Merely-A-Monarch: A ‘superstar from day one’ who made the Olympic shortlist in all three equestrian disciplines *H&H Plus*

  • A “superstar from day one”, Merely-A-Monarch rose to every occasion with Anneli Drummond-Hay, making the Olympic shortlist in all three equestrian disciplines. Martha Terry finds out more about his rollercoaster career

    WHEN Anneli Drummond-Hay put a wanted advert in Horse & Hound for a potential eventer in 1957, she could little predict how the resulting purchase would define her entire career. That young horse, whom she named Merely-A-Monarch, would go on to win the inaugural Burghley, then Badminton, before switching to showjumping and winning dozens of grands prix and Nations Cups around the world.

    He was shortlisted for the Olympic Games in all three disciplines, and talent-spotted by a top National Hunt trainer of the time as a shoe-in for the Gold Cup. No other horse in history has proved quite as versatile nor achieved such success across the disciplines.

    Fate played its part after that initial advert.

    “I received a hundred replies, including one photo of a nice-looking bay but I rejected him for being too young at two years old,” says Anneli. “Fortuitously I lost the photo, which then turned up six months later in an empty suitcase as I was packing to go to a three-day event at Harewood. This horse happened to be stabled right next door to the event, so I decided to try him on the same trip, although at £300 he was far too expensive for me.”

    K14A3B Geneva, Annelli Drummond-Hay, Great Britain, riding Merely a Monarch

    Merely-A-Monarch competing in Geneva, where he was on the winning Nations Cup team and landed the grand prix

    Monarch’s surroundings were a far cry from the grand international arenas in which he would come to excel.

    “It was a scruffy place; he was galloping around in a paddock with old tins and a
    barbed wire fence,” remembers Anneli. “But he had the look of eagles about him, he was magnificent. He was unbroken, an uncut diamond, but I thought, ‘I’m going to put my heart on it.’ I had to buy him.”

    Anneli borrowed money from the Alhusens, where she was working, and paid it back bit by bit. It was the investment of her young life.

    “Monarch was a superstar from day one,” she says. “He was terribly naughty, difficult to back and used to buck me off, so I long-reined him a lot. I could be braver from the ground. He was so full of joie de vivre, he would buck and twist and I’d go flying!”

    But from the moment he first set foot in the ring, Anneli was besieged with offers
    to buy him.

    “I was always short of pennies, so of course I was tempted, but I knew he was special and I had to resist,” she says.

    “Although Monarch was dazzling judges and prospective buyers alike in the ring, he was still a livewire at home.

    “Early on, I did wonder whether I’d ever get the measure of him, but once I started taking him to shows, he was outstanding, so much better than all the other horses,” Anneli says. “He rose to the occasion and although he was cheeky, that possibly gave him the will to win.”

    “Pot-hunting” round Badminton. After winning Burghley easily, Monarch’s victory at Badminton was almost a formality

    MONARCH’S visit to Burghley in 1961, at the tender age of six, was not plan A. He was being lightly campaigned as a young horse, but when Anneli had an altercation with her trainer Robert Hall about the noseband on her intended ride for Burghley, she ended up taking Monarch instead.

    “He was ridiculously inexperienced, but I was young and brave,” says Anneli. “In those days we had 20 miles of roads and tracks, and steeplechase, before the cross-country, and when I’d finished that, informers told me how atrociously the course was riding. Every single horse had fallen. And I was about to take it on aboard my precious six-year-old, who held all my hopes and dreams.”

    Anneli nursed Monarch around, and thanks to a superb dressage and the only double clear, he won by a wide margin. Badminton was now in their sights.

    “It sounds blasé but having won Burghley so easily, I knew that if I didn’t do anything dreadful, Badminton was a formality,” says Anneli. “But he was already a grade A showjumper and too valuable to risk eventing. I felt like I was riding such a precious horse, like glass, and I was petrified I would drop it in the rough-and-ready world of eventing. But I really wanted to win Badminton, so I decided he would run, win and that would be his swansong.”

    “Pot-hunting” round Badminton. After winning Burghley easily, Monarch’s victory at Badminton was almost a formality

    He duly did, adding a double clear to a scintillating dressage test.

    “He won the dressage by miles, and I could just coast round,” Anneli says. “He found it so easy, it almost felt like pot-hunting – round Badminton!”

    TWO months later, Merely-A-Monarch was mixing with the best of the country’s showjumpers at the Royal International, where they won the Imperial Cup.

    “In my ignorance, I entered him for all the big classes,” Anneli says. “Everyone was gasping, they couldn’t believe this horse. I hadn’t realised the transition from eventing to showjumping was so technical, but because Monarch’s stride was so huge, he could stand off his fences if I saw a long one. He was a Ferrari; he had freak ability.”

    This stood him in good stead at Horse of the Year Show, when course-builder Jack Talbot-Ponsonby had built a treble combination of three wide 1.60m oxers, on a faulty distance – nine metres – either two too-short strides or one too-long one.

    “Horses were falling and crashing, so I decided to go back to my eventing style and put in one long stride,” remembers Anneli. “I was the only person to clear it.”

    Merely-A-Monarch in showjumping guise at the Royal International, where he won the prestigious Imperial Cup two months after victory at Badminton

    Monarch was on the Nations Cup team soon after making the switch, and after a year in which it seemed nothing could go wrong for showjumping’s newest star, his Olympic berth in 1964 looked a formality. Anneli had managed to withstand countless offers but eventually yielded to a Mr Paul Hanson, who promised Anneli she’d keep the ride.

    “I was absolutely broke and sold him for much less than I’d been offered – £6,000,” Anneli says. “I made Mr Hanson write on a scrap of paper, torn out of a programme, that I would keep the ride.”

    But Monarch then started having the odd stop. Under squad orders, he was overjumped prior to the Olympics, and subsequently overlooked for a place. Although Anneli was asked to switch back to eventing for the Olympics, she felt it would be a backward step from the “more refined” discipline of showjumping.

    But Monarch’s loss of form was confounding her. For some reason he wasn’t willing to stand off his fences like he used to. Eventually his vet discovered that an abscess in his groin was causing him pain when he stretched, but Mr Hanson had decided it was the rider who was inadequate. One morning Anneli woke up to find the stable of her beloved Monarch empty.

    “My groom, Merlin Meakin, was screaming, ‘Monarch’s gone! Monarch’s gone!’” Anneli says. “I discovered Mr Hanson had taken him in the middle of the night and sent him to David Broome to ride. He was jumping at White City the following day. Luckily for me, they had a disastrous round and David later told me it was the stupidest thing he’d done and apologised profusely.”

    David himself admits: “It was a mistake. Monarch wasn’t easy to ride – a bit rubbery – but he was a beautiful model and his record was outstanding.”

    The scrap of paper proved pivotal. Anneli’s mother, Lady Margaret, arrived on the scene to rush through a court injunction to prevent anyone else from riding Monarch, and the judge ordered that Monarch be returned home.

    Mr Hanson insisted on an instant sale, though Anneli would struggle to repay the £6,000. Her friend and fellow showjumper Peter Robeson stepped in to lend her some cash, and then as they stepped out of the court, a man approached Anneli.

    “He said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m Colonel Greenhalgh and I believe you have problems with the ownership of Merely-A-Monarch. I’d like to buy a share.’ How amazing!” Anneli says.

    ANNELI was shattered by the ordeal, “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. She gave Monarch a long spell off to rebuild their confidence. Nearly a year on, when she received an invitation to compete in America with Althea Roger-Smith (now Gifford), she jumped at it.

    “It was wonderful to escape the gossip-mongering in the UK and do my own thing,” she says.

    They competed in Washington, New York, Harrisburg and Toronto. Monarch’s form was well and truly recovered, although finishing runner-up 15 times gnawed at Anneli. When they finally won the grand prix in Toronto, she burst into tears.

    “After a multitude of seconds, I was so emotional to win,” she says. “I’d felt totally destroyed by my superstar horse going wrong and that win was such a relief.”

    Success in America reinstated them on the British team, and they soon regained the winning thread on the European grand prix circuit. Once again the Olympics beckoned, Mexico City 1968, but Marion Mould and Stroller got the nod ahead of Monarch.

    “It was very galling, but I’m not a jealous person,” Anneli says.

    Monarch continued to compete until he was 16, playing his part in Nations Cups, winning numerous grands prix and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in 1970, aged 15. Anneli moved to South Africa in 1971 and Monarch enjoyed an active retirement with Merlin, hunting with the Bicester and hacking until he died aged 26.

    “I used to visit him when I was back in England and one time just before my arrival, Merlin said he lay down on the concrete in the yard and couldn’t get up,” Anneli says. “It’s like he had a sixth sense I was coming and waited for me. I was pleased I was able to be there at the end.”

    Harvey Smith on Monarch


    “HE was really top-class, exceptional,” says Harvey, who rode on many Nations Cup teams alongside Merely-A-Monarch. “He was one of the best horses in the world and would still be if he were competing today.

    “He was a super jumper cross-country and when he switched to showjumping, it was second nature to him. He was a proper talent and Anneli rode him very well, too. He was one of those multi-purpose horses who could have been brilliant at any job. A top trainer thought he’d win the National and yet he had pony blood.

    “He was lovely, always full of himself – a true superstar.”

    Merlin Meakin on Monarch

    “MONARCH was a lad, always very naughty,” says the horse’s groom Merlin Meakin, who competed four times at Badminton herself in the 1970s (pictured on Lynette). “He’d buck and leap about, and taught me never to ride without my hands on the neck strap.

    “He could nip a bit in the stable – if he was ill I’d sleep in there with him, and he’d nip me every now and then! But he’d do anything for a carrot – we taught him to bow and do other tricks, and he’d eat sugar lumps out of my mouth. He once accidentally bit my lip and I still have the scar.

    “I hunted him for three years with the Bicester when he retired – he was always lively and would fly-jump. I rode him daily until he died. If he were competing today, he would definitely be a great. I’ll never see another one like him. But it was his partnership with Anneli that made him. He could have excelled in any discipline, and she was a truly great rider who learnt to bring out the best of his ability.”

    Olympic regrets

    IT’S something of a travesty that Merely-A-Monarch never had the chance to win an Olympic medal, as he was shortlisted in all three disciplines.

    His best chance was arguably in eventing, given his invincibility as a young horse, but in 1961 and 1962 when he won Burghley and Badminton, women weren’t allowed to compete in Olympic eventing. This may have precipitated Anneli’s switch to showjumping in 1962 and although she was asked to return to eventing for Tokyo 1964, she was intoxicated by the more “technical challenge” of her new discipline.

    “Showjumping was like Formula One – returning to eventing felt like a backward step,” she says.

    Monarch narrowly failed to make the cut for both the 1964 and 1968 showjumping teams, despite having played a starring role in countless Nations Cup squads.

    “I had three shots at the Olympics, but they all fell by the wayside,” says Anneli. “It did grate at the time, but I don’t dwell on what might have been.”

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (22 April, 2021)

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