I bumped into Nick Skelton at Cheltenham where we both admired the unbelievable advances that have made the Festival such a wonderful sporting occasion.
Having explained that H&H wanted me to do a piece in “his issue”, I suggested that we “go through a few stories…” At which point, Skelly turned to my wife Tina and said: “You’d better keep your hands over your ears!”
If ever I get around to writing a book, many of those stories would have to be included. But for now, we’ll talk about Nick Skelton, the rider. And having known him for more than 40 years, I’ve seen enough to say that he’s the most consummate professional I’ve ever come across.
A few years ago someone commented to me: “If Skelly had two apples, he’d eat one and keep the other for himself!” And indeed, that is the opinion that some inside the sport, who don’t know him so well, would have. He’s determined, singleminded and has a never-to-bebeaten attitude; but those are qualities he shares with all top sportsmen.
But Skelly has never been frightened to raise his head above the parapet and tell people exactly what he thinks. In this modern PC world, that isn’t always to be recommended, but being of that ilk myself it’s something I admire.
An Olympic crusade
You also need to have been on the same squad as him to realise how good a team player he is. As far as his Olympic crusade goes, I was with him in Rotterdam in 1980 when John Whitaker, Tim Grubb, Skelly and I were beaten by a timefault by the Americans.
I was with him again as coach and trainer in Seoul in 1988 and at the 2012 London Games. Although Tina finished up as reserve for London, Skelly was very helpful to her in the run-up, particularly in the two months at the beginning of the year when we were in Florida.
Scott Brash has also really benefited from Nick’s experience. Scott is a top jockey with horses to match. But Nick helped him get up to speed for that eventual team gold medal.
As someone famously produced by Ted and Liz Edgar, Skelly knows all about the importance of being with professionals in a professional Skelly’s ‘never-to-be-beaten attitude’ set-up.
Ted was the toughest of taskmasters. How well I remember him not just urging, but “bollocking” Skelly to have another go that night when he broke the high jump record at Olympia. Liz was a very polished rider and, between them, they were undoubtedly the making of Skelly. In fact, I can’t think of any top professional who hasn’t either come from a showjumping family or been taken on by a professional outfit.
There’s no set route to becoming a top rider. Many a time I’d see John Whitaker fresh from winning a World Cup — along with one of many Volvos he stacked up — and a day later he’d be at a show near Doncaster with 8 or 10 novices of different abilities and riding them all himself.
The gold he deserves in Rio
But Skelly has always been selective; he always knew what he wanted to ride and that’s what he rode. I was with him one day at his then new yard at Alcester, admiring the professional set-up.
We went into the trophy room, which brought back memories of the many great horses he’s had over the years, when suddenly he said: “Fletch, come and have a look at this one. I think it’s the best 5-year-old I’ve had…”
When I got home later that evening, having watched the horse jump a few fences, I said to Tina: “I’ve just seen a future Olympic horse and he’s only 5 years old.” That horse’s name was Big Star.
Many of you will remember Skelly’s premature leap on to the gold medal podium following Britain’s team victory at London 2012. It gave us a glimpse of just how much riding and winning for his country means to him. That the fairy tale didn’t quite come true with individual gold to add to his team medal still hurts.
So who is the best of them all? It’s a matter of choice, but when BBC TV coverage of our sport was at its peak and riders had individual styles, who could forget those epic battles fought out between the steely grit and jutting chin that was Harvey Smith, the Deadeye Dick accuracy of John Whitaker, the flamboyance and cuteness of David Broome; all champions in their own right.
But when you heard the crowd cheer on seeing the hunched shoulders and attacking position of Skelly about to do the business, you knew the class wasn’t over…
“Speak as you find”, as they say in Yorkshire. And as I chuckle to myself and remember some of the stories I can’t tell, and recall the business deals we’ve done, I have to say I hope Skelly pushes his battered old body and gets the gold his career deserves in Rio.
Maybe I’m prejudiced — or maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to get a slice of his apple.
Graham’s column was first published in Horse & Hound (3 April, 2014)