Oliver Skeete, who, at 39, has been trying to make the grade as a showjumper for three years, is sponsored by the following reputable craftsmen and suppliers: Cliff Barnsby Saddles; RH Mears (jackets); Allen and Casewell (boots); Gorringe (jodhpurs); and Thermatex rugs. Only one problem. "I'm well dressed," Skeete said. "I just haven't got any horses."
Up at the top, at showjumping's pinnacles (Hickstead, Olympia, Calgary), the big names vie on well-bred horses for give-away cars and prize-money in the thousands. But Skeete is not at the top. Or, really, very near it. Not yet. So in the meantime, once a week, he rides borrowed nags in Grade C events out in the sticks where the prize money rarely rises above two figures. And that's assuming you win, which, more often than not, Skeete doesn't. For his is a career thus far largely unencumbered by success.
Still, that hasn't prevented him from publishing his autobiography (written with the assistance of Peter Holt), Jumping the Odds: Memoirs of a Rastafarian Showjumper, a nicely presented, 213-page volume complete with photographs: Skeete at home in Hanwell, west London, with his partner Sue and his daughters Keilly and Aloma; Skeete with the top-ranking showjumper John Whitaker at Hickstead in 1994 (not competing, just hanging out); and various shots of Skeete in the ring, including one in which the horse is practically doing a handstand while Skeete struggles manfully to keep in contact with the saddle. The picture is captioned, "Riding is not as easy as it looks".
We met for coffee in a hotel in London, Skeete looking fit in jeans and an open-shirt and smoking from a packet of 10 Benson's. He is tall (6ft 1in) and broad, an unguarded talker and it's clear he's got the horse thing bad. But he is quite ready to laugh every now and again at the absurdity of his position - which is to say, high profile but under-achieving, or as a chapter heading in the book puts is, "Famous, But Skint". I asked him about the half-inch vertical cut which was healing above his top lip. He said he was thrown, a week ago, at some low-key event or other and, on his way down, smacked his face against the edge of the fence. "It is not," he wants me to know, "a glamorous sport. There's a 95 per cent chance of getting it wrong every time. But that's where the buzz is. That's where the buzz comes from for me personally."
Jumping the Odds makes for a candid and wide-ranging read. "I've always insisted on girls with small feet," Skeete tells us. "I hate big feet on a girl, they're a big turn-off." Perhaps more importantly, we learn how Skeete grew up near Speightstown, Barbados with four brothers and five sisters; how his parents left for London when he was six; how he lived with his grandparents for two years until his parents could afford to fly him out to join them; how his father worked in a sausage factory and a bakery and his mother worked for London Transport and how they scraped by in a two-bedroom flat in Acton and then a terraced house in Ealing. Skeete sometimes went to school in cut-down Underground guard's trousers.
His youth was peppered with mild delinquency followed by rather more serious trouble. He was cautioned for bike theft at 13, suspended from school for a while, accused of arranging fights, and eventually spent three months in a detention centre after repeated car offences (theft, under-age driving, joy-riding a Cortina into a garden wall). After that came a few jobs - car-sprayer and nightclub bouncer, chiefly. Then, in a pivotal moment for which there can be ultimately no satisfactory explanation, but which followed a period of taking his daughters to lessons at Ealing Riding School, it dawned on Skeete that he would devote himself to showjumping.
He says the attraction had a lot to do with the sport's difficulty. "If it had been easier, I might have got bored. But also showjumping is the most beautiful thing you could ever watch. You have to know, though, what you're looking at to appreciate it. Most top riders can put a piece of paper in front of a fence and get the horse to put its front leg on it every time. It's called 'seeing a stride'. John Whitaker can see a stride from 20 paces out. I can only see it from two paces out. Five years' time, I might be able to see it from three paces out."
He was a London boy among the county set. As he puts it on page 151 of the autobiography: "I came from a world of stolen Ford Cortinas; this was fully taxed and insured Volvo country." Or, as Skeete said frankly to me, "You don't get people like me in the countryside. You just don't get it. But the guys at the top, they're not snobs. They're Mancunians and Yorkshiremen, brash, broad, working-class, and I get on with them." Indeed, Skeete says he has home numbers for most of the big guns - John Whitaker, Harvey Smith, David Broome - and that they're quite happy for him to consult them for tips.
The first newspaper to notice Skeete was the Sun, which published a piece headlined "Rasta Gets A Ponytail". Skeete thought it made him look ridiculous. But he also noticed that, in the story's immediate aftermath, people he had never met were sticking their thumbs up at him in the street. Also, people from television stations were ringing him at home. Carlton wanted to film him mucking out for the London Tonight show. There followed a cameo role as a doorman in The Bill, the opportunity to stand in a shower of gunge on the children's programme Gimme Five and an appearance on Gladiators. Skeete remarked that all this, though gratifying in its own way and mildly lucrative, was slightly beside the point.
"I want to be a showjumper," he told me, sounding for a minute like one of those advertisements for the Prudential. "I don't want to be a TV star or a children's TV presenter. I want to be a showjumper. And everything else seems to be taking over and getting in the way of the showjumping and it's not doing my showjumping any good. At the same time, it's the only income I've got. So I guess you could say it gets in the way but it helps."
Skeete claims the exposure he gets is no bad thing for showjumping, though it doesn't make him entirely popular in that world. Some suggest that, for instance, when he invited the press to watch him ride a horse up Brixton Road in 1993, he was blatantly seeking attention for himself. What isn't clear is why, if Skeete really was just a spotlight lover, he would have chosen as his vehicle show-jumping, which hardly peoples our screens and papers in the manner of, say, football. (And football was an option, at least early on. At school, Skeete was watched by scouts from West Ham and Fulham.) It's also true that much of the attention Skeete has received is not necessarily the kind of attention he would have sought. The News of the World, nicely mixing prudery with salaciousness, accused him recently of "four years of unprotected sex with a raunchy redhead". The story was headlined, "Hooves A Naughty Boy Then". And another revelation, this time in the Sun, about nights of passion with a nightclub singer, lost Skeete (of all things) a rug sponsor. Skeete seemed bemused by this.
"If people are going to pull out of sponsoring me because I'm in the newspapers, then they're cutting their own throats. Because sponsorships are about publicity and whether I'm in the paper for raising pounds 50,000 for charity or sleeping with somebody's wife, the fact is I'm in the paper."
Much of Skeete's initial tabloid exposure was engineered by the boxing manager Frank Maloney. Skeete had read somewhere that Evander Holyfield, the American heavyweight, kept horses in Atlanta. Skeete placed a call with Maloney, Holyfield's manager, thinking that Holyfield might like to make these horses available to an upcoming black athlete. It didn't work out, but Maloney took Skeete on to his books. "Within 10 minutes of getting into his office, I was doing interviews for Today and the Star." Maloney worked on Skeete for just over six months. But still no major sponsorship and no horses.
On the circuit, Skeete says he is dogged not by hatred or racism but chiefly by cheekiness. He says he's heard one too many gags about "bloody Eddie the Eagle". And he's grown a little disenchanted with people asking if they can touch his hair (although more often than not he obliges) and wondering how long it takes him to get it like that ("I say '15 years' and they don't believe it. They won't believe this is how my hair goes if I just leave it alone."). That said, there's a mutual incomprehension back in the city where his friends regularly encourage Skeete with the sentence: "Yeah, dread, go out and win some races."
There are a couple of myths Skeete wants me to dispel. He is not (though this is nearly always said about him) Britain's only black showjumper. "Some of the other black riders out there are quite upset, but that's not me, that's the media." And he is not (don't be misled by the subtitle of his own autobiography) a Rastafarian. "A Rasta's a very serious man indeed and anyone who's a real Rastafarian would look at me and tell that I'm not. I would have a beard, I wouldn't eat meat, drink beer, go out with white women ..."
He mentioned how Nigel Mansell once mortgaged his house to keep himself in motor racing. Skeete reckoned he could see himself going to the same lengths, if selling himself doesn't get him what he needs. His kingdom for a horse.Reuse content