Sir Wattie: ‘He had a heart of gold and would always bust a gut for me’ *H&H Plus*

  • This feisty horse with a “sense of humour” claimed two Badminton wins and two Olympic medals for Scotsman Ian Stark. Martha Terry charts his illustrious career and busy retirement

    IT was an ignominious start. Almost the first time Ian Stark sat on Sir Wattie, the four-year-old bucked so high that Ian was fired up into the rafters of the indoor school.

    “I was airborne, and it was just luck that the horse was still there when I came down again,” says Ian. “He had a sense of humour, that cockiness and slight arrogance, and I thought this horse would either be brilliant or useless.”

    Two Badminton wins, two silver Olympic medals and countless victories vindicate Ian’s first hunch. But when Wattie was a youngster, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t be the latter. Ian was at that time still working as a clerk for the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), and the horse was being kept with his breeders, Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott and Susan Luczyc-Wyhowska, but he was a handful who needed plenty of regular work.

    “He wasn’t special at that stage,” remembers Ian. “He was opinionated, but he did have something about him I liked.”

    Sir Wattie came to Ian’s yard as a five-year-old for more training, which coincided with Ian handing in his notice at the DHSS to event full-time. And there began the story of one of Britain’s greatest event riders. Ian went on to have many brilliant horses – Glenburnie, Murphy Himself, Jaybee – but he picks out Sir Wattie as his horse of a lifetime.

    “Wattie did everything first,” Ian says. “Wattie was my first horse to win a three-day event, my first to ride round Badminton, my first to win Badminton – and he went to my first Olympics, although only as reserve, because the selectors thought Oxford Blue was better, though I knew Wattie was the best.”

    Sir Wattie secures his first Badminton win with Ian in 1986 in “bottomless” going

    WATTIE moved quickly up the ranks with his newly professional rider. Intermediate at six, advanced at seven, he won Bramham (standard section) on his three-day debut. That autumn the pair travelled to their first three-day event abroad, Achswelwang, in Germany, where the British team won.

    “Wattie was in the lead going into showjumping, but having warmed up on a surface, it was a bog in the arena, and we had two down,” says Ian. “That put us second, but I was thrilled. Suddenly I found myself on the long-list for the LA Olympics in 1984 with him and Oxford Blue. But I didn’t take it too seriously, as I hadn’t even been to Badminton or Burghley by that stage.”

    After claiming individual and team silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Ian made the decision to retire the horse. “He’d given me everything,” he says

    The next spring, Ian was double-handed for his Badminton debut with his two potential Olympic candidates. Still wet around the ears compared to the stars of that era, Lucinda Green, Ginny Elliot et al, Ian and his young horses were an unknown entity.

    “I was cabbage green, both horses were eight-year-olds and I’d never ridden at that level before,” Ian says. “I arrived at Badminton and the press dubbed me ‘the new lad from Scotland’. Then they realised I was 30 and had two children and within a week I’d become ‘the Scottish veteran’.

    “Looking back, I made so many amateurish mistakes. I rode Sir Wattie first, and he just took on whatever was in front of him. At one stage he was almost on his belly. There was a bounce of dog kennels and I copied Lucinda who had somehow fitted in a stride and climbed all over it, and Wattie did the same thing. No one took the direct route after that. I’d grown up thinking ‘if in doubt, kick harder’, and that’s more or less what I did. He had hunted in Scotland and he got me round.”

    The alternative worlds in Bialy Bor proved fruitful, with team gold and individual bronze

    Wattie finished sixth with one pole down, while Oxford Blue was third with a rare clear round, earning the nod for the Olympics.

    “That Badminton, Oxford Blue benefited from all the mistakes I’d made on Sir Wattie, who had taught me a huge amount,” explains Ian, who was “devastated” to be told by Hugh Thomas, a selector at the time, that Wattie would never make a team horse.

    AFTER Wattie’s fruitless trip to Los Angeles, Ian took him to Burghley, where he misjudged a bounce of bullfinches and bruised his tendon sheath.

    “There was nothing to show for it, but he was lame and every time I tried to bring him back into work, it would be hot, so I gave him 18 months off,” says Ian.

    Ian describes his 1988 Badminton winner as a “show-off” and an “out-and-out trier”

    The enforced break may have been the making of him. Ian’s wife Jenny took on Wattie’s fitness regime, hunting him and cantering him in the snow.

    “It was a bad winter, and round where we live in Scotland they don’t snowplough the back roads, so Jenny would canter Wattie for miles along the snowy roads,” Ian says. “Wattie adored Jenny; he’d whinny every time he saw her. And by the time Badminton came round in 1986, he was fit as a flea.”

    It was just as well. Wattie was last to go and the rain had lashed the Gloucestershire course all day long. Third after dressage, Wattie had moved up to the lead due to Ginny’s Night Cap and Bruce Davidson’s JJ Babu having stops.

    “The going was bottomless,” Ian remembers. “As I was doing the roads and tracks, I could see miles of queueing traffic leaving the site. I felt, ‘Wait for me, I haven’t even started yet!’”

    Ian admits he was “cabbage green” on his Badminton debut with Wattie, taking sixth in 1984

    Wattie was quarter Welsh cob, and although he was tired by the end, he kept jumping and galloping.

    “After all Jenny’s work in the snow, what was a bit of mud to him?” smiles Ian. “That was Wattie in a nutshell. He had a heart of gold and would always bust a gut for me.”

    Even with a fence down, they won comfortably from Rachel Hunt on Piglet.

    That season, Wattie defied Hugh’s predictions by being picked for the alternative World Championships in Bialy Bor, where he won team gold and individual bronze – despite a chipped bone in his fetlock joint. He backed this up with another team gold and individual silver at the Luhmühlen Europeans in 1987.

    Seoul 1988: Wattie’s bid for gold was foiled by Olympic champion Charisma (Mark Todd)

    WATTIE’S second Badminton win, in 1988 – the 1987 event was cancelled due to wet weather – marks arguably the greatest moment of Ian’s career. Wattie won all his spring one-day events that season, and pipped his stablemate Glenburnie to the trophy. Ian remains the only rider to have finished first and second at Badminton.

    “Wattie was a show-off; we were bosom buddies,” says Ian. “He wasn’t world-class in any discipline, but he was an out-and-out trier. The bigger the crowd the better he performed.”

    Wattie also won the final Olympic trial that year, earning his ticket to Seoul, where he was beaten only by the mighty Charisma, defending his Olympic title.

    “I went to Seoul thinking, ‘This horse could actually win,’” Ian says. “But there was incredible heat and humidity on cross-country day and I was worried for Wattie’s sake. At Badminton I had come out of the start box with my foot to the floor and he was leg-weary by the end, not struggling but saying, ‘This is hard work Dad!’

    “So I didn’t put too much pressure on at the start in Seoul, and I felt I could have asked for more. But it didn’t matter in the end because Toddy was so far ahead on Charisma. Wattie tried his socks off. Of course it would have been nice to get gold, but he’d given me everything. I’ve won four Olympic silvers in my career, and two of them are Wattie’s.”

    Sir Wattie was third after a muddy dressage at Badminton in 1986, before going on to win

    Ian had made the decision to retire the great horse after Seoul, when he was aged 12.

    “He wasn’t designed for the job of long-format eventing; he was always performing at his max and giving his all every time I rode him,” Ian explains. “So I asked his owners [by then Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Dame Maxwell-Scott] if I could retire him. He’d won more for me than any other horse, and he and I had learnt everything together.”

    Wattie never lost his sense of humour. Even in his more senior years, he would “enjoy” bucking the grooms off on a hack.

    “He was the biggest character,” Ian says. “He’d fire the girls off and come home on his own, thinking this was hilarious. And wherever he’d been competing in the world, he knew when he turned off the main road – he’d start whinnying, ‘I’m home!’ He loved his life.”

    He spent an active retirement with three-time Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight, as her trainer’s hack (see below).

    “The jockeys used to laugh at him at first, because he wasn’t a thoroughbred,” says Ian, “but they soon changed their tune. I watched him doing a jockeys’ showjumping competition and they were all fighting to ride him. They went so fast. He bounced a one-stride distance, and I was horrified until I realised how much he was loving it; he was teaching the jockeys. It’s like he was saying, ‘Sit tight, I’ve got this.’”

    Sitting tight may indeed have sprung to mind the first time Ian rode Wattie, but he ended up giving him the ride of his life.

    Watt’s in a name

    WATTIE’S ability to jump in any going was no surprise to his breeders, Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott and Susan Luczyz-Wyhowska (pictured). They had owned a roan mare called Rosa, who hunted three times a fortnight for years until they bred from her. The two ladies put her to a local thoroughbred stallion, Bronze Hill, and Wattie was born in 1976.

    He spent his first few years at Dame Maxwell-Scott’s home, Abbotsford, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. She was the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, after whom Sir Wattie was named.

    His joint owner Susan also had illustrious ancestry, being related to Colonel Cox Cox, the second director of Badminton.

    Henrietta Knight on Sir Wattie

    “SIR WATTIE came to us supposedly as a trainer’s hack [pictured at her open day], but he wasn’t a very good example because he had a phobia of tractors and the young horses had to give him a lead through the village. And this was a horse who would jump over a car at Badminton!

    “He was also too strong and excitable to stand and watch other horses galloping. He’d fidget and want to be working himself. But when we were schooling he was brilliant, as though he was saying: ‘Just follow me, this is how you do it!’ He was 13 when we got him and had a lot left to give.

    “He was the build I love in a hunter – strong, square and solid – although he was over at the knee and looked like he was going to bow when he halted, but I don’t mind that. His legs were like iron. He was a lovely hunter, though he always had a buck and took a fair bit of holding, so I’d hunt him in a double bridle.

    “He was kind, loved people and was a wonderful nanny to other horses, and we treated him like a god. I remember Terry [Biddlecombe, her husband] holding him when the vet came to put him down when he was 26. They both came into the kitchen afterwards and I’ve never seen two grown men cry so much. We all adored him.”

    This feature can also be read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale date 24 June 2021

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