While we await details of the new owners of Carl Hester’s London 2012 gold medal-winning ride Uthopia following Friday's bankruptcy auction (27 May 2016), find out how Carl found the stallion for Sasha Stewart in 2005 and how the horse's career developed from there under Carl's expert guidance
Where was Uthopia found?
“When I grow up, I’m going to swap to dressage,” proclaimed the 21-year-old Sasha Stewart when she met Carl Hester for the first time at the Athens Olympics in 2004. At the time, she was eventing for Ireland. “I told him to keep an eye out for a nice little horse for me.”
And in 2005 Carl did.
“Daniella Van Tuijl, who finds a lot of the horses for Brightwells auctions, said she’d find me some to look at in Holland. I was after one for me and one for Sasha,” he says. “Uti was the first one I saw.”
The four-year-old Uthopia — who went on to win team gold at the 2011 Europeans and the London 2012 Olympics, and team bronze at the 2013 Europeans — was owned by Ivonne Lawrence, who had ridden him to seventh place in the Pavo Cup [the prestigious young horse championship] earlier that year.
He was bred by Jan Van Zettens in Gelderland, Holland, out of their advanced dressage mare by Inspekteur, by the Ferro son Metall.
What were Carl’s first impressions?
“He was small,” recalls Carl. “But I always say it’s what it feels like, not what it looks like that’s important.
“So I rode Uti, and even at four he had quality in his trot and canter — albeit they were very big paces. He was so sweet and I thought he’d be perfect for Sasha.
“I rang her and said ‘I’ve found it. But as it’s the first one I’ve seen, you can have it and I’ll find something larger for me.’ I never did find that bigger horse,” he says with a wry smile.
Sasha was eventing in Boekelo when she got the call from Carl. “He told me there was a horse nearby I should go and see,” she says. “I nearly didn’t go, as I was so busy. But when I tried Uti — at a lovely little place where the owner could see his stable from her kitchen window — I said: ‘He’s amazing, I love him. I’m taking him home’.”
So a deal was struck — “not huge money” says Sasha, but when I mention the sum of €10,000 (£8,500) that Carl reportedly paid for Valegro, she counters, “OK, not that cheap” — and Uti went to Ireland.
What were the early days with Uthopia like?
“He threw me off the first day,” Sasha admits. “I was used to the fast thoroughbred-style whip-round, but when he did this extravagant pirouette, I just plopped off like a total beginner.
“Uti then galloped all round my property and jumped a huge hedge with all his tack on. I thought, ‘oh good, he jumps as well’.”
Sasha took Uthopia to Spain for the five-year-old class on the Sunshine Tour and rode him in the preliminary round. But the horse’s exuberance caused some teething problems.
Carl explains: “His paces were so big for someone not used to riding a trot like that — Sasha just used to squeal with laughter. She could barely make it to the end of the test without bouncing off, so I rode him in the final. I can’t remember where we came — which means we didn’t win.”
Soon after, Carl’s faith in the young Uthopia was rewarded; when Sasha started a family, he took up the reins full-time.
“When I told Carl I was pregnant, he was more excited than me and my husband,” she says. “Then when I kept getting pregnant, he was delighted.”
Uti moved to Carl’s yard, where he competed up to elementary with Matt Frost, who was riding for Carl at the time. There were hints of what was to come — the pair posted 80% at novice in 2006.
Uthopia then had a break from competition.
“I always said he had the trot and canter of a World champion, but not the walk,” explains Carl. “I felt that because of his temperament and outstanding ability, it was better to just take him straight to grand prix work.”
Uti returned to competition with Carl in 2009 at prix st georges — and earned Carl his first ever 10 — to win 12 of his first 13 starts, including his 2010 grand prix debut.
Mega-talented horses don’t produce themselves, and it wasn’t all plain sailing for the partnership.
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“When paces as big as his are under control they’re spectacular, but the biggest challenge was the collection — keeping the straightness in those huge changes — and the zigzags were difficult, as he’d fly from one side to the other,” reflects Carl.
“But the best thing is that his movement’s natural and not manufactured; in the extended trot he has a big over track and stays long in the neck by himself.”
“I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have something like Uthopia, who is more of a computer — he’s switched on and doesn’t need a lot of working in, or hours being shown the arena.”