With one team gold medal already in the bag, US showjumper Laura Kraut is focused on Tokyo to add to her tally, despite the unconventional build-up to the Games. Nancy Jaffer meets her
“It’s the strangest thing. We’re used to being such planners and organisers and now we can’t plan anything,” says Laura, referring to Covid-19 and EHV-1.
The 55-year-old rider’s situation was complicated by a fall in February, when she broke her collarbone.
“It’s been a bummer,” says Laura, who was out of the action from midway through the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, leaving her 41st in the Longines rankings.
That was on top of an accident last year at a Dutch show, where she broke her nose and her horse stepped on her Charles Owen helmet. Happily, it protected her head and has been seen in advertisements with the horrific gash it took for its wearer. That time, she only missed three weeks of competition; Laura is someone who perseveres.
THIS all-around horsewoman was never pampered growing up, when riding was only 10% of what she did with horses.
“We groomed them, iced their legs, cleaned stalls, rode them bareback with no halter or bridle. We’d take them swimming. As I got older, I drove the truck and trailer. We learnt every aspect of it, which made you appreciate the horses, not just the competition. And that’s important,” she says. “In our world, you’re lucky if you have a 1% win ratio.”
Of course, she’s done better than that. But her big break didn’t come until a 40.6°C day in 1990 at a show in Tennessee, when Geoff Sutton decided it was too hot for him to compete on his thoroughbred jumper, Simba Run, and offered the ride to Laura.
The two clicked, so much so that she wound up as reserve for the 1992 Olympic team in Barcelona. It was quite a step for the young professional from the South who dropped out of college after one semester to pursue a career with horses.
“I had never even left the US,” she remembers. “I had to get a passport to go to the Olympics. I had never ridden on a Nations Cup team. It was an interesting time in the US evolution of picking teams. That was a purely objective situation. It was lucky for me that I had the opportunity to be the fifth rider and go to Europe and see what it was that I really wanted to do. Prior to that, I had no idea of how great it was.”
Being reserve gave her the chance to learn about top sport without having to put her reputation on the line.
“Once I got there, I realised how truly unprepared I was,” she says. “But it gave me the inspiration to try to work in that direction.”
Eight years later, she was on the team in Sydney, after winning the trials at US Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, with Liberty. The Games themselves, though, weren’t a happy experience for the squad, which finished sixth.
“I learnt a lot about how things shouldn’t have gone and thankfully, I think, so did our organisation, because things like that have never happened again,” she says.
The fraught-with-drama selection process, done on an objective basis with a drop score, was an issue, as it had been since the team was sued in 1990 over the way riders were selected for the team.
“In Sydney, there was no camaraderie and team cohesion, which I feel came into the picture after that, which is nice,” Laura states.
It took another eight years before she made the Olympic team again, this time in Beijing, where everything went right for her and the diminutive Cedric, who didn’t like walls, as part of the first US gold medal-winning Olympic showjumping team in 24 years.
“That was miraculous, with Cedric being who he was, not the horse I would have expected to be the gold medal Olympic horse, and having him come through and be the hero he was,” Laura recollects.
With two of the best horse-rider combinations in the world on the team, McLain Ward with Sapphire and Beezie Madden with Authentic, “it was up to Will [Simpson on Carlsson Vom Dach] and me not to upset the apple cart. I credit our coach George Morris for that, because he had faith in us to pull through.”
At Rio in 2016, she was again reserve. The focus there for her was on her partner, Nick Skelton, who was looking for individual gold at the end of his distinguished career.
“In the end, it was ideal that I was the fifth [rider] because I could really stand behind Nick and be excited for him,” she says. “Had I not been on the team, I would not have had all the backstage passes I had to be a part of it all. Often, the fifth rider rides. In my two cases I didn’t, but I was fortunate to be there for an epic moment in Nick’s career.
“That whole day was the most emotional rollercoaster. I was a nervous wreck. That morning, I knew if he didn’t jump clear in the first round it was over for him. His whole world was about winning that gold medal. So when he was clear, I was crying. Then he had to make it past the second round. Then even worse, he was in a jump-off with six people, so there was no guarantee he would win a medal. When I knew, with only two more riders to go, he had bronze, I ran over to him and said, ‘You’ve got the bronze.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want that rusty old thing.’ When he did win gold it was a testament to the amount of years and dedication and hard work that went into it. It was a great day and it’s still going.”
Now all the attention is on her and Tokyo this summer.
“Nick is very motivated to see me succeed, which is great,” she says. “This year is interesting because everyone is in a time warp. No one knows what’s happening and everyone’s treading water, waiting to hear if the Olympics are actually going to take place. I know they say, ‘Yes it is,’ but they’ve done that with a lot of things and then cancelled. There’s no guarantee at this point.”
The question is in knowing which shows will actually happen in terms of preparation, she says, noting the crucial weeks are at the end of May and beginning of June.
LAURA has a house on one acre in Wellington, Florida. She stays there during the Winter Equestrian Festival and rents stalls at a nearby farm. The rest of the year Laura spends on the road or with Nick at his farm in Warwickshire, where his sons are involved in National Hunt racing; Dan as a trainer and Harry as a jockey. The racing yards adjoin, so there’s plenty of family life.
“It’s like Dallas, the whole crew,” laughs Laura, referring to the old US soap opera.
With the Brexit situation, however, Nick and Laura are considering a base in the Netherlands until things get straightened out.
Covid was a game-changer for Laura, who spent most of the downtime in England.
“We did an extraordinary amount of hacking out,” she says. “All of our horses can now open gates and cross creeks.
“The first few months we really enjoyed it; then it got monotonous. It was nice to have a mandatory break, but it does disrupt.”
On 15 April, Laura was named to the 10-rider shortlist, from which the US Olympic team of three, plus a reserve, will be named in July. She has three strong Games contenders, including one last-minute addition.
Her sponsor, St Bride’s Farm, bought Baloutinue on 9 April, the last day horses could be purchased to be eligible to compete for the US in Tokyo.
They clicked right away, winning their first major competition together, finishing ahead of Laura’s potential Olympic team-mate Beezie Madden and Breitling LS in the three-star $137,000 (£99,000) fixture at Wellington.
Baloutinue was previously ridden by Adam Prudent – the son of Katie Monahan Prudent and her husband, Henri – and won a four-star grand prix in Wellington earlier this month. The 11-year-old by Balou Du Rouet appealed to Laura when she first saw him, but he wasn’t for sale. When he did come on the market, Laura and her sponsor snapped him up.
He reminds her of a combination of Cedric, who had plenty of energy, and Simba Run, because he has “thoroughbred qualities” that would stand him in good stead over five days in sweltering Tokyo.
Her other Olympic candidates are Confu, by Contact Me, also owned by St. Bride’s, and Goldwin, a nine-year-old by Emerald, owned by Stars and Stripes.
“Even though Confu’s 14, he’s still fresh and doesn’t get affected by heat,” she says. “In the past year, he really has come into himself as far as consistency goes. He’s not bothered by crowds or lack of crowds, he jumps in all venues.”
Goldwin, Laura believes, “looks to be really special, spectacular”.
“He didn’t get the miles we would have liked him to have last year because of Covid, but he’s come on pretty strongly. All that’s lacking is competition at the five-star level. If he does that with ease, I would feel confident. He is pretty unflappable.”
Beyond Tokyo, Laura is interested in the World Championships at Herning, Denmark, next year, and points out that “for Paris 2024, Goldwin will be 12, an ideal age”.
“Hopefully I’ll have others,” she says. “I don’t feel Paris would be out of the question for me. I’d be 58 then.”
That is likely to be her final Games.
“There comes a time,” she says. “A lot of it is feeling healthy and good. Probably past Paris would be a real reach.
“But I won’t give up my quest to do things like this until it’s actually time to give up. It’s not just about me, it’s about the horse I have. If I have a good horse, I will be keeping it as my goal.
“Once I retire from top competition, I don’t know that I’d continue to compete,” she adds. “I really like teaching students who want to do Nations Cups and teams, so I’d hopefully do more of that. I love bringing on young horses, riding them at home. My life would slow down but I would still stay very much involved in horse sport.”
This interview can also be read in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 29 April
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