The top-flight showjumper chats to Jennifer Donald about family values, finding her match in the great ‘Itot’ and dealing with setbacks
“I always say that every jar has a lid — so many great partnerships come from horses finding the right rider,” says Edwina Tops-Alexander, who has forged a stellar career in the saddle but is perhaps still best known for her amazing connection with the great Cevo Itot Du Château.
Many people had written off the bouncy chestnut as being too small at barely 15.2hh for a five-star horse, but he and Edwina crafted one of the sport’s greatest pairings during a golden era in which success seemed effortless.
“I found my match in Itot, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in Shutterfly and Eric Lamaze in Hickstead,” she says. “But you never know if those horses would have had those careers if they’d been with other riders.”
Since Itot’s retirement in 2014 at the age of 18, the 46-year-old Australian, now mother to two-year-old Chloe and married to Dutch Olympic gold medallist and Global Champions founder Jan Tops, has continued to reign as one of the world’s leading riders.
As an Australian, a female and a mother, she ticks a few minority boxes in the world of top-flight showjumping, but “loves a challenge” and, since moving to Europe in 1998, has broken the mould to claim more than 25 five-star grands prix and World Cups. She is a veteran of three Olympic Games, became the first Australian to reach a World Equestrian Games (WEG) final in 2006, she was a dual winner of the Global Champions Tour series in 2011 and 2012 and hit a rich patch of form at the end of 2018, concluding in victory in the inaugural super grand prix in Prague, one of the world’s toughest competitions.
But over the past year Edwina has been thrown a catalogue of setbacks, including injuries to her top horses Bacardi VDL and California, family illness, a brush with skin cancer and an inevitable dip in form — surprisingly, until last weekend when she landed a class in Spain, Edwina had gone 14 months without claiming a victory.
“When you’re winning, everything seems so easy — then you hit a wall and you have to regroup, work even harder, keep fighting and keep believing,” reflects Edwina. “We each have our turns and at the moment Ben Maher and Martin Fuchs are on a roll — every time they get on a horse, the magic happens.
“But looking forward and staying positive is the most important thing; 2019 wasn’t my best year but 2020 could be interesting.”
Positivity exudes from the warm and gracious Edwina as we sit down to chat during Olympia, where her second-place finish in the grand prix signalled a long overdue change in fortunes.
It seems fitting she is featuring in the magazine that helped steer her on this epic journey from her native Australia 22 years ago.
“Nowadays, you can follow the sport from anywhere in the world, but back then the only way I could keep up with it was by getting Horse & Hound every few months,” says Edwina, who grew up outside Sydney as the youngest of four children.
She only learnt to ride having discovered “an amazing connection” on a neighbour’s horses, but her unhorsey parents stepped in to support her through the Pony Club, young riders and beyond.
“Reading Horse & Hound made me realise there was a different level to showjumping outside Australia and I knew it wasn’t the place to be if I wanted to be good at it. So I decided to move to Europe for six months to see.”
Edwina planned and saved for a year and, aged 24, departed her homeland with a horse called Mr Dundee. She joined the yard of some friends in the Netherlands before settling for two years under the tutelage of Belgian rider Ludo Philippaerts.
“I bought a share of a very green nine-year-old, Jozita, and had my first taste of ‘real sport’ at La Baule where we finished third in the five-star grand prix,” recalls Edwina. “I thought: ‘Maybe I am good enough to do this,’ and it gave me real motivation.”
Fate intervened when she started doing business with her future husband, Jan Tops.
“I’d first met him soon after I moved to Europe, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I had some Australian clients and was buying and selling horses that I took them to Jan’s,” she explains. “It just evolved from there.”
Edwina’s competitive career, however, then took a back seat for a while.
“I sold the horses I had while I was working with Jan, so I wasn’t riding very much,” she explains. “The business side of things is still something I enjoy — making sure someone has the right horse and that it goes well with them.”
But in 2004, she crossed paths with a mare who flicked a switch in Edwina.
“I invested in Pialotta and that’s when my career went stratospheric,” she says, her eyes lighting up with the memories. “It wasn’t intentional — I was pretty content — and I knew I couldn’t get to the top without the right horse, but equally I remained passionate and open-minded. Together we won my first five star, went to WEG the year after and everything snowballed. Then along came Cevo Itot Du Château and my life changed forever.
“I followed Itot and loved him until we were eventually able to buy him ahead of the 2008 Olympics — I never actually tried him,” she reveals. “But I’ll never forget the moment I got on that horse at home — I jumped a course and it felt like I knew him inside out. I had the exact same feeling with California and Lintea Tequila, and I have a great feeling now with my new horses Identity Vitseroel [her Olympia hero] and Catenda. They’re all very different, but I think you have to feel that connection when you first get on.”
A crazy life
With an exciting battalion of horses for 2020, including these new rides and the expected return of her potential Olympic contenders Bacardi and California, Tokyo is a clear target, alongside commitments to her new Global Champions League team, Valkenswaard United.
Home for Edwina and Jan, who married in 2011, is Monaco. But with her horses stabled at the equine epicentre of Valkenswaard in the Netherlands, a breeding enterprise in France, Jan’s worldwide business commitments and a different five-star show to compete at nearly every weekend, this is a family who runs a tight ship. As any parent knows, toddlers require a military-scale operation just to exit the house, so how on earth does she manage it all?
“Most of the time it works, but it is a juggling act!” she laughs. “We are lucky to have very good people — it’s very well managed — but there are often suitcases heading in all directions and getting Chloe’s things organised is a mission in itself.
“It’s a crazy life, but she doesn’t know any different and luckily she loves to get on a plane.”
Embarking on motherhood later in life has allowed Edwina to enjoy the career she’s had.
“Everything is about timing and I was really lucky to have Chloe when I did,” she shares, elaborating too on her 18-year relationship with Jan, who also acts as her trainer; together they’ve been a real driving force in the sport.
“We’re on the same page — I’m so fortunate because he’s a real horseman and understands everything I’m doing,” says Edwina. “I think we’ve seen just one movie together in the whole time we’ve been in a relationship! However, we can switch off from horses a bit more when we’re in Monaco — it’s all about balance.
“It’s exciting how the sport has evolved over the past 10 to 15 years — the Global Tour has pushed showjumping to a different level. People are always afraid of change, but it’s important to move with the times. But if I could change one thing about the sport, it would be to have an off season — even just a month’s break would be good for everyone.”
‘I’d like to do two more Olympics’
As our chat draws to a close, the ever-inquisitive Chloe totters in to say hello, full of excitement at the prospect of some cherished mother-daughter time before the show ring beckons once more.
With so much going on, I’m nevertheless surprised to hear Edwina say she already sees an end point to her jumping career.
“I definitely won’t be riding competitively in 10 years’ time — I don’t want to be that age and running around at a show every week. Chloe will be older and I want to give her my time and to enjoy other things in life,” she explains.
“I’d like to do two more Olympics then see where I am. There’s so much more you can do in the sport than riding — maybe I’ll own a few horses and keep in touch with the breeding.
“I’ve enjoyed some amazing moments in my career — Prague was incredible, then to win in Valkenswaard against the likes of Hickstead and Shutterfly was unbelievable.
“A gold medal would be amazing and is certainly on the bucket list, but if I stopped without one I wouldn’t have any regrets. I’m content with everything I’ve achieved.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020