Bred at the Chiche-Hubert Elevage, the 16.3hh dark bay gelding is by Le Tot De Semilly out of Nuite D’Ete.

One of the first to recognise Ashley’s potential was British international show jumper Mark Armstrong, who tried Ashley at Francois Mathy’s stables and became hooked.

“He was such a good ride,” recalls Mark. “We jumped a few decent fences and he made everything look and feel easy, but, unfortunately, he was out of my price range.”

Mark then called Michael Whitaker, who flew out to see Ashley and was instantly attracted to the then six-year-old.

“I had made up my mind before I had even sat on him. He had everything I like in a horse – a lovely head, good limbs, conformation and intelligence. I just hopedthat he moved and jumped as well as he looked.”

Michael was not disappointed, and a deal was struck there and then.

With Michael occupied with international duties, Ashley was started off on the British circuit by wife, Veronique.

“Ashley obviously had great potential and, after our first few shows, I knew he would go all the way,” says Michael. “The outdoor circuit, particularly busy shows, sometimes bothered him and, at first, he became unsettled in small, crowded collecting rings.”

Luckily for Ashley, Veronique’s quiet style of riding ensured that his fears were quickly allayed.

“From the outset, Ashley proved an easy, uncomplicated ride. He liked to go forward and jump in a rhythm. His aim was to do well for you.” she recalls.

At the end of his six-year-old outdoor season, Ashley was turned away to mature before campaigning the following season with Michael. Their first major test was the Spanish Sunshine Tour, where Ashley acquitted himself well.

Ashley quickly progressed through the grades and, as the fences got higher and the courses more technical, Michael sensed that the horse was backing off a little.

“Ashley was always a very careful horse and, sometimes, he seemed over-cautious. It took a lot of coaxing and encouragement.

“He’s a big horse who had taken a while to grow into himself and there was also a time when he disliked wet ground. He became unbalanced and it worried him.”

Ashley was fortunate that his rider is an artist at instilling confidence and the ever-improving seven-year-old soon learned to cope.

“He’ll go on any going now,” says Michael. “He also has no ring preference.Temperament is one of his strong points. He doesn’t have any hang-ups, isn’t sharp and we don’t have to fiddle about with tack. He goes in an ordinary snaffle.”

The 1995 Horse & Hound Foxhunter final at Wembley provided Michael with one of the pair’s most memorable victories.

“This is the class everyone wants to win and the atmosphere is always electric.

“He soaked up the pressure then and he¨s just the same now. He’s just so laid back.”

Happily for Michael’s stable staff, Virtual Village Ashley is a paragon of virtue, who, according to travelling groom Helen Galbraith, is free from any vices whatsoever.

“I took one look at him and thought what an intelligent, kind horse. He’s an absolute pleasure to do. Ashley just takes everything in his stride.”

Ashley’s determination has never been demonstrated better than in Cannes when he won the grand prix. “He slipped on a corner, pulled a shoe off and overreached badly, but he didn’t go lame and jumped the last two fences,” recalls Michael. “It was only when we finished and came out of the ring that I realised what had happened and I thought: “What a brave horse.”