The quirky gelding with a penchant for champagne took Geoff Billington to the Olympic Games twice and captured the public’s imagination. Staying in the saddle with his soaring jump could be the only glitch, finds Madeleine Silver
“If I could have got It’s Otto upstairs at Olympia to one of the sponsor’s boxes, he would have loved to have sat down and had a craic with everybody, a drink and a nice bit of buffet,” says Jenny Ellis, who groomed for Geoff Billington and his “horse of a lifetime” It’s Otto.
Dipping his tongue in his rider’s glass of champagne was a typically lavish celebration for the indulged gelding. And on one occasion, panic descended over Jenny when she arrived at Otto’s stable at Hickstead to find it empty, only to discover that Geoff had put a headcollar on his stable star and taken him to the barbecue.
“He liked his mate to be with him at the party,” she laughs.
As Geoff’s former championship team-mate Di Lampard says: “Otto was like a god to Geoff; he always forgave him whatever he did.”
The result was a horse who revelled in his celebrity status.
“He thought he was king of the castle,” remembers Jenny, who accompanied him on his astonishingly busy schedule across the globe. “Every time he walked into a new stable, he’d be like: ‘Hi everyone, I’m here.’”
He famously favoured humans to horses – licking his groom but kicking out at horses he took a dislike to, prompting other grooms on the circuit to call him “the raging bull”. But beneath all of this was a sense of humour to match his rider.
“He had that funny eye that he used to roll at you – he was hilarious, I’ve never
met a horse like him. He got me round the world and he was absolutely my best friend,” says Jenny. “And Geoff adored him. Otto was his life.”
Plot the horse’s arrival on a chart of Geoff’s career acceleration through the 1990s, and it’s easy to see why he was treated with such devotion. Geoff was in his late thirties by the time the six-year-old dark bay Dutch-bred gelding was sent to his yard by owner Gerard Lever. Fast forward four years and the pair were at the Atlanta Olympics alongside the Whitaker brothers and Nick Skelton, where they finished sixth as individuals.
Team bronze medals at the 1997 European Championships and 1998 World Equestrian Games followed, as well as team fourth at the 1999 Europeans and another Olympic appearance in Sydney in 2000. It was this flurry of success, more than two decades after Geoff’s career had begun as a teenager, that secured his status as a showjumping great.
“He was the best horse I have ever had, he truly was the horse of a lifetime,” Geoff has said.
Bought as a four-year-old by Gerard Lever from the Netherlands, he was first ridden by Willie Halliday before coming to Geoff. By Sultan and out of Tivonne, fellow top riders questioned the credentials of his sire for producing a jumping star, when Geoff told them he had an exciting prospect.
“They’d say, ‘That [breeding] is for dressage or carriage horses,’” he remembers.
On his arrival at Geoff’s yard, Otto had won just £100 in prize money and “had no clue what to do with his body. There was no consistency in his jump; sometimes he’d jump into a double and nearly land on the second part and other times he’d go sky high and land steep and nearly have to put two in,” Geoff says. But his star quality was clear from the off.
“He used to go so high that I was always excited by him. And it was at the end of his seven-year-old year, when I started taking him to the continental shows, that he started to look pretty special. I remember Nelson Pessoa came up in Vienna when he had won there and said: ‘I want that horse for my son [Rodrigo] for the Olympic Games.’”
By the time he was eight, he was on Nations Cup teams, with his huge – and quirky – jump making headlines.
“He wouldn’t just give a fence inches – he would give it feet,” Geoff says. “He had a proper spring in his step and was the rare combination of being careful but with scope. Normally if you get one that’s ultra-careful, their heart’s not big enough and they’re a little bit chicken. Or you could get one that’s got all the scope but not careful enough. But he had everything.
“I remember once walking a line with some other riders who were all scratching their heads deciding how many strides they should go on, and I just walked past and smiled a little bit to myself, thinking that I could go on either with Otto.”
Posters of him were soon adorning every pony-mad child’s bedroom – with Milton’s retirement in 1994 having created a neat vacancy for a new equine pin-up – and a steady stream of Polo mints and fan mail were arriving on the yard.
“I think it was his presence [that made him so popular with the public],” suggests Geoff. “He was only 16.2hh, but he looked a lot bigger because he had a high head carriage.”
But there was also his ability to keep the crowds on the edge of their seats; the ultimate showman.
“The louder the cheers, the higher he went,” says Geoff. “He’d jump one fence and I’d think, ‘Bloomin’ heck, that felt good.’ A lot of horses would frighten themselves but he’d come to the next fence and say, ‘Right, if you think that last one was good, watch this.’ So all the crowd would be gasping when he was jumping.”
But his exuberant jump didn’t always go to plan.
“I was in the Nations Cup in Dublin one year and he twisted me clean off over the last fence. I landed flat on my back about 10 yards before the finishing line with 30,000 Irish spectators cheering with excitement. I’ve never been bought as many pints of Guinness in my life as I was that night,” Geoff laughs.
There were some unnerving moments at home, too.
“He was a quirky character – in the ring he would face anything you put him at, but at home he was spooky and often needed a lead hacking around the farm. If you went on your own, you’d lose all self-preservation and because I thought so much of him, I was frightened to get after him.”
It was on the big occasions that Otto thrived, and Geoff has described his double clear at Hickstead’s European Championships in 1999 as “the ride of my life”.
A last-minute inclusion after John Whitaker had to drop out, combined with a home crowd, meant the pressure was high. But the pair rode a nale designed to delight their adoring fans.
“I sat up and slowed the revs right down to pop the Derby rails on ve strides, then I saw the fence I had been waiting for, the last oxer. Otto met it spot on and must have given it a foot to finish clear – and the crowd went wild,” remembers Geoff, who missed a medal by a fraction of a time-fault.
At the Atlanta Olympics three years earlier, he was similarly unfortunate to miss out on a medal, with unlucky fences down meaning they fell short of the podium. But the result didn’t detract from the success of finishing as the highest-placed British partnership in sixth.
“It was all new to Otto and he coped unbelievably,” Geoff says. “I never dreamt of going to an Olympics because I’d never had a horse good enough. But once it gets within your reach, then you want it more.”
When the time came to retire Otto at Olympia in 2001, there was a standing ovation and free-flowing tears.
“I cried from the minute he came [into the arena], to the minute he left,” says Jenny. “But I was so glad that Geoff had decided that Otto was going to spend the rest of his life with him. If he’d have gone anywhere else, it would have broken my heart.”
Ask Geoff if he’s ever had a horse that’s come close to the gelding and the answer is an emphatic “no”.
“I’ve had some good horses, but never one like him,” he says. “I can remember years ago John Whitaker saying that Ryan’s Son just fitted him like a glove – the horse knew what he was thinking and vice versa. And I think it was a bit the same with me and Otto. It was a partnership, a marriage, whatever you want to call it.”
John Whitaker on It’s Otto
“I remember Geoff telling me that he thought he had found the one he’d been looking for all his life – and when I saw him, I could tell he was something special,” says John Whitaker, who rode on the British team with Geoff and It’s Otto at various major championships (pictured).
“Sometimes I think Geoff’s biggest problem was staying on him. Otto used to unseat him a bit, but from the very start the horse looked like he had lots of scope.
“Geoff knew him inside out and how to get the best out of him. Otto had his own style of jumping and was a little bit quirky, so I think Geoff has to take some credit for producing him the way he did. Geoff’s always been successful but to get a superstar horse is what everybody dreams of. He was very happy to find Otto and I think Otto was lucky to find Geoff.”
Di Lampard on It’s Otto
“Geoff rode Otto at the same time in young horse classes when I was competing my championship ride Abbervail Dream [pictured, right], so the two horses came through together,” says Geoff’s World Equestrian Games and European Championship team-mate Di Lampard. “The horse was destined for a great future.
“He was unique in more ways than one; the markings on his face gave him that obscure but attractive look, but he was also cheeky, sharp and so bright. He had endless energy and the engine that horse had was shown in his unbelievable scope, and him eventually becoming an Olympian.
“He was a difficult horse, there’s no two ways about it. But Geoff took the challenge on and they were legends together.”
● Do you have a special memory of It’s Otto that you’d like to share? Write to email@example.com
Ref: 4 February 2021
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