Oliver Townend: Gold top for milkman's son?

He's is not your typical eventer: outspoken, edgy and from Yorkshire. Next month he'll learn if his face fits when the GB squad is named. He's not holding his breath, he tells Tim Rich

It is raining and the sound of water falling from the roof of Oliver Townend's stables is that of opportunity dripping away. If the British equestrian team for the Olympics were chosen on sheer ability and the bloody-minded qualities needed to snatch improbable victory, then the young Yorkshireman's selection would be automatic.

However, it is rather more complicated than that and, as he settles into his armchair at the stables where Shropshire blurs into the Welsh Marches, Townend ponders the reasons why he is a possible rather than a certainty.

Were he a cricketer, the 29-year-old would be a Kevin Pietersen, or a Ronnie O'Sullivan if he earned his money with a snooker cue. He is edgy, he is box office and he is most definitely not "one of us".

"The Olympics are at the forefront of everyone's mind now but I am realistic," he said. "There are a lot of dreamers out there who still think they are going. The team pretty much picks itself and I feel now that I am just going to miss out. Although I am confident that, if I don't go to London, I am capable of winning the Olympics another time."

The tall, angular figure of William Fox-Pitt, who has just returned from winning the Rolex Event in Kentucky, is a certainty. His clear round to win Burghley, in sluicing rain and ground on which every horse struggled to keep its footing, was one of the great sporting achievements of 2011. Mary King, a crowd favourite for her guts and sportsmanship and who, at 50, would be one of our oldest Olympians, is also likely to go, riding Imperial Cavalier. Nicola Wilson may not possess the CV of some of her rivals but has what Townend calls "a freak of a horse" in Opposition Buzz.

That might leave the final place between Townend and Piggy French, a situation complicated by the fact that for seven years the two were an item. If they were not still good friends, it would have the makings of a Jilly Cooper novel.

And that is where the rain comes in. Townend had just returned from Kentucky when he heard that the Badminton Horse Trials, the biggest eventing competition before the Olympic squad is announced early next month, had been abandoned owing to the weather. Had Townend won there, his place might have been guaranteed. The focus shifted to Chatsworth, another of England's great country houses that acts as a backcloth to eventing. That, too, was washed out. The winner would have received only £5,000 but the other prize might have been beyond measure.

Much of the sport is about money. Its attitude to it is best summed up by the way Alan Clark, of the Conservative Party, described Michael Heseltine as "a man who bought his own furniture". Equestrianism likes those who inherit.

All Oliver Townend ever inherited was a love of horses. His grandmother had used them to pull her milk float through the outskirts of Huddersfield. "It sounds like a million years away," Townend smiled, although it must have been in the 1960s. His father, Alan, inherited the milk round and a love of horses, that led him to compete at Burghley, three-day eventing's flagship event, as an amateur. Twenty-five years later, his son would win it.

"That must have taken something; for a milkman from Yorkshire to get himself to Burghley," Oliver said. "I was only two but my first words were: 'I am going to Burghley'. But we had to make everything pay. I grew up opposite the Whitakers [British showjumping's first family], which helped, but when I was 16 my dad said: 'We can't support you, we haven't got the facilities to do it properly'."

He ended up as a stable rider in Leicestershire, working for Kenneth Clawson, the trainer of the British show-jumping team. "Everything was a fight," he said. "I was so down and depressed that I woke up one morning and decided to get out. I had £1,400 to my name, it was my 21st birthday and a yard had come up for rent. There were eight stables, a small cottage and 20 acres. It was owned by Maurice and Vivien Thompson and was their holiday home, basically. They wanted £1,500 a month for it; by the time we finished talking it was £400.

"I will always be grateful for that because, without it, I don't know what I would have done. I didn't leave on good terms with them, which I regret. But this place came up."

This place is Gadlas Farm, red-brick, slate roof and with 47 stables. It is immaculate. Townend was 26 when he went to view it, arriving in a Vauxhall Corsa. "I announced myself as a first-time buyer and I can't imagine why they thought I didn't have the money. But I am more proud of keeping this place going than I am of anything I have ever won."

However, keeping Gadlas Farm going with its staff of nine required him continually to sell his best horses. One of Townend's best, Land Vision, was seen as an Olympic medal contender for this summer but under the colours of New Zealand and ridden by Mark Todd – the combination that won Badminton last year. The 11-year-old has since been ruled out of contention as a result of a tendon injury but a sense of regret remains for Townend.

In December, a host of high-class horses were sold by English owners to countries from Saudi Arabia to Sweden. It is the equivalent of the Football Association selling Wayne Rooney to Germany just before the next World Cup. It is, said Townend, the way of the world.

"Will I ever have a horse like Land Vision again?" he said. "I hope so. Have I compromised my chances of the Olympics by selling my horses? Absolutely, no question. If money were no object, I would be at the Olympics but there is no point worrying about that, unless I win the Lottery. I have sold 10 of the best horses I have ever sat upon."

And yet Townend is famed for getting the most out of horses that are relatively modest or have fitness problems, like Carousel Quest, on whom he won Burghley thrillingly in 2009, owned by one of his greatest supporters, Andrew Cawthray, who maintains 20 horses at his yard. "As a rider I might be more stupid, more courageous or more desperate than the rest. I began by going to established riders in the warm-up ring and asking: 'If you have any horses you don't want, I'd love the opportunity.'

"Carousel Quest had been sold twice and failed the vets both times. We got him to Burghley without galloping him, a long, slow tedious process. But he was in a different league; you could tell that the moment you sat on him."

When Carousel Quest won, Townend dissolved into tears when interviewed by Clare Balding. A few months before, he had won Badminton and had become the No 1 eventer in the world. Given the three disciplines an eventer has to master, he might have been the best horseman in the world.

A few months later came the Rolex Event in Kentucky. If he won that, he would win the Grand Slam of eventing and $350,000 (£222,000) of the watch-maker's money. It would change his life. It might have guaranteed the Olympics. It nearly killed him.

The fence was nothing special, a log on a pole, but Ashdale Cruise Master toppled over it. Townend went over the horse, struck his head on a rail and the horse fell on top of him. He suffered a fractured shoulder, broken collarbone, fractures to the sternum and four ribs. But for an air-jacket he was wearing, it might have been fatal.

He immediately discharged himself and tried to fly home, only to be stranded in Chicago because of the Icelandic ash cloud and lay down on the floor of the departure lounge to sleep. "I couldn't do anything else except walk up and down," he said. "They told me not to fly home but there was no chance of that. All you want to do after a shit event is go home."

Eventing, like showjumping, like rugby league, like snooker, has seen its profile diminish. In 1971, another Yorkshireman, Harvey Smith, whose early nickname of "Heathcliff on Horseback" might apply to Townend, gave the judges two fingers at Hickstead.

It was front page, it was back page. It is still called "doing a Harvey Smith". To garner that kind of coverage now, Zara Phillips would have to ride naked through Greenwich Park.

"The sport has everything to offer that Formula One has," said Townend. "It has enough characters. Zara Phillips phones me up now and then, we are mates, and in what other sport would you have the Queen's granddaughter and a milkman's lad competing against one another?

"But the biggest problem is the people behind it. They don't know what they have got and they are frightened of change. Eventing had a big opportunity when a boy from Huddersfield won the two biggest events in the world but they wanted to brush it under the carpet because they felt I was different."

The audiences for Badminton and Burghley are huge, the sponsorship extensive, but the prize-money is pitiful and it is almost accepted the competitors are privately wealthy. You earn £65,000 for winning Badminton. In comparison you could have finished 11th at a relatively minor golf event such as the Scottish Open to have earned that – and there would be just the caddie to pay.

"I was No 1 in the world in 2009 and I did not gain anything from that," Townend said. "Nothing changed in my life. I still had to go and sell a horse the next day."

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