Equestrianism: Craftswoman at the peak of her powers: Ginny Leng sets off this week for the Olympic Games in Barcelona as arguably Britain's brightest prospect for a gold medal. Brough Scott joined her in training

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO into one must go. A small lady and a very large horse, two minds, six legs and a discipline where any disagreement can spell disaster. But somehow not when you talk of Ginny Leng and Master Craftsman.

If you want Olympic reassurance seek it here. With realistic gold medal hopes in such scarce supply, here in the lush warmth of a paddock near Lambourn was the real thing. And plenty of it.

In fact the first sight of Master Craftsman as he was unloaded at the top trainer Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows stables on Wednesday was of such heavy rippling stomach muscles that you wondered if he ought to be in the weightlifting rather than the three- day event at Barcelona. Ginny Leng will go to the Games with a lot of horse underneath her.

She and the rest of the team had come to Lambourn to use one of the most demanding gallops in the kingdom. It was a drowsy early afternoon, and the long strings of lean and skittish racehorses were back in their boxes as the little party trekked out across the hill.

There was the European champion Ian Stark on the big hustling grey Murphy Himself, whom Ginny swapped as too forceful a couple of seasons back. There was this year's Badminton winner Mary Thomson and the bay King William. There was the ever-neat Richard Walker with Jacana, on whom he won a European team gold last year. And of course there was Virginia.

The sun comes out as the distant figures pass into the beeches at the bottom of the Faringdon Road below us. The breeze plays across the dappled grasses, three or four car-loads of kids and other interested spectators spill out at the top of the gallop. There is such a leisurely, unhurried feel that it seems more like a summer jolly than preparation for one of the most arduous tests in sport.

Even the actual work-out had a touch of phoney war about it. For, compared to the spinning greyhound gallop of the racehorse complete with the little jockey perched close behind the mane, these looked a bit like lumbering police horses as they came galumphing past, their riders solid and deep in the saddle as the huntsmen they once were.

Twice they came up the mile-long drag of the Faringdon Road gallop. First Murphy Himself, all snort and legs a-thunder. Then Leng on Master Craftsman plugging along steadily. Then Walker and Thomson, accompanied by the tall, craggy, brown-booted figure of Lord Patrick Beresford, here handling that most evocative of Olympic titles, the 'chef d'equipe'. It was only on the second time up that you began to get the picture. This lot could go on for ever.

Sixteen miles they will cover on that middle day in Barcelona, 10 miles on the roads and tracks, two miles at the steeplechase, then four miles round a series of massive solid jumps so daunting that sometimes you feel you need a team of marines rather than a solitary, panting quadruped to get you over.

So on Wednesday there was a sense of unfinished business as the four riders wandered back after their work-outs. The little things can be the giveaway. Leng had put out the cigarette she tries hopelessly to keep hidden. She had checked out the way back with Henderson and turned to join the others. It was the way she did it.

Now, however much you try, turning half a ton of horse around tends to involve a degree of tugging on the reins and kicking of the legs which, if not altering the course of a supertanker, is clearly a persuasion of one major creature by a minor. Not at this level. 'Someone like Mark Todd, who is much longer and stronger than me, could move 'Crafty' just by strength,' Leng said afterwards, 'but because I am much smaller (at 37 she remains a compact 5ft 6in and 8st 7lb) I have to get him very highly tuned to make sure we do things together.'

There is no boast in the slightly head- scarf accent. This is the most successful woman in the history of horsemanship. Julie Krone, the remarkable American jockey, may have won a whole lot more money, but no rider of either sex has ever matched Ginny's achievement of the last 10 years. Five times winner at Burghley, three times European champion, a world championship and of course twice triumphant at Badminton, the last time with Master Craftsman in 1989.

The achievements have come because of association - her mother, Heather Holgate, remains a pillar of the Gloucestershire-based Citibank team - because of unique talent, but above all because of application.

There is the legendary story of a young Ginny having an arm so crushed that the doctors recommended amputation, only for Heather to whisk her mangled daughter away and have her saved by the vet. Certainly it was Mrs Holgate who bought Master Craftsman as a big, willing three-year-old way back in 1983, and it's still she who, with the trainer Dorothy Willis, pushes through the stream of equine hopefuls for Ginny to ride. But everybody accepts that in the end it's the rider who makes the difference.

Her two touchstones are her eye and her sensitivity. 'She's like John Francome was in jump racing,' says Patrick Beresford. 'It all looks so smooth because she can see a stride so early that a horse never has to adjust as she comes in to jump.'

That's a huge asset, but she's competing in a three-day discipline, with dressage at the start and showjumping at the close. You have to do a lot more than just leave the ground. 'I am lucky,' she says directly, 'because I am very sensitive. Sensitive to how a horse moves, how it goes. What we are trying to do is to get a good feel of the horse, to balance and understand its senses.'

She has Master Craftsman cropping grass at the end of a rope. After such a sweat he has lost his pumped-up look, but you can still see what a lump he must have been as a novice. 'As a five- year-old he used to go round the cross- country course like a lawn mower,' says Ginny. 'He didn't respect the fences at all. I told my mother to sell him as I was frightened to death.'

But history relates how, on being moved up a grade, Master Craftsman got the hang of things to such an extent that Ginny won an Olympic bronze on him at Seoul and took victory at Badminton the following spring. Injuries kept him off for the next two seasons, but at 12 he and his rider go to Barcelona as a much more organised combination than they were four years ago.

'He was very young then,' Leng says. 'Now we understand each other much better. Besides, he was much weaker and ran up very light in the heat. It's going to be 90 degrees in Barcelona, but he has got plenty of condition on him. We fly out on Tuesday and compete at the beginning of the next week. We just hope we have judged it right.'

She is a sports lady but she has a pair of snappy, suede leather chaps over her jeans, and a touch of eye make-up is a living rebuke to those who suggest that physical competition can lessen femininity. She faces up now to what Spain might bring.

'The main key to the Olympics,' she says, 'is to keep as calm as possible. In our sport you are involved not just with yourself but with another athlete who cannot talk. You may plan to do an hour's work to get him ready for the dressage but then find it will need two hours to get him in the right mood. So you have got to be flexible, to master yourself. I am a great believer that you are your own worst enemy and your own best friend.'

The other riders and their horses are being collected up. A picnic is beckoning in Henderson's garden. Elaine, Leng's talented and long-standing major-domo, is going to box up Master Craftsman, but Ginny's thoughts are now clear on what she and her horse can do together.

Before a big competition she likes to day-dream of great cross-country rides of the past. Her favourites now are Badminton this year and the European Championship in 1989. 'Not one particular fence,' she says, 'but the feeling of doing it right, of being in control.'

Master Craftsman chomps heedlessly at the grass, even bites hard into the brown earth itself. A great mass of big, honest muscle dependent on the command and vision of the lady at the end of the rope.

She sees it differently. 'I know he can do it,' Ginny Leng says sweetly. 'It's just a question of me not making a mistake.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments