‘I sold some calves and bought a pony – this is the dream’: meet a 51-year-old World Cup Final debutant

  • At the age of 51, and partnering the lovely 10-year-old mare Cassina Dior, Phillip Steiner will be a happy man when representing New Zealand at the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final in Omaha, USA, on Wednesday night (5 April), writes Louise Parkes.

    His is a story of horsemanship and hard graft, of opportunities grasped and firm friendships made, of family and commitment, and of following a dream.

    Talking from his temporary base in The Netherlands where he stayed for a few weeks in the run up to the World Cup Final, he said he can hardly believe how things have evolved over the last year.

    “It’s been a lifetime goal to get to the top of the sport,” he says. “There have been times at home with the young horses when I’d look up at the sky and wonder if one day I might make it to Europe to jump a horse or compete in a big class. And now it has all happened!”

    Things began to fall into place when he was selected for the New Zealand team that will battle for a spot at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games this summer.

    “The first goal was to jump a season at home, and then to come to Europe and be ready for the Olympic qualifier in Valkenswaard in July. Omaha was not so much on the radar, but then High Performance mentioned halfway through the FEI season that the winner [of the FEI Jumping World Cup New Zealand League] might have the chance to go to the Final,” says Phillip.

    “That wasn’t really confirmed until the last day of January when our season finished, so I had about three weeks to put some clothes together and sort the horse out and get myself to Europe – it all happened very quickly!

    “It was my plan to do three weeks to a month here and then get on the charter plane to Omaha with the big boys. I intended to do Lier, Belgium, which I thought was two indoor shows, but when I arrived I found out it was outdoors so straight away my plan was on the floor!”

    But fortunately Phillip is basing himself with Hilary Scott – “she’s an Aussie, a really nice person and she has sorted me out!” he says. His link with Hilary began last August when he went to Australia to get some World Cup experience.

    “One of my Kiwi mates is based at The Oaks in Sydney, which is Hilary’s mum’s breeding stud. I stayed there for two months and we did two World Cups and another big show at Wallinga Park,” he reveals.

    So it was a logical progression to ask Hilary if he could stay at her facility near Eindhoven in the Netherlands when travelling to Europe this year.

    “She’s a five-star rider, so every question I have about how I’m going to get to the plane or where I’m gonna go, or what show I should do, or how much work I should do, she’s just there on the ground and she has been really great,” says Phillip, who is very happy to give some payback. “I’m helping around the yard and riding a couple of horses for her every now and then, and then ride my one. I help keep the place clean and tidy and what-not.”

    The route to the World Cup Final: how it all began

    Phillip’s strong work ethic is long-established, as is his love of horses. Along with the rest of his family, he hunted as a child. When he saw some children showjumping he decided he wanted to try that, so he bought his own first jumping pony.

    “I reared 10 calves and sold them at a sale and then bought myself a B-grade pony. From there I did Pony Club and eventing and then went to work for David Goodin, [legendary New Zealand eventing and jumping rider], Bruce Goodin’s dad,” he explains. “When I went to work for David I didn’t know much about striding, I knew that sometimes there was a deep one, sometimes a long one and sometimes it came up perfect! He taught me the mechanics of riding a related line and things like that.”

    Phillip seems to have had a knack for learning from the best, because in 1992 at the age of 20 he went to America to work for 1984 Olympic gold medallists Joe Fargis and Conrad Holmfeld – the latter twice-winner of the World Cup title.

    “I did two summers with them and learned all about style, how to bandage horses and how to groom, and I leased a horse off a girl called Debbie Dolan,” he says, casually referring to the athlete who competed for Team USA at the very top of the sport during the peak of her career.

    After returning home to New Zealand for a while, Phillip left for Europe in 1998 to work for legendary Swiss horse-dealer Max Hauri.

    “I was in Max’s yard for a good year or two on and off and then I went to work for Lesley McNaught,” he says. “I did my time, learning in the dealing yard and riding some quite good horses with Lesley. That was when she had Dulf [the horse with which she won team silver for Switzerland at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games].”

    His attraction to Switzerland was no accident as his grandfather emigrated to New Zealand from a little town close to Lucerne at the age of 11. And once again his uncanny knack for associating with the best of the best was triggered.

    “When I was there I got to know Pius Schwizer, who was jumping at national shows, and Steve Guerdat was just starting to jump his first grand prix classes – now they are the best in the world!” he says.

    He returned home again in 2000 to settle down, buy a property, set up his business, get married and raise a family in Tauranga on the North Island with his wife Sally who, 20 years ago, won the same series that has qualified Phillip for the forthcoming Longines Final. They have an arena, 20 stables and about 80 acres of farmland on which they graze a herd of 100 cattle and exercise their horses. Home life is fairly hectic with three children, plenty of horses and a small trucking business.

    “One truck brings Kiwi fruit off the orchards to the factories, and then two trucks go eight months of the year, seven days a week, from the cold store at the back end of the factory and take the fruit to the boats,” he explains of the business that stemmed from frustration with having to sell the good young horses he was producing in order to keep the family afloat.

    One that never got sold however is Cassina Dior, who he will proudly ride into the ring when the action gets underway in Omaha. Known at home as Dolly, he bought her from her breeder Pip McCarroll.

    “Pip had a horse that was on livery in our place that we were training for Mark Todd,” he says. “She kept telling me about this three-year-old, so we went and had a look, watched her free-jump and ended up buying her.”

    He had to promise that he wouldn’t resell Dolly right away, “and by the time she got to about seven years old I realised we had something quite special,” says Phillip. “A lot of people wanted to buy her, but I always said I want to have a couple of years to take this horse as far as I can. At my age I don’t think I’ll probably see another one this good!”

    The passage of time has made his arrival at the top of the sport all the more sweet.

    “You don’t take things for granted like you would at 25, but going to this World Cup Final is huge really and I want to keep that in check so it doesn’t affect my ability to do my best when we get there,” he says.

    Ringside at the World Cup Final in Omaha

    Pip will be ringside in Omaha along with all of Phillip’s family. Eldest son, 15-year-old James, is already well into the sport, recently winning three pony grand prix classes in a row, 10-year-old son Oliver “is more interested in motorbikes at the moment but he can ride” and his daughter, Francie, is a horse-crazy five-year-old who recently broke her collarbone in a fall from her 128cm pony. No shortage of drama for Mum to manage while Dad is away…

    Asked if, apart from wife Sally, he will have anyone else on the ground to support him in Omaha, Phillip dropped one more phenomenal name.

    “Greg Best. I’ve trained a lot with him over the past 15 years,” he reveals of the man who won two silver medals for the USA in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea riding the fabulous Gem Twist. “He married a New Zealand girl and they live in Hawkes Bay. His kids are the same age as ours, so they all play together and are best friends. I know I’m going to be a bit over-awed when I get there, and he’s someone who has ridden all the biggest championships and he’s pretty amazing!”

    At home right now his support system includes his wing-man Marcus who is keeping the business going, “and grandma, who is looking after the kids while Sally is running around doing the farm”. It’s an all-out effort to make a dream come true for one man and his magical mare who will wear the silver fern with enormous pride.

    What’s happening when?

    The Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final kicks off in Omaha, USA, on Wednesday 5 April at 7.15pm local time, six hours later at 1.15am (on Thursday 6 April) UK time, with a world class field of 40 athletes and horses lining up to place their name on the legendary roll of honour.

    Course-designer Bernardo Costa Cabral from Portugal will be sure to test them all the way in front of a capacity audience of 18,300. Representing Great Britain are Harry Charles and Scott Brash, who ride Balou Du Reventon and Hello Jefferson respectively in the opening round.

    Ireland’s Denis Lynch is drawn first on Brooklyn Heights, with countryman Daniel Coyle coming in later on Legacy. Five-time Olympian McLain Ward, title-defender Martin Fuchs and world number one Henrik von Eckermann have all earned their place on the line-up. There will be an age difference of 42 years spanning the oldest and youngest riders: 60-year-old Swiss rider Pius Schwizer and 18-year-old Elisa Broz from USA.

    “I’m very grateful that I could win the World Cup Final once,” says Martin Fuchs. “Obviously I would wish to win it again, but I’m here to do my best – my horse is in great shape so I hope to be able to beat McLain this year!”

    The second competition takes place on Thursday 6 April with the top 30 progressing to Saturday’s penultimate round, followed by a battle for the top 20 for the final placings.

    You can find out all about the winning performance in the World Cup Final at horseandhound.co.uk with a full report in next week’s magazine, in the shops Thursday 13 April.

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