London 2012 Olympics: Showjumpers end 50-year gold drought
AFTER the heroics of past days when Team GB turned on the turbos and produced gold after gold amid chaotic scenes, yesterday’s programme had a fairly barren look to it – until just before 5pm when roars reverberated around Greenwich Park, a wall of noise that meant only one thing.
More glory at the Games for the unstoppable Brits and for the baby of the four-man team, Scott Brash from Peebles, who at 26 years old is less than half the age of the great hero of the day, the incomparable and faultless Nick Skelton.
The sedate world of show-jumping became a nuthouse here. Not since Helsinki in 1962 have Britain taken team gold at the Olympics but whatever irresistible force is propelling these competitors forward, they took the ultimate prize here in the equine equivalent of a penalty shoot-out, if that’s not too trippy a concept to grasp.
It was a masterful display of cool horsemanship, but it also had its origin in luck. The Dutch had a chance to win before it ever got to a stress-filled jump-off, but they couldn’t take it. Had Gerco Schroder gone clear it would have all been over and Britain would have had to settle for silver. He didn’t. Four faults sent the contest into extra jumps – and into the record books.
The delicious irony of the jump-off with the Dutch was that three of Britain’s wonder horses were Dutch-bred. The win was inspired by Skelton, show-jumping’s Bionic Man given all the injuries he has had including a broken neck, and his “freak horse” Big Star, a combination that are seemingly incapable of hitting a pole not to mind knocking one over. And it was rounded off in the grandest style by Peter Charles and Vindicat and a clear round that guaranteed the gold. This was madcap stuff, sealed by the medal presentation and victory laps around the arena that had the packed crowds in a delirious stupor.
Fifty years was a long time to wait for this. Among the Helsinki heroes, there was a Scot in the team, an army man from Ayrshire called Duggie Stewart. Yesterday, Brash emulated him.
“I’m loving every minute of this,” he said, on his Olympic debut “It’s the best day of my life. I’m just not going to have a better day than this, winning a gold medal in front of an incredible home crowd. I’ve just heard that gold medallists get a postbox painted gold in
their home town so I’m going to have to think where to find one in Peebles.
It’s an amazing feeling. I’m so lucky to have the supporters I have. They’ve given me this opportunity to ride this
The horse is Hello Sanctos; the supporters, a pair of horse-loving and fabulously wealthy self-made men who have been in the game a long time and who set their hearts on experiencing this day long before Brash was even born.
Hellos Sanctos is a bay gelding, born in Belgium, stabled in America and then Germany, owned in the first instance by an American and then a Ukrainian oil tycoon and now safely housed in Brash’s stables in Peebles having been bought for him for a rumoured two million euros (£1.6m) by Lord Harris of Peckham and his billionaire mate, Lord Kirkham – or Phil and Graham, as Brash calls them.
It has been Phil Harris’ dream to own a horse that won Olympic gold and he’s been chasing it for 40 years, right back to his connection with David Broome. Harris is worth several hundred million and he has given an awful lot of it to charity while also investing fortunes in the creation of 14 academy schools in England. When Harris happened on this horse he contacted his pal, Lord Kirkham, the son of a miner who wanted to join the Air Force but who didn’t have the required O-Levels. Instead he took a job in a furniture shop, then started making his own furniture in a room above a snooker hall. From these humble origins was his giant DFS empire created.
Harris and Kirkham identified Brash as their rider of choice; young, talented and hungry, the best Harris had seen since a young Broome. Brash went to look at the horse and knew he’d seen something special. Harris agreed. He studied 26 videos of the bay and immediately did the deal. No haggling, no messing about. The cash was put down and the horse was bought.
“It took me about 30 seconds to make my mind up to buy,” he said a few weeks back. “I’m like that, though. If I see something I like and I can afford it, I’ll buy it. I’ll tell you if it’s a bargain if I win that Olympic gold medal.”
The Lords and Ladies were there yesterday. “I’ve just spoken to Phil and I’m so happy for him,” said Brash. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. He’s been in the game for so long and this was his life’s dream, to own a horse that won the Olympics. So it’s fantastic. I think he got close a couple of times in the past but it never quite worked out, and now it has. It’s just brilliant. It’s something none of us will ever forget.”
The day had begun with Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden tucked in behind the overnight leaders, Saudi Arabia, who had a combined one-point fault to the chasing pack’s four. One by one in yesterday’s second row, though, the nations faltered. Sweden and Switzerland fell away badly and the Saudis lost their lead to the British and the Dutch and never got it back again. They had to settle for bronze.
Key to the overhauling of Saudi Arabia were the clear rounds posted by the remarkable Skelton and the ice-cool Brash. When it was time for the jump-off, over a shortened course, the crowd at Greenwich Park were beside themselves with excitement.
True leader that he is, and seeking his first gold medal at his sixth attempt, Skelton went first – and went clear. Skelton hadn’t knocked over a pole in two days. The Dutch responded with a clear round of their own, but then things changed. The second British rider, Ben Maher was both faultless and quick, piling the pressure on the next Dutchman, Maikel van der Vleuten, whose horse, Verdi, seemed to appreciate the tension of the moment when pausing to, er, lighten the load before jumping. Regardless, they had eight faults. Brash now entered the arena and unluckily touched the second fence for four faults, a performance repeated by his Dutch rival just after.
It all meant that if Charles and Vindicat went clear, the gold was Britain’s. There were doubts, though. Vindicat had a rough time on the opening day. “The horse froze,” said Charles of Sunday’s effort. “The crowd were stamping their feet and clapping and the horse didn’t know what to do. We were in a right mess.” Animal and rider kept their cool, though. Hushed silence gave way to deafening roars and the end of a 60-year wait for gold.
“I look at Nick,” said Brash, “and I think I hope I’m still doing what he’s doing into my 50s.” Even if he is, he knows that he’ll never know anything like this again. “It’s a one-off,” he said. “But it’s brilliant, isn’t it?”
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Monday 20 May 2013
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