Olympic heroes

Did you know that three out of the four showjumping gold medallists from London 2012 are past winners of the Hickstead Derby? Victoria Spicer catches up with them to find out what those wins meant.

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It was sixty years since Britain won its last showjumping team gold medal at the Olympic Games, but at London 2012 the drought ended in spectacular style. Nick Skelton, Ben Maher, Peter Charles and Scott Brash claimed the gold in a closely fought jump-off with the Dutch team, and history was made. After years of struggling to find form in the Olympics, Britain's showjumpers got it right when it mattered the most - at the home Games, in front of an ecstatic crowd.

It was a moment that Scott Brash - the youngest of the four gold medalists - would refer to as the best day of his life. "It meant everything to every one of us," agrees Ben Maher. "In the lead up to the Games, we all believed there was only going to be one result. We always had the confidence we were going to come close and that was the difference between winning and losing. Having everyone in the seats watching you, willing you to win, willing those fences to stay up - it was incredible."

The team was a real mix of youth and experience, with Ben competing at his second Games, Scott making his Olympic debut, Nick Skelton riding at his sixth Games (seventh if you count the Alternative Games of 1980) while Peter was at his third, having represented Ireland in 1992 and 1996. But for Peter, last summer's Games in London were like no other. "The home Olympics was phenomenal - the pressure leading up to it, I've never experienced anything like that before. It was off the scale," he says.

The British riders would enter the arena to cheers and stomping. The packed stands were a sea of waving flags and palpable excitement, but somehow the horses and riders were able to keep cool and do their jobs. "It's like any arena - once the bell goes, you don't hear a thing," says Nick Skelton. Then there were Bob Ellis' beautiful but tricky courses, designed to reflect the London settings and to challenge the best in the world. Nick Skelton, who jumped an amazing five clear rounds during the Games on the super-talented Big Star, was so unlucky not to add to his team gold when an unfortunate pole down in the final round kept him off the individual podium. "I think if we hadn't won team gold it would have been harder to accept," he reflects.

Peter pays credit to the Performance Manager Rob Hoekstra, who directed the British squad to glory. "We all had different strengths, and we had a wonderful team atmosphere," says Peter. "What was uncanny was that the four riders had never competed together as a team until then."

Sixty miles away from Greenwich Park, the All England Jumping Course was the scene of other memorable wins for three of the four Olympic gold medallists - the Hickstead Derby. Nick Skelton was the first of the trio to take home the prize, winning for the first time on board J Nick in 1987. His was the only clear round that year. "I never thought he'd win the Hickstead Derby. I saw him in the Derby at Wales and the West, where he jumped into the Dyke and straight out the side, so I thought he had no hope," Nick recalls. But J Nick was to prove his namesake wrong, and Skelton repeated the feat twice more in 1988 and 1989 on the great Apollo. The white-faced gelding also finished second in 1984 and came tantalisingly close to winning three times in a row in 1990, only to be beaten in the jump-off by Joe Turi and Vital. "Apollo was a great Derby horse, and he also won several of the major Grands Prix around the world," says Nick. "He was so brave, and he knew the course - he was headstrong, but he was easy to ride round there."

The feat of winning three times in a row was later emulated by Nick's Olympic team mate Peter Charles, who won every year from 2001 to 2003 on the superb grey mare Corrada. "The Hickstead Derby is one of the classes you most want on your CV, so to win it three times was special," says Peter, who had so hoped to match the achievement of four wins set by his friend and mentor Eddie Macken. "That mare went in to that class and jumped clear, year in, year out. She was one of the best horses ever to jump round that course." Corrada is now back from America and is in foal to a clone of Gem Twist - so perhaps the mare's Derby legacy isn't over yet.

Ben Maher became the second youngest ever winner of the Derby in 2005, at the age of 22. He'd come close the previous year, but a time fault had kept him out of the jump-off and relegated him to third place. They picked up four faults in 2005 to go into a jump-off with Tim Stockdale, and netted the win with a steady clear round. Ben also won the Speed Derby the previous day, riding Mercurius, a double of wins that propelled him into the limelight. "I think that was the start of my career. In a way it was the biggest win for me, as it changed so much. Afterwards I got my first major sponsors and got more owners. It was a real springboard, and I don't think I'd have gone on to achieve what I have without winning the Hickstead Derby," says Ben.

Even though he's gone on to win at major venues around the world, none less than Greenwich Park, Hickstead remains a very special place for Ben. "Hickstead is one of the best arenas you can ride in. However many times you ride into that ring, you get an extraordinary feeling - it's a very special place." With our three gold medallists having won the Hickstead Derby, Performance Manager Rob Hoekstra winning the class in 1999 and the London 2012 travelling reserve Tina Fletcher taking the title in 2011, there's just one Olympic gold medal winner left who has to come to Hickstead to win the Derby and complete the set. Scott Brash - no pressure.

 

Ben Maher on the Hickstead Derby

"The Hickstead Derby is part of the fabric of British showjumping. It is not only one of the most prestigious showjumping competitions anywhere in the world, but it has everything the British sporting audiences want to see. It is thrilling, exciting, unpredictable and a real spectacle, showcasing all that is good within British sport. It teams fearless horses with brave riders, and, even after more than 50 years, remains the competition that every rider wants to win."

This article first appeared in June 2013 

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