Worth The Wait

Victoria Goff describes the wait Nigel Coupe had before he finally become the Al Shira'aa Derby Champion last summer. 

Cast your mind back to 1990. It was the year John Major replaced Thatcher as Prime Minister, England and France were first connected by the Channel Tunnel, and Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini topped the charts. In showjumping, Joe Turi and Vital beat Nick Skelton on Apollo in the Hickstead Derby, while a 19-year-old rider called Nigel Coupe made his debut in that same class, finishing in 10th place.

Then followed a 27-year wait before Nigel finally joined Turi and Skelton on the roll of honour by winning the Al Shira’aa Derby last summer. For most of the interim years he had been without a Derby contender, until Nigel got the ride on former show horse Golvers Hill, an Irish-bred gelding by Ricardo Z and out of a Clover Hill dam. Like so many Hickstead Derby winners before them, Nigel and Golvers Hill (that’s Ricky to his friends) had been knocking on the door for a number of years, finishing equal seventh in their first attempt in 2014, joint second with four faults in 2015 and fifth equal in 2016 with eight faults. 

Not only did Nigel have to wait a long time for his victory, he had to work hard for it on the day too. Holly Smith and Quality Old Joker had held the lead with four faults when Nigel rode in to the International Arena, drawn 16th out of 26 starters. He duly produced a perfect clear, only the 59th in the history of the class, and a round that three-time Hickstead Derby champion John Ledingham, who was commentating, described as a ‘masterclass’. “There were several good combinations left to go after me, and one by one they were falling by the wayside,” says Nigel. “But Harriet Nuttall was one of those with a good chance of going clear. No disrespect to her, she’s a great girl, but I was hoping she wouldn’t!” he laughs.

Harriet and A Touch Imperious are another pair who have been increasingly close to winning, having finished third with eight faults in 2014 and second for two years running, with just a single fence costing them a win each time. Now, to Harriet’s delight if not Nigel’s, she matched Coupe’s faultless round and forced him to a jump-off. “Having jumped clear in the first round it was almost like I had one hand on the trophy, and when she went clear I realised I had to do it all again,” Nigel recalls. “But I just had to refocus for the jump-off – I knew I’d come in the top two, but I definitely would rather have been first than second!”

Nigel was the first to tackle the shortened course, and he set off at a strong pace. But after galloping over the water, the pair tipped the Derby rails that immediately follow and finished the course with four faults. If Harriet could produce a steady clear she would beat Nigel, but the Derby rails caught her out as well and she had to push on if she was to have any chance of winning. Nigel must have been holding his breath as he watched the pair gallop to the last jump, the same fence she had down when finishing second 12 months earlier. Once again A Touch Imperious knocked the final oxer, and the Al Shira’aa Derby went to Nigel. “However you imagine it would be to win the Derby, it probably feels about 100 times better,” he says of his victory. “It had always seemed out of reach to me, so to finally do something that hadn’t seemed possible was just amazing.” 

The win was the start of an annus mirabilis for the 47-year-old from Lancashire. Three weeks later, he and Golvers Hill won the coveted Cock o’the North title at the Great Yorkshire Show, beating Yorkshireman Robert Smith in a battle the local newspapers referred to as the ‘War of the Roses’. Then in October, Coupe and his bay gelding won the Leading Showjumper of the Year title at HOYS. It was one of those golden runs every showjumper dreams of, and Nigel gives full credit to his horse of a lifetime for granting him those opportunities. “Last year was just one of those amazing periods of my life, and something like that doesn’t come round very often,” he says.  

Winning the feature classes at Hickstead and HOYS is something Nigel first aspired to when he was still in 128cm classes. His family wasn’t particularly horsey, though his Dad rode a bit as a child and his mum came from a farming background. “We only had an acre or so behind the house but my elder brother got a pony, so then I started riding too. We began going to a few local riding club shows, then I started doing BSJA, as it was back then,” he explains. He came up through pony classes, winning the HOYS Leading Pony Showjumper title in 1987, his first big win. Nigel then went on to win Junior European team silver (just missing out on an individual medal in fourth place) in Bourg en Bresse in 1988, and Young Rider team gold in Donaueschingen in Germany three years later. He had stayed on at school and did A Levels, briefly considering becoming an accountant, before his riding career took off and he became a professional showjumper.

Now he has three children of his own, Harry, 13, and 10-year-old twin girls Isabelle and Olivia. All of them have learned to ride, though Nigel is unsure if any of them will follow in his footsteps by making horses their career. “They all ride a bit, but I don’t force it on them. The girls are into netball and dancing, and Harry does ride but he also likes football and cricket. It’s all about making it fun at that age, though if they did want to go into it, I’d support them.”

Nigel, like his son, loves sport and spends his spare time watching cricket, rugby and football – he is a keen supporter of his local team, Preston North End FC. Spare time is at a premium, however, as he runs two yards - his main stables at Holster Farm and a second livery yard nearby – as well as having a hectic schedule of teaching and competing in Britain and abroad. “I have around 8-10 horses to jump from four-year-olds up to Grade As. But I’m always on the lookout for more, in case there are any owners out there who need a horse riding!” he adds.

He’d be fortunate to find another as good at Golvers Hill, who has an unusual background for a top showjumper. Nigel first saw Ricky as a four-year-old, after Sue Simmons (the MFH of his local hunt) had heard about a nice horse for sale. “I went to try him and jumped him over a few small fences, but he seemed a really nice type for the job Sue wanted to do with him.” Nigel ended up riding him a bit, taking him to do his first few British Novice and Discovery classes, but when he was six he had to have a colic operation and he missed 6-8 months of competition. Remarkably, as an eight-year-old the horse went to HOYS and competed in the Working Hunter final with Sue as well as the Newcomers and Foxhunter Final with Nigel, all in the same week.

Golvers Hill did another season in workers with Sue before he came back to Nigel as a nine-year old. “He quickly got up to Grade A and that was it, his career path was chosen as he couldn’t do Working Hunters anymore,” explains Nigel, who now co-owns the horse with Sue.

Ricky is a nicely put together gelding, with a unique jumping style – he doesn’t change legs behind – and while he obviously enjoys his job and has his ears pricked in the arena, in the stable he’s more quirky. “He’s not your average run of the mill horse, he can be a grumpy so and so at times especially when it comes to his food, but if he wasn’t grumpy you’d know something was up with him!” jokes Nigel.

The horse’s background and breeding have played their part in making him a Derby star, but he’s as capable of jumping in big Grands Prix as he is jumping over Derby fences. The pair have been on a number of five-star Nations Cup teams in the past few years, including Calgary, Aachen, Al Ain and Gijon, and Nigel hopes to be part of further teams in future.

Following their Al Shira’aa Derby win in 2017, they were invited by the title sponsors to attend the Al Shira’aa International Horse Show in Abu Dhabi, part of the UAE sunshine tour. “Al Shira’aa were kind enough to help me to go out to their four-star show, so I had seven weeks in the sun, which was very nice,” he says.

As they approach this year’s Derby Meeting, the focus is very much on defending their crown. As per previous years, the plan is to jump in Hamburg to get Golvers Hill into ‘Derby mode’, then do a few shows to keep him ticking over. As the reigning Al Shira’aa Derby champions, they’ll likely start this Sunday as favourites to win it again, but Nigel isn’t allowing any complacency to creep in. “There are around six to eight horses who could win it and my horse would be one of those, but it very much depends on how it goes on the day. You go in there hoping, but to actually cross that line is a different matter.”

Having waited 27 years for that first Hickstead Derby win, it would be fitting if Nigel only had to wait one year for his second. “To win it for the first time was amazing, but now I’d love to do it twice and experience that all over again.” With Golvers Hill, he has a very good chance of doing just that.

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