Graham Fletcher: It was all going so well [H&H VIP]

  • There is a distinct possibility that Britain will never again hold dual Olympic and European team gold medals.

    Two years of unsurpassed success also saw Scott Brash and Ben Maher ranked world number one and two. Yet nobody could have forecast the demise that came about in 2014.

    This year, we even looked like dropping out of the Nations Cup “super league”. Only a gritty performance and double clear from young Spencer Roe on the last leg in Dublin kept us in. Worse was to come with a humiliating 18th place at the World Equestrian Games (WEG).

    Now Rob Hoekstra, the team manager who presided over those famous victories, has stepped down, two years before his contract was due to end after the Rio Games.

    So why was it all going so well, only to end so disappointingly? It’s a question I’ve been asked repeatedly.

    My wife Tina rode on many British teams during the “Rob years”. I came to respect his work ethic and the fact that he gave many combinations the chance to prove themselves. Rob’s single-mindedness and toughness were admired and disliked by some riders in equal measure.

    So what was the catalyst for those gold medals and can it be revived? To me, it was the enthusiasm and optimism surrounding the London Olympics. At the mere mention of “2012”, owners were involved, riders became determined to keep their top horses and the media got behind us.

    And what a difference those loyal owners make. Lord Harris and Lord Kirkham had a burning desire to win a gold medal in London, but they didn’t go out and buy a string of ready-made horses. Hello Sanctos, found by Rob Hoekstra and David Broome, was the only one they acquired from abroad.

    We produced Hello Sailor from a novice to be the fifth team member in London, and Ursula — who competed in super leagues with Tina before becoming the world number one showjumper with Scott — I bought from Mary Turnbull in Scotland.

    These horses are just three examples of the impact enthusiastic owners can have on a nation’s results.

    Likewise Nick Skelton’s owners, the Widdowsons, stayed loyal with Big Star and Carlo, Olga White stood by Peter Charles and his horses, as did Beatrice Mertens, who owns Michael Whitaker’s ride Amai.

    William Funnell produced top horses in Billy Angelo and Billy Congo, yet to him and his business partner Donal Barnwell, London 2012 outweighed getting top dollar for them. It was decades since I’d seen so many top combinations from which to pick an Olympic team.

    Looking forward

    So what of the future? More prize-money on the Global Champions Tour will mean our top riders will hardly be available for super league and team duties. Another nail in GB’s coffin, some will claim — but I see it as a chance to give more up-and-coming riders and horses a shot.

    But what we must do is provide more challenging courses nationally to get the production line going and more horses coming through. We can neither expect nor afford to keep using foreign shows to “make” horses. That’s why this season’s best thing was Nina Barbour’s new international show at Bolesworth.

    The accusations and recriminations of this last year must stop. We need to recapture the enthusiasm of the pre-London era.

    Many believe top riders to be money-grabbing individuals out to maximise the price of their horses. But I’ve never met one who’s been pleased to have sold their best horse. Of course, yards cost an exorbitant amount to run and that big cheque sits well in your bank account; but riders go into the sport for the sport’s sake and to strive for the top.

    One of the best up-and-coming horses I saw this season was Judge N Jury, ridden by William Funnell.

    Recently I heard that the careful, scopey eight-year-old had been sold to American rider McLain Ward, so I asked William a hypothetical question: “If you’d had the horse pre-London, would you have sold him?” William thought for a minute and said: “No, I’d have moved heaven and earth to get someone to invest in him.” The defence rests.

    This column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (13 November 2014).