Legends of our sport: showjumping champion David Broome *H&H Plus*

  • From his early days on a dairy farm to the giddy heights of the Olympics, David Broome is one of Britain’s finest ever showjumpers. Penny Richardson charts his career

    It’s almost impossible to imagine it now, but in the 1960s and ’70s families sat down in front of their TVs in their millions to watch a young Welsh showjumper and his counterpart from Yorkshire take on and beat the rest of the world.

    In those heady days of prime-time showjumping on the BBC, everyone had heard of David Broome and Harvey Smith. They were national heroes whose exploits in and out of the ring made the sort of headlines now reserved for other sports.

    The public adored David Broome. In 1960, he was only 20 when he was voted Sportsview Sports Personality of the Year. In 2007, he received a “National Treasure” award from Alan Titchmarsh’s ITV show and only seven years ago, ITV Wales broadcast a documentary on David’s life.

    So what made this unassuming man such a legend? In the 1950s, showjumping was often confined to people from privileged backgrounds. Then along came David and Harvey. They are of a similar age – David turned 80 last month, while Harvey is just over a year older – and neither was from a “typical” equestrian family.

    David McPherson Broome CBE was born in Cardiff, the son of Fred Broome and his Scottish wife, Millie. Although Fred was a greengrocer, his father had worked with horses.

    “My grandfather was coachman to a vet in Pembroke and was in a cavalry regiment during World War I. Father inherited his love of horses and there was always a horse or two around,” remembers David. “My parents were real grafters. Father had a greengrocer’s shop in Cardiff and, in World War II, he also worked for the fire service at Cardiff docks. He used to go to the wholesalers every morning, buy the goods, then go to his other job while Mother ran the shop.”

    Fred always dreamt of being a farmer and the family moved to a dairy farm next to Chepstow racecourse.

    “Father had a dairy herd, but milking both ends of the day got the better of him. He turned to buying and selling horses and ponies and that business grew. He supplied the cobs for the London milk float trade, but it was mostly ponies he was known for,” says David. “Anne Hammond [a top breeder and judge] from Newmarket was one of his biggest customers. She kept records and she ended up buying 465 ponies from Dad.”

    Before going to their new homes, every pony was tried over fences, which was David’s job. Then in 1947, the family moved to the Mount Ballan Manor estate in the Monmouthshire village of Crick, which is still their home. David and his younger siblings Liz, Mary and Frederick then had strings of ponies to compete.

    “I rode the ponies first and then they were passed down. That’s how we learnt our trade,” says David. “Liz was 10 times more motivated than me and if I didn’t try hard enough, she pinched my rides. She was the one who kicked my bum into gear!”

    David’s role model was his father: “We called Mother our ‘picnic packer’ because she looked after everything at home while we travelled to shows. We probably got her onto a horse twice, but riding wasn’t for her. Father travelled with me for 15 years and was a wonderful horseman. He understood horses and I don’t know what I would have done without him. Every time I rode, I got a lesson from Father. I’ve never ridden for pleasure. It’s always been a job and, because we needed the money, Father taught me how to win.”

    The dealing business also helped the young David to become an adaptable rider.

    “I had three ponies who all went completely differently, but were little clear-round machines,” he says. “In those days, there was none of this against-the-clock lark. Instead, the classes were all three rounds and everyone who jumped three clears shared first place. At most shows, I ended up jumping nine rounds, which was very hard work. We had two saddles, so the only rest I got was when we changed them over.”

    A big break

    When David moved on to horses, he got his big break through a gelding bought for £60 from the King’s Troop. Wildfire was supremely talented, but had lived up to his name with a number of different riders. With David, he went on to become Britain’s leading money winner in 1959.

    “He was a naughty boy when we first got him, but he was also a wonderful horse and, by God, I’ve only just realised how lucky I was to have him,” says David. “He’d been trained for eventing, so his flatwork was superb and he was so balanced and careful. The clock had just been introduced and because Wildfire was so well schooled, we pulled off turns no one else could attempt.”

    Fred’s help again proved invaluable when David moved on to the horse scene.

    “He often worked my horses and when I got on them, they were already riding well and mouthed up,” says David. “Father was also in charge of the feeding. Every horse got nuts, bran and oats. If they were too sharp, they got less oats and if they were stuffy they got more. That was it.”

    In 1960, David and Wildfire were shortlisted for the Rome Olympics, but around six weeks before the Games he acquired a new mount.

    Sunsalve was a three-quarter thoroughbred by the HIS Premium sire Skoiter. He was owned by his breeder, Oliver Anderson, and had been ridden successfully by Oliver’s daughter, Elizabeth, with whom he won the Queen Elizabeth II Cup as a seven-year-old. Elizabeth retired from the saddle after her marriage, but Sunsalve hadn’t gelled with any new rider.

    “I first saw him with Pat Smythe in the Olympic trial at Ninian Park, Cardiff. They won, but Father said Sunsalve would never jump for Pat again. He was right. They were eliminated at their next two shows and what Father meant was that instead of Pat controlling Sunsalve, he had control of her,” remembers David. “We delivered a batch of ponies to Anne Hammond and Father asked her if she knew the Anderson family from Norfolk, as he was wondering if they needed a rider for Sunsalve. Anne phoned Oliver, we went to see him, Father and he got on famously and I got the ride.”

    Within a fortnight, the new pair had won the King George V Cup at the Royal International. They were then selected for the Olympics, where they brought home bronze, Britain’s first ever individual showjumping Olympic medal. Famously, they were among only two pairs to clear an almost unjumpable treble combination with a one-and-a-half-stride distance between the final two elements.

    “Sunsalve was an unbelievable horse and I was incredibly lucky to get him at exactly the right time in my career. He had to be ridden with the flair of youth. By that, I mean you had to let him think he was in charge. He had to do it his way and had I been older and more experienced, I might have tried to change that, which would never have worked,” says David.

    ‘He thought he was the king’

    A second Olympic medal came David’s way in 1968, when he travelled to Mexico with the Massarella family’s Mr Softee, already the winner of two European Championship titles.

    “Mr Softee had a big opinion of himself. He thought he was the king and he was right,” says David.

    After David took individual bronze in the opening competition and teammate Marion Mould (née Coakes) won silver with her fabulous pony Stroller, the three-man British squad had a huge lead going into round two of the team competition. Mr Softee jumped two great rounds, as did Harvey Smith’s Madison Time. Then disaster. Suffering from a tooth infection, Stroller was eliminated and Britain went out.

    “We were heartbroken. We finished up with nothing after the gold medal was so nearly in our hands,” says David, ruefully.

    Four years later, David was flagbearer for the British team at the Munich Olympics, but he had to endure a 16-year break before another Olympic appearance.

    Unlike many other nations, Britain had followed the spirit of the law and our top riders were ruled ineligible for the Games as they were jumping for prize-money and classed as professional. The rule was eventually changed, and in 1988 David went to his final Olympics, in Seoul. He came close to two more medals, riding Countryman into equal fourth place individually and just missing out on team bronze.

    By this time, David’s name was linked with Lord Harris, now owner of Scott Brash’s horses and with whom David has enjoyed a 51-year-and-counting friendship. It was David who suggested Hello Sanctos as a perfect ride for Scott.

    “I first met Phil Harris in Barcelona in 1969. I was on the [Nations Cup] team with George Hobbs, who then rode for him, and Phil said he’d like to buy me a horse,” says David. “It took a year to find one and that didn’t turn out very good. He then persuaded me to sell him Sportsman, who became one of my best ever horses.”

    Lord Harris also owned Philco, another of David’s superstar rides.

    “In 1972, [dealer] Frank Kernan, Phil and I travelled to America to try another horse,” says David. “That one wasn’t suitable, so Frank suggested we look for a young horse to avoid wasting our journey. Philco was the talk of the show. Rodney Jenkins had managed to buy him only the day before, but Phil persuaded Rodney to part with him.

    “My life certainly changed for the better on the day I met Phil.”

    Philco was previously a racehorse in America. He retired with a stellar showjumping record and lived with David until he was 32. “I love a thoroughbred. They’re quick thinking and active and, if they have the right mind, there’s not a better horse,” says David.

    ‘That’s it’

    Typically, this modest man didn’t finish his own career with a great flourish.

    “My final class was a fun pair relay at Gatcombe Horse Trials. I partnered my son, Matthew, and I can’t even remember the name of the horse I rode. I didn’t go there expecting it to be the last time, but when we got home that evening I said: ‘That’s it’ – and it was,” he says.

    It was Fred Broome’s ambition to build a top showjumping venue in Wales and his showground, now the David Broome Event Centre, opened in 1968.

    It is still a family concern, with David, his wife Liz, and their three sons all involved.

    “I’m exceptionally proud of them all,” says David, whose riding days are now over. “Horses are dangerous,” he jokes.

    David is amazed to hear that racing journalist Marcus Armytage once called him “the David Beckham of the 1960s,” in a feature for the Daily Telegraph.

    “That’s very kind of him and I’m extremely flattered, but I wish I’d earned the same sort of money!” he laughs.

    However, it’s true to say that the original David’s life has also been shaped by extraordinary sporting talent. There truly is only one David Broome.

    Malcolm Pyrah on David…

    “I was on winning World and European Championship teams with David and he was the ultimate professional. He never panicked and had nerves of steel, which is such a great asset. I used to get much more nervous than him. People might have thought him lazy, but I didn’t. He was just laid-back and a great team man.

    “Some riders called David ‘Basil’ after a story he loved to relate. He arrived at the Royal Show one year and tried to park his car where he shouldn’t. ‘I’m David Broome,’ he told the security man.

    Quick as anything, the man replied: ‘I don’t care if you’re Basil Brush. You’re still not parking here!’”

    David on Harvey Smith…

    “I saw Harvey first on TV before I met him at British Timken show in 1958. From the moment we met, we became best mates. Harvey taught me a lot because he was so determined. It was war between us in the ring and afterwards, win or lose, we were friends again. Harvey was a much better loser than me and a much worse winner because he could get impossibly cocky. I think we were good for each other and I hope we both played a part in supporting our sport in a small way.

    “We had a lot of time on our hands when we competed and Harvey and I sometimes tried to play golf. We had absolutely no talent. We were the golfing equivalent of someone riding a donkey on the beach!”

    ‘My heroine’

    “Pat Smythe lived in Gloucestershire and used to come to the shows in Wales. She was my heroine and was way ahead of her time, she made the job look so easy. I saw her first riding a short-legged stocky little cob and I thought if she could get that horse round, she’d always be worth watching. She did and after that I tried to copy her.”

    “I still watch showjumping and although horses are now trained better, the fences are still the same or even smaller than in my day – we jumped 1.70m fences at Rome in 1960.

    “The courses are more technical and the material is lighter, but when you look at other sports the record is always being broken. I wonder where course-builders can go to move showjumping forward?”

    “Sunsalve was a flashy horse and probably the early equivalent of Milton as far as the public was concerned. I tried incredibly hard to buy Milton, but looking back it was probably a good thing that I failed.

    “Milton had to be ridden in a certain way that suited John Whitaker perfectly. It was lucky for them both that they found each other, as I wouldn’t have been able to adapt.”

    David’s favourite horse…

    “I was very lucky and rode many superstars, but my favourite by far was Sportsman. I was at Frank Kernan’s place in Northern Ireland when I looked out of the kitchen window and saw a five-year-old jumping a little fence. It was one of those moments when lights flash and bells ring and I had to have him. Sportsman was such a lovely character. He was a friend to me and so intelligent. He always gave his best.”

    Firsts and records

    • First British equestrian to become Sports Personality
      of the Year
    • First British showjumper to win an individual Olympic medal
    • First British showjumper to be individual world champion
    • First British showjumper to be individual European champion
    • One of only two riders to win three individual European Championships
    • Winner of British Showjumping lifetime achievement award
    • Appointed president of British Showjumping in 2013

    David’s career in numbers

    1 Hickstead Derby

    2 Olympic medlas

    5 Olympic appearances

    5 World Championship medals

    6 King George V Gold Cups

    6 British National Championships

    7 European Championships medals

    9 World Cup qualifier wins

    15 major international grand prix wins

    Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020

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