Legends of the sport: Monsanta — ‘whether it was Hickstead, Calgary or Dublin, he never let you down’ *H&H Plus*

  • The treble Hickstead Derby winner only began his partnership with Michael Whitaker as a teenager. Jennifer Donald charts the stocky gelding’s illustrious achievements and will to win

    An all-star cast of horses has taken centre stage for Michael Whitaker during his four decades in the saddle, but one stands out for his longevity, consistency and magnificent conquests around the globe – Monsanta.

    The stocky, Irish-bred “Monty” had a distinctive air about him with his trademark sheepskin noseband and unusually high head carriage. He could be sharp, but appreciated Michael’s quiet approach in the saddle and, driven by the Yorkshireman’s steely will to win, he tried his heart out at every obstacle.

    The 13-year-old gelding was already a young rider European gold medallist and Queen’s Cup winner when Michael took over the reins, but the remarkable pair went on to land the Hickstead Derby three times in succession, plus four championship medals and some of the richest grands prix in the world. All this and he never suffered a day’s lameness in his life.

    “For any big occasion he was a very good horse,” says Michael. “One of the best in fact.”

    Monsanta’s story begins in Northern Ireland in the mid 1970s, where international rider Leonard Cave produced him.

    “I actually saw him jumping as a five-year-old in Ireland,” recalls Michael. “He looked careful even then and I followed his progress.”

    With some excellent results, including a big money grand prix, under his belt, Leonard sent the then eight-year-old Monsanta to leading rider Johnny Greenwood in England to sell, but it was his daughters Gillian (now Catlow) and Julie (now Andrews) who took the reins – and didn’t let go…

    “He found us really,” says Gillian, taking up the tale of her hugely successful time with the gelding.

    “I’d broken my arm, so Julie rode him throughout that first winter – I don’t think he’d done much indoor jumping before then.”

    Early in 1986, 20-year-old Gillian was back in the saddle and the two sisters shared the ride that year. Julie contested the junior Europeans on Monsanta then Gillian went on to win gold at the young riders European Championships, as well as the Queen’s Cup at the Royal International in 1987.

    “Everything felt so easy on him – he could go for weeks without having a fence down,” says Gillian.

    She was competing at Olympia when a deal was struck that would take this equine star into the hands of one of the world’s leading riders. Lord Harris, now best known for his ownership of Scott Brash’s horses, had just started to back Michael Whitaker and was looking for a horse to send him. The equation was solved thanks to David Broome.

    “He said at Olympia I should watch this horse,” remembers Lord Harris. “I went down and bought him straight away. I knew he was careful and he had a lot of jump, but I probably didn’t think he was as good at that stage as he really was – but then I thought the same about Sanctos too!”

    Michael was friends with the Greenwood family and had even jumped Monsanta as a catch ride at Gijon, Spain, one year.

    “I had only gone there to watch my first wife, Véronique, jumping, but Gillian had hurt herself,” recalls Michael. “He went very well in the first class and finished second – then in the next class he stopped and I fell off. I’m not sure what happened, but I obviously did something wrong and went flying over his head!”

    Michael’s only reservation in taking the reins on Monsanta this time was his age.

    “I wondered whether at the age of 13 he’d still be as good,” Michael pondered. “But he certainly proved that he was. Age was just never an issue with him.

    “We more or less clicked straight away and I knew he was a serious horse.”

    Michael took Monty straight out on the World Cup circuit and won the Antwerp grand prix at only their second show together.

    “Then we went to Gothenburg and he was second in the World Cup and second in the grand prix,” says Michael. “He maintained that consistency throughout his life actually.”

    Very quickly the duo were conquering every corner of the globe. One of Michael’s stand-out moments came at the 1989 European Championships in Rotterdam where the Whitaker brothers took the individual gold and silver medals, as well as helping Great Britain to team gold.

    “It was a real head-to-head between John and me,” says Michael, who’d topped the leaderboard throughout, but went through to the last round less than a fence ahead of John on Milton.

    “I was just too slow to a big oxer and Monsanta clipped the back rail – it was totally my fault. But the combination was right after it so I was trying not to over-ride that. Then I lost my concentration and galloped into the combination and he jumped it clear anyway. So it could have been a very different story – it was so unlucky it was unbelievable. But those championships, with John and me first and second, were brilliant – it would have been better the other way round, mind!”

    That same year, Monsanta and a 29-year-old Michael entered the Spruce Meadows history books when winning the world’s richest prize, the Du Maurier as it was then, the day after helping Great Britain win the gruelling Nations Cup at the Canadian venue. The jump-off for Calgary’s winner’s purse – worth £95,000 in today’s money – showcased Michael and Monsanta at their brilliant, dazzling best, in a round described as “exquisite” by the commentator.

    “He actually won the Friday class, the Nations Cup and the big class that year,” recalls Michael. “Calgary is big, but he jumped clear every day – two rounds on Friday, two rounds on Saturday and three on Sunday.

    “He was so reliable and in Nations Cups he rarely had more than one down; the harder you tried, the harder he tried.”

    Monsanta, who donned the Everest, Henderson and Next prefixes over the years in accordance with Michael’s sponsorship deals, was an equally big winner indoors, but his aptitude for a vast turf arena resulted in their historic Hickstead Derby treble between 1991 and 1993. The veteran gelding had arrived in West Sussex that first summer off the back of a slightly deflating individual performance at the 1991 European Championships in La Baule, where the team had come home with silver.

    However, the fire within was reignited around Hickstead’s hallowed turf and the pair sealed victory with the only clear round to the delight of a sun-drenched crowd.

    The following year, jumping took place in stamina-sapping, rain-soaked conditions
    that Michael describes as “near-impossible” and nobody could produce a clear. Michael came to the last with just one rail down and on landing, a tiring Monsanta – whose boots had been turned upside down from his efforts in the mud – pitched on his nose, having sunk into the ground “up to his fetlocks”. The gelding had given his all but crossed the line for a second successive victory; their nearest challengers had 12 faults.

    Monsanta had to dig just as deep in 1993 when the momentous hat-trick was achieved after a jump-off against Australian Chris Chadwick (Mr Midnight) and France’s Hervé Godignon (Prince D’Incoville).

    “I never used to train for the Derby – I’d just turn up and go – but even after Monsanta won the first one, I didn’t think he had it in him to come back and win the hat-trick,” remembers Michael. “But he jumped clear through the Devil’s Dyke every time and never batted an eyelid; he made you feel totally safe. That was the thing about Monsanta, whether it was Hickstead, Calgary or Dublin, he never let you down.

    “Winning Hickstead three times on the trot was very special.”

    Among Monsanta’s other phenomenal attributes was his sense of occasion.

    “You could take him to the local show and he could have three fences down, but he knew when it was the big day,” says Michael. “He was sharp, so you had to give him quite a bit of work the morning before a class. He could get a bit tense, but once you’d got him to relax, he was away. He was the same at home. But he was always so careful – James Fisher jumped him at Olympia one year and he jumped him clean off, he was so careful!

    “But one thing about him was he was quite stocky so did have his jumping limit – not many courses were too big for him, but the Barcelona Olympics for example was just stupid big and that’s one time I thought, ‘Bloody hell, he’s going to struggle round here,’” explains Michael. “He actually only had one down in each round of the team competition, but when it got to the second round of the individual, it was just too big. Everyone struggled though.

    “One of his best traits was that he wouldn’t hold anything against you, even if you’d cocked something up,” he adds. “Even at the next show after the Olympics, when he’d crashed through a huge combination in the final round, he won a grand prix. He had such a great attitude.”

    The decision was made by the owners Lord and Lady Harris that the veteran should retire, win, lose or draw, after his fourth Hickstead Derby with Michael. They finished with four faults after a “mix up” at the Bank, but 19-year-old Monsanta had lost nothing in defeat.

    “That was the last time I rode him,” says Michael. “But I think the Harrises were right to make the decision then – he’d had an absolutely fantastic career.”

    Does Michael wish he could have teamed up with his exceptional partner five years earlier?

    “Yes I do – but I was just glad to have got him at all,” he reflects. “It worked out very well in the end, so perhaps he needed to gain that experience before I got him. He wasn’t lame the entire time I rode him, which is amazing when you consider he went on to the age of 19 – the Greenwoods obviously did a very good job of looking after him.”

    The great horse saw out his days with Lord Harris’s company HR director, Carol Sawyer, enjoying gymkhanas and showing classes. He died about three years later. Not only did he make history as one of the most successful showjumpers, he will forever be remembered with great affection by Michael.

    “Every time I rode a lap of honour on Monsanta – most times I sat on him, in fact –
    it felt like the best feeling in the world.”

    “A good bloke”

    “I had 100% faith in my dad, Johnny Greenwood, who spotted the potential in Monsanta,’ says his former rider Gillian Catlow (neé Greenwood). “He was quite sharp, but he was always reliable so you felt completely safe on him and he was an absolute gentleman in the stable. But he could absolutely run away with you, too! You had to treat him with respect at all times. I would describe him as workmanlike, solid and sound — he got on with the job and was just a good sort of bloke.

    “Winning the Queen’s Cup at Birmingham on him was such a highlight. Of course, I followed his progress with Michael and it made me so proud. I have great memories — it was an honour to ride a horse like that.”

    “So many great occasions”

    “The real highlight for me was winning the Hickstead Derby three times running,” recals Lord Harris, Monsanta’s co-owner with Lady Harris. “But we had so many great occasions with him and for a small horse — he was only 16hh — he was unbelievable. Such a trier and a really kind horse.

    ”He won a lot, but I prefer my horses to jump really well and finish second than to be lucky and win. My wife was there for the European Championships in Rotterdam when he led on the first day, led on the second day, then John and Milton beat him on the third day by one fence.

    “We also had Midnight Madness with Michael at that time — both great horses. I’ve won Calgary seven times, so I’ve been very lucky with all these brilliant horses.”

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 December 2020

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