Wind back the years and Royal Windsor was one of our biggest and best shows. We all wanted to win there.
But the 2009 European Championships — held at the Windsor showground and a huge disappointment in terms of spectator apathy and therefore atmosphere — dented its reputation as a venue.
After that, Royal Windsor itself never fully recovered. And for the past 3 or 4 years, with the showjumping becoming a sideshow to the military tattoo, I wouldn’t have been the only one to question whether our sport had a future here.
This year, however, the show went international, had a complete facelift and, boy, did it look well!
This country is sometimes criticised for failing to put on top international shows as they do abroad. But Royal Windsor 2014 was as good as any show anywhere in the world. With sunshine bathing this fantastic setting, the crowds flocked in to see top riders compete for a much improved prize-fund.
Was this show as good as the Royal Windsors of old? No, it was better. Well done to organiser Simon Brooks-Ward and his team.
Summoned to the castle
On the Thursday evening, there was a wonderful reception in The Queen’s Guard Chamber at Windsor Castle. All competing riders and owners were invited to attend the occasion in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh.
As we mingled in this historic room, I couldn’t believe how the Duke — who soon turns 93 — made a point of circulating and talking to every group. Later, I learnt that ours was one of 3 receptions he’d hosted on 3 consecutive evenings, the other 2 being for the dressage and driving contingents.
There may be more remarkable 92-year-olds… but I have yet to meet one. That some British riders didn’t bother to turn up to this reception is an absolute disgrace.
Teamwork pays off
Rob Hoekstra gave some new combinations a chance at the first couple of 5-star Nations Cups of 2014.
As British team manager, he has the difficult task of balancing experience for newcomers with achieving a good outcome. And the results will improve as he gets his main players back in the team. With Big Star looking like he’d returned to his best at Windsor, the double clears we need to win at “super league” level will surely come.
One rookie who has stepped up to the mark is Joe Clee. He finished best Brit in the La Baule grand prix and with a clear and 4 in the Nations Cup. He has a couple of very good horses whom he produced himself. I’m told his owner Ludwig Criel is very supportive, too.
Joe came through the hard way, riding for Cyril Light, then Robert Smith. He’s a smashing lad who deserves a chance. I wish him well.
Another one to watch is Holly Gillott, who got her first team call up in Odense. Although she’s had some good form at home with Dougie Douglas, double clear for our victorious Nations Cup team and winning the grand prix must have exceeded all expectations.
Young employees are often criticised for their slow work rate and lack of adaptability. But we’ve had some really enthusiastic staff recently. One who just joined us is a shy 16-year-old whose mother ferries her between home and work every morning and evening. When we got back very late from a show the other day, [my wife] Tina said the young girl could stay in the house as the staff flat was full.
As a relatively new employee, she was understandably nervous — until our 10-year-old son Ollie took charge. Now Ollie is one of those kids with outgoing optimism, which I hope doesn’t desert him when he becomes a stroppy teenager.
“Don’t worry, I’ll introduce you to everyone,” I overheard him telling her. “My dad’s the big black one, Mum’s the small blonde one, my brother Will is the tall ugly one and I’m the awesome one…”
Graham’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (29 May 2014)