Career highlights: Married to Julie, and lives in Nantwich with their four children, James,Marcus, Daniel and Emily. Has ridden since the age of 11. British team member 36 times. Team bronze medal winner at 1998 World Championships and 1997 European Championships.
Ride of my life: Hickstead Europeans 1999
Horse: It’s Otto
Breeding: 16.2hh bay gelding by Sultan out of Tivonne, foaled 1986
Career highlights: 16 Nations Cup appearances. Helped Britain’s team to win three times in succession at Hickstead from 1995-1997. Competed in the Olympic Games at Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000). Placed four times in the Calgary Grand Prix. Winner of £700,000 in prize-money. Voted outstanding horse in 1996. Was retired at Olympia in 2001.
Geoff Billington recalls his ride at Hickstead’s European Championships in 1999
There’s nothing like a big championship to bring out the best in horses, and It’s Otto thrived on those big occasions. He was a true championship horse, who saved his best performances for when it mattered most, and at Hickstead’s European Championships in 1999, he really did give me the ride of my life.
John Whitaker had to drop out and my late call-up put us all on edge, but Otto loved Hickstead’s big arena, and when he jumped clear in the warm-up competition, the selectors gave us the nod for the British team.
Our last-minute inclusion, and the fact that we were competing in front of our own crowd, put more pressure on us than I had ever experienced, but Otto was fantastic.
Jumping at number two, we followed a seven-fault round from Nick [Skelton] on Hopes Are High, and from the minute he entered the ring, Otto sensed the big occasion. Hickstead offered the best going we could have wished for — the International Arena was like a carpet. Otto was on springs and he jumped the most fantastic clear, much to my relief, and the crowd’s delight.
Carrying71⁄2 faults forward to the second round kept us in a medal position, and the pressure intensified. The course was big and testing with related distances and long runs all adding to the test. It’s never just the fences that count; the time has to be considered, too. The ring at Hickstead is very big, and it’s easy to finish outside the time allowed, so I intended to keep in a forward rhythm. I knew that if I fiddled, we’d be on time-faults.
Fence one was a white balustrade upright, which Otto popped nicely, and then we were on a nice, even stride downhill to the next oxer. To save time, I turned fairly sharp back to the next planks and rail. Otto was always careful over planks, and I knew he would jump it well.
Then I turned to the water and took a slower approach than normal. I trusted Otto as he was a good water jumper, and I didn’t want him running away from it towards the double, which was a vertical in and an oxer out.
Everything was going to plan. Otto met the next oxer spot on, and he felt fantastic. We then turned to go to the planks, which had caused trouble. Although I let Otto run downhill to the planks, I made sure we didn’t get too deep. A sweeping turn left saw us going uphill to the triple bar. We needed a ‘bit of wellie’ into that, and he ballooned it.
Next was the combination of two water ditches and an upright out, which perhaps gave me my only moment of anxiety. He went higher than most horses over the first part and landed a little short, so I needed to push and kick to get out the other side, and he landed running forward.
The next fence was an upright with flimsy rails, and we met it on one less stride than everyone else. Going through my mind was the thought there were just three fences to go, so steady up, and pull yourself together. Otto wasn’t listening, though, so I gave him a harder pull than usual.
I sat up and slowed the revs right down to pop the Derby rails on five strides, and then I saw the fence I had been waiting for, the last oxer. Otto met it spot on and must have given it a foot to finish clear – and the crowd went wild.
To finish on a double clear was a moment for us both to savour, and it was a pity we missed a medal by a fraction of a time-fault. Otto remained on song to finish sixth in the individual competition. He was always at his best in championship competitions.
Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound (27 February) where James Lewis recalls his ‘ride of a lifetime’ at a Polish draghunt.
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