Equestrianism: Skelton's hope for Hickstead

Briton refuses to tempt fate as the European Show Jumping Championships begin
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NICK SKELTON was bound to be cautious when assessing his individual chances for the European Show Jumping Championships, which begin today at Hickstead with the opening speed competition.

"The horse is in good form," he said of 10-year-old Hopes are High. "If we get a bit of luck, we should have a fair chance." Any more bullish forecast from the 41-year-old rider might have seemed to be tempting fate.

The rest of us would rate him among the favourites. When in "good form", Hopes (as he is known in Skelton's Warwickshire yard) is an exceptional show jumper. That point was proved last autumn when he won the Grands Prix of Dublin, Gijon and Calgary - all within two months of Skelton being given the ride on him.

Hopes were naturally still high when the bay gelding came back into work at the end of May after a four-month rest. It was not, however, until mid-July - when he won the King George V Gold Cup at the last Hickstead meeting - that the horse regained his top form.

"I'd been feeling a bit down, things hadn't been going right," Skelton said, having perked up after this success. At the time he attributed the improved form to treatment given at Newmarket, where it was discovered that the horse was short of fluid in his hocks. Now he is not so sure.

"I gave him too much rest," Skelton said this week. "He's a big, placid horse and it took a long time for him to get fit again after four months off. When you get a new horse, you don't always know these things." Needless to say, he does not intend to give the horse as long a holiday again.

Hopes are High was owned by David Broome when Skelton was offered the ride just over a year ago. "Nick's always been one of the best jockeys in the world and he'd ridden horses for me before, our association goes back a long time," Broome said.

Last autumn Broome sold the Irish-bred gelding (for what must have been an impressively substantial sum) to Lord Harris, a long-time supporter of the sport who had owned some of Broome's former mounts. "Lord Harris has always enjoyed his show jumpers, we're now looking for more horses for Nick to ride," Broome said.

At present Skelton has a comparatively small string of five Grade A horses, plus a few untried youngsters that he bred himself. Broome's eight-year- old O'Harry, who has been with Skelton since the beginning of the year, looks an exciting prospect - but Hopes are High is the star of the stable.

"I've been lucky enough to ride some really good horses like St James, Apollo, Top Gun and Dollar Girl," Skelton said. "Hopes would have to be up there with them, he's definitely a championship horse." With his great long stride, the gelding is also ideally suited to the wide open spaces of Hickstead's international arena, which can be intimidating when seen for the first time.

Hopes are High has the speed to get off to a good start today. He also has the scope to jump the demanding courses that will be built for tomorrow's conclusion of the team championship and for Sunday's individual final. Skelton, who already has a horde of European medals (three team gold, three team silver and one individual bronze) believes that it will be a distinct advantage to be jumping on familiar home ground.

Skelton had no fear of being omitted when the British team of four was chosen yesterday. His place was assured following his splendid form with Hopes are High in Dublin, where he jumped a double clear round in the Nations Cup and was third in the Grand Prix. He was already on the squad of five, having gained one of the three places awarded on points in the team trials.

The clinching points were controversial, with the selectors using the so-called anomaly clause (which seemed like the option to make it up as they went along) to award Skelton for his single round in the Nations Cup here last month. Not that Skelton minded - never the most tractable of riders he was unmoved by the controversy. Two years earlier, when he found himself omitted from the last European Championship team, it was a different matter. He has always regarded the team trials as "stupid" - a view that is shared by the other top riders. Being thoroughly fed up with the whole process he sold his best horse, Tinka's Boy, to Switzerland.

Markus Fuchs will be riding Tinka's Boy for the Swiss team that will probably start favourite today. Though Skelton says that he has no regrets about selling the horse, one imagines that he will be following the 10- year-old's progress with interest and, perhaps, some anxiety. It would be more than a little galling if his former mount came back to Hickstead and defeated his current Hopes.