In PEEBLES High Street, in a quaint interpretation of the rush-hour, the Christmas lights are twinkling hard against the drizzly gloom and the gold post-box is certainly helping in this regard, but the man whose Olympian feats necessitated the gilt-work wears a puzzled expression.
He’s unsure about the photographer’s instructions. Well, slightly more than that, for he says: “Is it your job to make me look like a total idiot?”
But none of the passers-by is laughing at Scott Brash; they’ve got too much respect for their champion showjumper and maybe they know, too, that he’ll do almost anything to promote his sport. And he does what’s asked of him today – he sits on the child’s rocking horse – because it’s the prize in an upcoming charity-shop raffle. “We’ll sell a lot more tickets now that’s Scott’s backside has been on it,” laughs the woman from the National Deafblind and Rubella Association, and at this the hero of the London Games finally smiles.
Everyone must know Brash in Peebles, and even from the befuddled-looking pensioner shuffling past the photo-op in a shiny tracksuit there’s recognition. “Oh aye, him,” he says when told the name. “Frae the telly.” Kind of. After the British showjumpers’ team triumph at Greenwich Park, Clare Balding wondered what the gold medal might mean for the youngest member and Brash had the goggle-box nation chuckling with the kind of reply they don’t teach sportsmen in media-training: “Hopefully it’ll help me pull more women.”
Now, the sub-text to this might have been: “Hopefully it’ll be a boost for showjumping, maybe help get it back onto terrestrial TV because to be honest I’m sick fed up of people telling me how much they used to enjoy watching it with their Twiglets and Matchmakers back in the 1970s.” Showjumping has still not returned to primetime BBC1 but Brash is continuing to do his bit. On his 28th birthday at the end of last month in Doha he won the final Grand Prix event of 2013, and prize-money of £370,000 on the day, to clinch the Global Champions Tour. He’s the world No 1. The wee guy in the hoodie now sipping a hot chocolate in a quiet corner of the County Hotel (note: there are no loud corners).
Not having met Brash before, I expected someone, well, a bit more brash. The remark about his pulling potential suggests a certain laddishness but he never comes close to matching it in our 45 minutes together, before his appointment at the physio’s. He’s a thoughtful, down-to-earth and actually quite shy soul who, when I ask how he’s enjoying being a local hero, the first Olympic gold medalist from the Borders in a century, says: “The whole place is very pleased for me, which is lovely, but they treat me normal and that’s great because everyone’s normal.” And when I beg to differ, suggesting that some successful sportsmen can behave quite abnormally, he adds: “Everyone’s equal in life; no one’s any better than anyone else.” This is a rare chance for him to be at home as showjumping is virtually all-year-round, and the day after our chat he’s off to Paris, then Geneva, before finishing a terrific 12 months at London’s Olympia. Let’s deal first, then, with that much-YouTube-ed quip. “It wasn’t planned, although that was a day when I might have said anything,” he explains in a practised way, though he’s far from bored of talking about 6 August last year.
“The team had been so focused, Nick [Skelton], Ben [Maher], Peter [Charles] and myself, and when we won were totally elated. After getting our boots off and thanking our grooms, as soon as we approached the Greenwich Arms our supporters started pouring champagne down our necks. Bear in mind, too, that we’d been concentrating so hard on the competition that we’d missed our lunch. The BBC thought it would be a good idea to interview us half-drunk and, aye, the rest is history.
“Everyone seemed to find what I said pretty funny, apart from my mum and dad who I think were a bit embarrassed. I know I’m not going to be allowed to forget it but, you know, if it made folk think differently about showjumpers, or think of them at all, then that’s cool.” So, obvious next question, has the gold medal had the desired effect? “Ach, I can’t tell you that!”
Brash keeps two secrets today, the other being the whereabouts of his medal. “I don’t know when I last dug it out for a look. I really enjoyed taking it round local schools, hopefully inspiring the next generation, but it’s somewhere safe. I heard that Chris Hoy keeps his in a bank. A good idea, because if you lose yours or it gets stolen you can’t get another. Not even my family knows where I keep mine so I’d better not bang my head on a fence and forget.”
I’ll make a guess that he’s told his horses. Discussing them, his pale blue eyes really light up. There are plenty of days when he spends longer with them than other humans but he insists he’s never craving two-way conversation by the end. There’s Bonhomie, Ursula and of course Hello Sanctos, the golden gelding. “It’s hard to put into words,” he says when I ask him to describe his relationship with them, but then he proceeds to do a pretty good job: “They’re all I know; they’re my life. I never have time for holidays but two years ago I did go to Cyprus to visit my mum and after about two days I was itching to get back to the horses. I missed them too much.” I ask who he’d nominate as his closest friends but reckon I know the answer. “I think that’s the same for a lot of showjumpers. Whenever I have problems I get on one of the horses and they start to disappear. My horses are my best friends, for sure. Without them I’m nothing.”
Brash was first steered in the direction of horses to prevent him getting up to mischief. “My dad bought ponies for my older sister and I as a wee hobby but really to keep us off the streets.” He began riding at six and jumped in the Pony Club. “In the early days I must admit I’d rush to finish riding to get back to playing football. Although there are a lot of horsey families in the Borders I was the only one among my friends doing it and they made fun of me, saying it was for girls. There was a lot of teasing but I can be pretty cheeky so I gave some back.
“I liked football and I’ve got a grandpa who’s mad for the game and would probably have liked me to stick with it but when I had to choose between them, showjumping was what I wanted to be doing all the time.”
If you’re old enough to remember the Horse of the Year Show on the box, with the dandyish commentator Raymond Brooks-Ward coaxing the similarly double-barrelled Lucinda Prior-Palmer though the “jump-orf”, then you might not think of Brash, son of a builder, as being typical showjumping stock. But suggest as much and it’s like you’ve offended his faith, which in a way you have.
“I’d never thought of showjumping as being a posh sport until you mentioned it,” he says. “Right from the start I met all different kinds of people, all really friendly, and the social life was great. You don’t have to be rich to showjump. I’m not from a rich family although I’m very fortunate my dad runs his own building firm and so was able to get my sister and I started on the ponies. And I was really lucky again when I got Sanctos.”
The story of how Brash was teamed with Hello Sanctos for Olympic glory is a thriller worthy of Dick Francis. It involved two horse-daft Tory peers – one an Arsenal director and close friend of David Cameron, the other a soft-furnishing billionaire – and a £2 million swoop for the Dutch-born gelding just hours before the closure of the equestrian world’s version of football’s transfer window on New Year’s Eve, 2011.
Born Sanctos van het Gravenhof, the horse had attracted worldwide interest with rivals from Europe, the Middle East and the US circling stables near Dusseldorf. The Lords Harris – the PM confidante – and Kirkham had flown one of Britain’s best-known horsemen, Olympic showjumping bronze medallist David Broome, to Germany with the intention of making the purchase for Team GB, but another opinion was needed, that of the talented young man expected to form a winning partnership with the horse.
“I’d just been jumping in North America – Washington, Kentucky and Toronto where I’d won the World Cup – but when the phonecall came I was at a local show through in Bishopton,” says Brash. “I dropped everything and got on a plane.” Support-players in the drama involved a Ukranian financier and a US showjumping champ but Brash’s verdict was going to be key. “The horse had a terrific record – only three fences down in 30 Grand Prix events – but we were going to have to bond. I only got to ride Sanctos for 45 minutes when Lord Harris rang me again. What did I think? Sanctos wasn’t match-fit; it was hard to say. Did he have what we call scope? How big – high and wide – could he jump? Pressure! The spending of all that money was going to be down to me. I couldn’t be absolutely sure if he had the last scope but even after such a brief trial I thought the horse and I had managed to click. ‘Okay,’ said Lord Harris, ‘we’ll buy him.’”
On the journey home, Brash could have been forgiven for wondering: did that just happen? He didn’t know the high-street entrepreneurs who’d just become his sporting benefactors and hadn’t even met them. He says of their relationship now: “They’re fantastic. They support me in life, away from horses. If I needed advice or help in any way they’d be there. Lord Harris phones me almost every day.”
And what of Brash’s relationship with Hello Sanctos? “It’s gone from strength-to-strength. We now know each other inside-out. For instance, after the incredible high of the Olympics there was a slump and we both felt it. In London the atmosphere had been amazing; the team just had to ride into the ring and the crowd would go crazy. The next event was Calgary. I’d gone for riding for no money to £350,000 but couldn’t get motivated and neither could the horse. It took us both a while to get the hunger back.”
Personality-wise, Brash describes his four-legged friend as an extremely clever horse who “knows he’s king of the stable” and sometimes acts like it. “I took him out earlier today and he was very, very lazy. At home he sometimes can’t be bothered doing the work but always in the ring he comes alive. He’s the finished article now and there’s nothing more I can teach him. He’s a wonder horse.”
And the hunger has come back. Brash struggles to nominate a hobby or the music he likes and says that when he’s not riding he’s teaching horse-skills or organising horse shows or looking for new horses – but, really, all he wants to be doing is showjumping. “My dreams keep coming true,” he says. “I remember as an apprentice picking up a copy of Nick Skelton’s autobiography that belonged to another of the stablelads and thinking, wow, wouldn’t it would be great to ride in his team? That happened, then winning the Olympics happened and now No 1 has happened. Nick was 53 in London; hopefully I’ve got as long a career ahead of me. The world championships are next year and I’m already thinking about Rio. Sanctos will be 14 by then and maybe that’s what he’s up to: already saving his legs for 2016.”
As Brash gets up to go his phone rings. A girlfriend, pehaps? No, it’s His Lordship, checking on the protege again. He walks into the dank night, his postbox glinting the way ahead.