So what happened when one of New Zealand’s leading eventers met England’s leading hurdler? For leading eventer, read Andrew Nicholson, world gold and Olympic silver medallist, and for leading hurdler read Detroit City, owned by Terry Warner and trained by Philip Hobbs, just outside Minehead and within spitting distance of the sea.

At first it seemed the weather might scupper their encounter — thunder and lightning accompanied monsoon-like rain. But luckily Santa delivered a dose of sunshine just in time for a ride on the gallops.

Both Andrew and Detroit City are long- distance travellers. New Zealander Andrew arrived on these shores back in the early 1980s, while the American-bred Detroit City came to Britain as a yearling. An undistinguished flat career saw wins on the all-weather at Southwell and Wolverhampton and a second in Listed company at Newmarket before his switch to hurdling, which has been little short of a revelation. His first national hunt season culminated in a win at the Cheltenham Festival in the Triumph Hurdle, his off-season brought a major payday in the Caesarewich and he is on target for the Champion Hurdle next March.

The lad who has the pleasure of looking after Detroit City is Lee Hagan. “He is very laid back and quiet until you go to do something to him,” he says, dodging Detroit’s flashing teeth and flying heels as he tacks up the big grey gelding. He goes on: “He is quick as lightning with both. He used to try and take chunks out of his galloping companions.”

On going into the stable, Andrew comments: “He’s much bigger than I expected and he stands over plenty of ground. I was at Cheltenham when he won at the Festival, but I was up in the stands and didn’t look at him in the paddock before the race.”

Legged up into the plate, the first thing Andrew does is drop his irons a couple of holes, even though he is well used to riding racehorses and has had a few in for jump schooling at his Wiltshire base. A slight problem with the saddle — it keeps slipping back as the horses circle the yard prior to moving off — sees a breastplate added.

“After each circle there was more and more horse in front of me,” he laughs. “You will find he takes a bit to warm up,” says Philip, sending Andrew off behind the string with his instructions.

Andrew Nicholson enjoys working Detroit City on the gallops

This is the horse’s last bit of work before he runs at Cheltenham in the boylesports.com International Hurdle [which he won]. Andrew has to do three trips up the 2½ furlong gallop that climbs the hill above the stableyard upsides stable conditional, Josh Guerriero, who rides Esprit Du Corps.

After the first run up the Polytrack, Andrew says: “He is very professional. He gets on with the job and is a lovely ride. He carries my weight easily — he’d do any job.”

This causes second assistant trainer Skippy to comment: “Anyone can ride him.”

“Don’t write that,” retorts Andrew, “it’ll look much better if you say it took me at least an hour to tame him!”

After the third trip, Andrew is impressed. “He just plays with the hill,” he says, “and when I gave him a little kick the surge of power he produced was amazing.”

With Detroit City running two days later Andrew doesn’t get to jump the horse. “I wouldn’t mind giving him a go but there’s not much chance of that!”

After a photocall at the top of the gallops, Philip takes his leave and dashes off to supervise his runners at Taunton.

“Damn,” says Andrew, “I forgot to give him my number in case Richard [Johnson — his jockey] can’t make Saturday.”

  • This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (21 December, ’06)