Graham Fletcher: ‘No other team can boast the sheer talent of that quartet’ *H&H VIP*

  • I said last month that the way John and Michael Whitaker and Nick Skelton are riding, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these three musketeers go into battle together once more in Rio.

    Now, with a combined total of 15 Olympics behind them, it’s been confirmed. And like an ageing rock band headlining at Glastonbury, there won’t be a note out of tune or a beat out of sync. And as for “young” Ben Maher who joins them, he’s not only a top jockey but has proved his ability and temperament at this level time and time again.

    Looking at the Olympic team competition, and in particular at the horsepower at the disposal of the Dutch, French, German and US squads, some might conclude they’re ahead of us on equine firepower. But when you consider what we have in Michael, John, “Skelly” and Ben, there’s no other team that can collectively boast the sheer talent of that quartet.

    When it comes to the individual medals, Skelly has a great chance of clinching the Olympic title because he’s on Big Star, one of the two best horses going to these Games. The other is US rider McLain Ward’s 10-year-old HH Azur.

    Yes, here we have two world-class horses ridden by two world-class riders; but it’s about more than that. Each partnership adds up to the whole package. Let’s hope Skelly comes out on top of what promises to be a gladiatorial contest for gold.

    Coping as a spare part

    Jessica Mendoza, who has gone consistently well internationally for the past two seasons with Spirit T, could count herself a bit unlucky to be the travelling reserve rider.

    It’s a role that produces a contrast of emotions, as experienced by my wife Tina when she was reserve for London 2012. It’s great to be part of it all, but when match day comes, how you wish you were out on the pitch.

    One of my favourite stories about being a reserve rider is from when I was British team trainer for the Seoul Olympics in 1988. We were out in South Korea for over three weeks.

    A long time, and even more so when you’re Michael Whitaker, the reserve who’d realised he had no chance of competing.

    On the morning of the team competition, the then British manager, Ronnie Massarella, declared to David Broome, Malcolm Pryah, Nick Skelton and Joe Turi: “Right lads, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for!” To which Michael added with equal vigour: “Yes! YES! We’re going home!”

    Nevertheless, Rio will be a great experience for Jess and is surely only the start of her Olympic journey.

    Green shoots

    There has been much anguish and criticism about the shortage of younger riders capable of challenging the established competitors for Olympic places.

    While I agree with some of it, I prefer to see the glass as half full rather than completely empty. Having been involved with my boys in young riders and children-on-horses, I can only compliment Tony Newbery and Alan Fazakerley on their hard work and belief in the young. The green shoots of recovery could be seen at Falsterbo Nations Cup earlier this month when Tim Wilks’ double clear and Emma O’Dwyer’s four faults and clear helped Britain to third place.

    It’s proof that the modest funding for young rider teams is imperative in the future.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 21 July 2016