The consistent grey with a sense of occasion – and a sense of humour – gave Leslie Law Britain’s first individual eventing gold medal in 32 years at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games
WHEN Jeremy Lawton, founder of Shearwater Insurance, came back from Goresbridge sales with six horses, his wife Susan asked: “What are you doing?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he recalls replying.
He acquired a horse by Blue Laser, who showjumper Roddy Dean thought would make a better eventer. Jeremy made a list of potential riders, and his pen landed on Leslie Law.
That horse wasn’t suitable and they changed him – buying Shear H20, or Solo, who went on to help Britain to Olympic silver in Sydney 2000.
“When I heard of his full brother being available in Ireland, I said to Leslie, ‘Right, we’re on the next plane, let’s go,’” says Jeremy.
Shear L’Eau, or Stan, was finer than his older brother, but many couldn’t tell the pair apart. Jeremy bought him there and then.
“He was a beautiful type, a picture of an Irish event horse,” says Leslie.
He was consistent from the off, winning the then two-star at Blarney Castle as a seven-year-old and being well placed at the young horse championships. Stepping up to do his first five-star in Kentucky in 2002, he pulled out all the stops.
“He ran so well cross-country in testing conditions – there’s a photo of him jumping a corner in what looks like a hurricane. That’s when I knew I had a great horse, something special,” says Leslie.
“He always had his ears pricked and eyes open to the world, but he was friendly and happy to have a pat. He had a sense of humour, too; even when he was a mature campaigner he could have a spin at a leaf.”
Always competitive in the dressage, he was a good technician across country, and ran off the bridle.
“You could be quite fast with him when you needed to be,” says Leslie. “His other asset was soundness – he didn’t need injections, had no injuries, no drama. Not until I retired him. He was such a sound horse.”
Eventer Kylie Roddy was a working pupil at Leslie’s Inkberrow base in Worcestershire from 2000 to 2004. She recalls: “Stan had those thoroughbred feet, but Trina [Lightwood, Leslie’s then fiancée and yard manager] took preventative measures to ensure that was never a problem.”
Trina is credited by Leslie and others as being a big part of the horse’s success. She and Kylie would ride the two grey brothers out for their fitness work.
“They were a cute pairing, we always galloped them together,” says Kylie. “Stan was a rangier version of Solo. He was a bit sharp, always mischievous, but full of good intent. He was a workaholic and a joy to ride.”
Kylie recalls being a “wet round the ears working pupil” on one occasion setting up jumps – she threw a pole over the fence as Leslie rode past on Stan.
“He went from nought to 60 in every direction. He really was quite the athlete,” she jokes.
“Whenever we came back to the yard in the lorry, between the church and the drive, we’d have to go in the back and tell him it was all right as the leaves made a noise on the roof.
“Leslie did a lot to keep those types of horses good.”
Winning gold at Athens 2004
He certainly “kept him good” on their big Olympic chance in Athens 2004. They pulled off a personal best in the dressage, for which Leslie credits trainer Tracie Robinson, and ran well across country with the exception of a sticky moment at the first water. Leslie added a stride between the jump in and the first boat, which meant he didn’t get to the last boat on the stride he wanted and Stan added one in.
“We gave everyone a heart attack, but he dug deep to jump that second boat when a lot of horses would have fallen down or given up, so I will forever be in his debt for pulling one out for us there,” says Leslie. “I should have reacted quicker, but he saved the day.”
Jeremy remembers it well: “I smoked in those days, but I wasn’t allowed to because of the [dry] grass – my stress levels were through the rafters. But he jumped perfectly with the exception of that boat – neither Shear L’Eau or Shear H20 were big fans of water, which was an irony.”
Stan had been in an individual medal position at the Punchestown European Championships the previous year before having a showjump down. They lost out on winning Burghley the same way.
“That had been a trend, having a fence down,” says Yogi Breisner, team chef d’equipe. “We worked on it with Leslie and Kenneth Clawson, showjumping coach at the time. The horse jumped very well, but he hadn’t jumped clear in the final day of a big competition yet. They were almost trying too hard.”
Yogi’s job was to convince Leslie to believe he could jump a clear round.
“And to get him a bit gee’d up,” says Yogi. “I got him in the frame of mind that when he went into the ring it was just a practice round. I said, ‘We’re just riding at home.’ We couldn’t get him to knock a fence down at home.”
To add to the challenge, the horses had to jump two showjumping rounds in Athens.
“It always seemed to be the planks he’d have down,” says Jeremy. “And in Athens the planks were affecting a lot of riders. They were the last fence in the first round and he caught them with his back feet – I don’t know how they stayed up. After they changed the course, the planks were angled so the horses were jumping them toward the crowd – that time he whacked them with his front feet. God was smiling on Leslie that day, but it was his time, he deserved it.”
And so Stan was no longer the horse who consistently had one fence down, but the horse who jumped one of only two double clears when it really mattered, ultimately winning gold.
“It was incredible,” says Leslie. “The others were falling apart, and he somehow again dug deep.”
When patriotism pays off
Prior to Athens, the Lawtons were offered “a lot of money” for Shear L’Eau.
“The accountants were saying ‘sell him’,” Jeremy says. “But I was enjoying the sport so much. You hear many stories of riders producing a horse and it getting sold abroad. I’m a patriotic old soul, and considering the amount of time and effort Leslie had put in I thought ‘no’. And that faith and patriotism got rewarded.”
During the build-up to the Olympics, Jeremy rang Leslie, who was driving, and asked where he was going.
“I can’t tell you,” Leslie replied.
“Eventually he admitted that he’d seen an advert in Horse & Hound for another full brother to Shear L’Eau and Shear H20,” says Jeremy. “I said to him, ‘Stop talking to me, drive faster.’”
Alas Leslie decided this horse was probably not going to make it to the Olympics, unlike his overachieving siblings.
Knowing when it mattered
“Both Shear H20 and Shear L’Eau had an uncanny sense of occasion. They knew when they came off the lorry when it was a biggie,” adds Leslie.
Similarly, despite having that fence down at Punchestown, Stan had given a cross-country masterclass there, whereas many of those that had gone before him failed to complete.
“He went round like he’d known the track his whole life, finishing exactly on the optimum time,” says Leslie.
“At his peak, riding him felt like nothing could stop you. He was my friend, my partner, and with him I felt invincible. You always knew you were a contender on him. He gave you such confidence. He made you believe.”
“You couldn’t have written the script of that Olympics in Athens if you’d tried,” adds Jeremy. “You don’t realise how lucky you are until you try to replicate that kind of success.”
The hope had been that Stan might repeat it in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t to be, with the horse getting his first injury, retiring in 2006.
“I thought God knows he deserves to go into retirement now. He owed us nothing, so when he got that first injury that was that,” says Leslie. “He retired in Florida, not a bad place for it.”
Stan went out in a huge grass field across the road from the Laws’ home for a decade, first with Leslie’s wife Lesley’s retired five-star horse Timmy, and later the couple’s son Liam’s pony Soldier.
“Liam would go over to ride the pony bareback and Stan would follow him around and try to gently push him off,” Leslie says. “His humour and personality never failed him. He was a great horse until the very end.”
When silver turned into gold
No article about Shear L’Eau would be complete without the back story of how individual silver turned into Olympic gold after German eventer Bettina Hoy rode a circle before the first fence in the first round of showjumping at Athens 2004.
Nick Skelton came straight over to chef d’equipe Yogi Breisner to have a word. Then World Class performance director Will Connell took on the appeals, leaving Leslie, Yogi and the team to focus on the second round of showjumping and earning individual silver.
“We came back into the Olympic village really late and had a message from the British Olympic Association who wanted a meeting at 5.30am,” Yogi recalls.
There were more meetings and much poring over the rule book. Others would also gain medals if the appeal was upheld.
“The US in true style had a number of solicitors with them,” recalls Yogi. “The result was changed and then reversed – and we all flew home.”
Yogi was driving his hire car from Edinburgh to Thirlestane Castle when Will rang and told him to pull over.
“I had to drive up and down another hill to get a signal to call Leslie. He was competing at Solihull and I said, ‘Congratulations you’ve just won the Olympic gold medal’.”
Jeremy Lawton was fast asleep on the sofa when he got the call.
“I shot up, I just couldn’t believe it,” he recalls.
Commentators announced it on the tannoy at Solihull, and Leslie went in to showjump. He stopped at the planks.
Also published in H&H, 25 February 2021
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