combination in the wood at Huntsman's Close.
"The course follows the pattern of high-action clusters of obstacles interspersed with imposing but less technical questions and, as ever, the Mitsubishi Motors Trophy will take a lot of winning," Hugh Thomas said. The top 10 riders will
carry forward points in the HSBC FEI Classics and, with the season's best three results counting towards a final score, tactics will come into play - the likes of Todd, King, Townend and Fox-Pitt all have horses en route for the second leg, the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which takes place from April 28 to May 1.
• HSBC has introduced a Training Bursary, which is a unique award presented to the highest placed rider at each HSBC FEI Classics leg who completes a 4* event for the very first time.
The winning rider receives a training voucher to the value of $US1000, which is spent on sessions with a trainer of the athletes' choice approved by the FEI and National Federation.
Over the next three years, HSBC will be contributing $US1 million in prize money, which represents the biggest prize fund on offer in eventing on an annual basis.
HSBC FEI Classics 2011 Calendar
1. Badminton Horse Trials (GBR) - 22-25 April
2. Kentucky Three-Day Event (USA) - 28 April-1 May
3. Luhmühlen CCI 4* (GER) - 16-19 June
4. Burghley Horse Trials (GBR) - 1-4 September
5. Les Etoiles de Pau CCI 4* (FRA) - 12-16 October
HSBC FEI Classics 2012
The HSBC FEI Classics 2012 season will begin at Les Etoiles de Pau CCI 4* (FRA) on 12-16 October 2011. This is also the location for the final leg of the 2011 season. Competitors therefore have the unique opportunity to secure points for both the HSBC FEI Classics 2011 and 2012 seasons by competing at Les Etoiles de Pau.
1. Les Etoiles de Pau CCI 4* (FRA) - 12-16 October 2011
2. Australian International 3 Day Event (AUS) - 18-20 November 2011
3. Kentucky Three-Day Event (USA) - 26-29 April 2012
4. Badminton Horse Trials (GBR) - 4-7 May 2012
5. Luhmühlen CCI 4* (GER) - 14-17 June 2012
6. Burghley Horse Trials (GBR) - 30 August-2 September 2012
HSBC FEI Classics Final Standings for 2010
1st William Fox-Pitt (GBR) 39 points - US$ 150,000 (Series champion)
2nd Andreas Dibowski (GER) 37 - $75,000
3rd Caroline Powell (NZL) 21 - $50,000
4th Mary King (GBR) 18 - $33,000
5th Paul Tapner (AUS) 15 - $25,000