Fierce competition creates great sport for spectators and competitors alike. Andrea Oakes talks to those who have found themselves in intense rivalries
When two sporting stars collide, lasting memories are made — take the ongoing one-upmanship between football’s finest, Messi and Ronaldo, for example, or the spectacular shoot-outs between tennis giants Federer and Nadal.
From duels in the dressage arena to racing’s greatest rivalries, the equestrian world can boast its equivalents as the best in their game have gone head to head for glory. We asked some of the champions involved to give an insight into what it’s like to meet your match.
McCoy vs Johnson
“I never did beat him to the jockeys’ title, but he pushed me to try,” says National Hunt jockey Richard Johnson, runner-up to the legendary Sir AP McCoy in the jockeys’ championship a soul-destroying 16 times. “AP broke every record, raising the bar well above where it was. It still gives me something to aim at.”
AP hung up his boots in 2015, departing with 20 consecutive titles and more than 4,000 winners. He concedes that his phenomenal success was due in part to his rivalry with Richard.
“I could never get complacent or comfortable,” he explains. “Riding against someone as brilliant as him keeps your eye on the ball. It drove me to break those records.
“There’s no room for arrogance in racing,” adds AP, pointing out that there are few other sports where the better you get, the more chance you have of ending up in an ambulance. “As much as Richard was my rival, we always had a good relationship.”
“Winning is obviously what we all want to do, but AP and I always got on well,” agrees Richard, who has since claimed four championships. “It was slightly ironic one of the times I managed to beat the man I’d been battling for so long was in his last race.”
Whitaker vs Whitaker
Showjumper Michael Whitaker feels that the five-year age gap between himself and elder brother John reduced the sibling rivalry.
“I still won the Hickstead Derby before he did,” he points out. “Seeing John winning was good for me in the early years, because I would think, ‘If he can, I can’.”
Michael says he can turn competitiveness on and off when riding against family.
“You do your best to beat them, but you’re still friends,” he says. “I remember one good win, when John was leading with Milton and I beat him on Coggeshall Spot On. I always thought I could, but no one else did.
“It didn’t work out at the European Championships, though, when I was winning and had a pole down,” adds Michael, referring to the Mon Santa-Milton showdown in Rotterdam in 1989, when he had to settle for silver behind John. “We got the right result, just the wrong way around.”
Dunwoody vs Maguire
The battle between National Hunt riders Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire for the 1993/1994 jockeys’ championship title is one of the most dramatic in racing history.
“At times it was quite tense,” admits Richard, who was racing for a second consecutive title. “I had to stay on top of my game for the whole season. I started worrying more about what Adrian was doing than my own performance.”
Things boiled over in 1994 when Adrian’s mount Mr Geneaology was forced to swerve away from the penultimate fence at Nottingham, crashing into a safety rail. Richard was handed a 14-day ban.
“I put Adrian through the wrong side of a wing,” explains Richard. “It was important to make as few mistakes as possible, so that year I started using a sport psychologist to help me focus properly.”
The contest went to the wire, on the last day of the season, with Adrian coming up three winners short of Richard’s 197.
“I would never have ridden as many wins that year had Adrian not been around,” concedes Richard, whose achievements include multiple victories in the King George VI Chase and the Grand National. “We had our ups and downs, but we pushed each other.”
Oliver vs Tatlow
Competition is often no less intense in the show ring. From the 1970s to the 1990s, David Tatlow and Robert Oliver brought a dash of drama to the hunter classes.
“We were total opposites,” recalls David. “I was a great galloping man, while Robert hardly went out of extended canter. And while I wanted new horses, he liked older ones, from other people — existing champions.
“There was rivalry in the ring, but rarely any antagonism between us,” David chuckles. “I was always a lot better than he was!”
Robert adds: “We’ve been great pals, from the old days, though he kept me on my toes. David always had a good horse. In the 1970s he had a better selection, but later my string improved.
“I was instructed by Bill Bryan and he never over-galloped a horse, so I always had the handbrake on. That probably goes back to our hunting days, as I was with the Herefordshire and Ledbury where jumping counted more than galloping.”
Both admit that tempers sometimes frayed.
“David didn’t like to be beaten and would often take umbrage, whereas I would try to keep smiling,” says Robert. “He once got in a real fret at the Royal International,after losing to me in a hack class. And we once had a row when he placed his horse’s saddle on the railings that divided the ring, making my horse spook and duck. I was not impressed.”
“Robert went absolutely berserk,” recalls David. “He was inconsolable with anger. But we couldn’t really share that many years as rivals without clashing on occasion.”
Broome vs Smith
“I hope I lifted Harvey’s game,” says five-time Olympian David Broome of the decades in which he competed against Harvey Smith. “He was always there to be beaten. You can never sit back with a rival like that.”
While David made Hickstead’s King George V Gold Cup his own, scoring the first of six wins in 1960, Harvey aimed for the John Player Trophy.
“When you entered the arena, you crossed a red line and became deadly opponents,” says David, who travelled extensively with Harvey. “But we only had a few rows in a whole career.
“When Harvey won, he could be a pain in the arse, but he was the best loser I knew,” he recalls. “Give him a few minutes and he’d be as right as rain — he might have been depressed, but he never depressed you.”
“We went around the world together, working as a team,” agrees Harvey. “We battled on the pitch but when it was over we were pals.”
Nuttall vs Sampson
It’s tight at the top, as a ding-dong battle for the Hickstead British speed Derby is proving. Harriet Nuttall and Matt Sampson have dominated for the past four years.
“When Matt’s in it, you know it’s going to be fast,” says Harriet, who took the title again last season on her 2016 winner Silver Lift. “The speed Derby has so much prestige. I prepare Silver Lift throughout the year with the class in mind.”
“That horse has caused me a lot of heartache,” laughs Matt, a double champion with Topflight True Carlo. “I saw him win a 1.35m class last year and thought he looked in good shape. That put the pressure on.”
“We do joke about it,” says Harriet. “A lot of people come up to me at the Derby meeting to say they’ve had a cheeky bet on me.”
Van Grunsven vs Werth
In the 1990s, the Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven became known as the queen of freestyle with her athletic Oldenburg gelding Bonfire. German star Isabell Werth’s mighty Hanoverian, Gigolo, was a master of the grand prix and special.
“It was good to have a rival in Isabell, as it meant I was always trying to better myself,” says Anky. “She was not the nicest in the warm-up, as she would think the whole arena was just for her. But the more she was in my way, the calmer I felt — and the better I became.”
While Anky claims she had great respect for Isabell, the riders were not close.
“We had our arguments, but we always settled it afterwards,” Anky says. “For me, it wasn’t personal.”
Isabell clinched individual gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, ahead of Anky. But the tables were turned in Sydney, four years later.
“That gold was my most memorable win,” says Anky, who was to strike Olympic gold twice more in the next decade with Salinero, beating Isabell and Satchmo 78. “As it was Bonfire’s last competition, it was as if it was meant to be.”
Great Britain vs Germany
The Brits were European eventing team champions eight times in a row before Germany triumphed in 2011, and have since seized gold back just once. On the world stage, the teams have won twice apiece in the last four championships.
“The Germans are the threat,” concedes British event rider William Fox-Pitt. “It is more interesting than it used to be when we usually won. We know that they’ll be strong and take some beating, but I don’t think we perform with them at the back of our minds.”
“I’m not affected by who I’m up against,” agrees Tina Cook, who has six world and European team golds. “The unpredictability of the sport can throw up some random results. Look at Fontainebleau, in 2009, when five of the six Germans crashed across country.
“You can’t allow yourself to get too obsessed with the opposition,” she adds. “You go out to do the best you can — although beating the favourites or the fancied team always gives you pleasure.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020