Game of sighs and lows

Wembley echoes the action as success and failure on the hoof raise the roof; Andrew Baker discovers that the Horse of the Year Show is in rude good health
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The Independent Online
There is no noise in sport like the collective gasp of the Horse of the Year Show. It comes whenever the knowledgeable crowd in the Wembley Arena realise that a rider and horse are committed to the wrong line, or have mucked up their stride pattern, approaching a fence. If the gasp is followed by a deafening "Ahh" and a round of applause, they have somehow escaped. If, instead, there is a great "Ohh", it will inevitably be accompanied by the thump of bone on timber, and occasionally of rump on soil.

Sophie Dinning entered the Arena on Fortalisa, the first to jump in the prestigious Horse and Hound Foxhunter Championship, a class that year after year confirms the arrival of young horses as future stars. Sadly, Fortalisa was not to be one of them. "Gasp! Ohh!" Clunk. "Gasp! Ohh!" Clunk. "Gasp! Ohh!" Clunk, clunk, crash. Exit Fortalisa and Sophie, their hopes as comprehensively demolished as the first part of the first triple combination fence.

Thursday was all about youth at the Horse of the Year Show. Young horses in the evening, young riders in the afternoon. Sophie had made her first appearance of the day in the National Under-21 Championship, but unfortunately her lovely dapple grey, Delight, was no lighter on the feet than Fortalisa was to prove later - another retirement, more sighs among the saddle-soap suds.

The undoubted star of the junior contest was Louise Whitaker, the 16- year-old daughter of veteran rider John. She had a fence down in the jump- off on the unfortunately named mare Cowboy Magic Deep Heat, but her rivals, Henry Turrell and Billy Paul, suffered refusals and the diminutive school- leaver took the title. Even more depressing for her fellow riders was the thought that she will be eligible to defend her crown for the next five years.

She has a little to learn about the rigours of the post-competition interview. Under gentle grilling, she admitted that Deep Heat was her first horse and her favourite, but declined to reveal how many GCSEs she had passed in the summer. No matter: she could hardly be better qualified for her chosen career.

Before the Foxhunter, punters had time to explore the other areas of the show. In the Hall of Champions, a large crowd sat chattering excitedly as the judges went about their business in the Large Hack of the Year competition. In the real world, John McCririck would be odds-on for this event, but the Wembley context is more elegant: beautifully groomed horses bred to be well-mannered and ideal for every-day riding.

Between the two showing arenas, punters could gratify their desires in a bizarre bazaar of equestrian goodies, just the place to snaffle a bit, grab a girth or do a number on a numnah.

Then back to the main hall, possibly via the Hello! magazine champagne bar, where gentlemen from Essex emptied plastic pints of lager, sometimes down their throats, discussed being done up like kippers, and attempted to pick up impress- ionable young ladies. Very classy.

The Foxhunter - not directly to do with hunting, but named after Sir Harry Llewellyn's Olympic hero - produced another jump-off, this time between seven competitors.

All the horses concerned had jumped umpteen clear rounds to qualify for the competition from among thousands of contenders all over Britain. But under the Wembley lights and a barrage of gasps, none could be foot-perfect when it mattered.

Tina Cassan and Sparticus were the first to go, and made the most spectacular exit, the horse levelling the second part of the triple refusing the first attempt, and sending Tina sailing over it without him on their second.

All the others were close to clear rounds, but the combination that was closest of all, Honnie and Duncan Inglis, barely dislodging the last pole of the last fence, also went round the fastest, winning the title and a socking great gold cup. A great cheer went up when his final rival dislodged a pole - a cheer which may not have been unconnected with the odds on display at the Wembley book- maker's stand: Honnie backed down to 6-1 from 10-1, all other prices unchanged.

Inglis did not need to have had a bet to be delighted: this was the biggest win of the 30-year-old rider's career. "It means a hell of a lot to me," he said afterwards. "I'm really chuffed. She's a wonderful horse, and stinking fit. You just steer between the wings and she does her job." And, incidentally, does the bookmaker up like a kipper.