If there is a more self-assured young sportsman in Britain than Matthew Wright, outside of Andy Murray and Amir Khan, we have yet to encounter him. Wright is an eventer; not yet the main eventer, but he has every hope and belief that by the time 2012 rolls around, he will be.
While most of the big names in the eventing world were cajoling, caressing and occasionally cursing their steeds in the World Equestrian Games in Aachen last week, the 23-year-old Wright was back at the Nottinghamshire village stables he runs with his parents, preparing horses for courses and grooming himself for the challenges ahead in a sport that demands the ultimate in discipline, endurance and bravery from both animal and rider.
The public perception may be that it is all jolly jodhpurs, Jilly Cooper and rolls in the hay in the back of horseboxes, but it is actually more blood, sweat and fears, and the advent of this horse-dealer's son as one of Britain's brightest Olympic hopes has certainly helped put a more populist slant on a sport in which this country tradition-ally does rather well. Wright's expertise in the saddle, which he has already displayed impressively in the horse-trial biggies at Badminton, Burghley and Blenheim, is amply advertised by the trophy wall at the cottage home where he lives with his parents at Lound, near Retford.
The plethora of cups and rosettes include international successes at Great Britain junior and senior level, and good judges reckon that he is emerging as one of the most exciting young talents of the equestrian world, with a demeanour that matches his unbridled confidence on horseback.
"He's had this natural talent for horses since he was about five," says his mother, Jane. "He never wanted to do anything else. He's always been competitive, too, He was told by his dad, 'You go out there to win, not to come second and congratulate the person who does'. He may come across as a bit cocky, even hard, to those who don't know him, but underneath he's as soft as anything, particularly with horses. If anything happens to one of them he's gutted."
And there's the rub. Eventers thrive or fall (often quite literally) by the fitness of their horses. Wright has had his share of misfortune in this respect, so he knows that Olympic berths in both Beijing and London cannot be guaranteed. "If a horse goes lame, that's it, finish, there's nothing you can do," he says.
Like his father, Roger, who also rode competitively, he now deals in horses as well as riding them. Last week there were 42 in their stable, but only a few are owned by the family; the rest are being trained for other owners.
The Wrights are from hunting country, though far from being tally-ho toffs. Young Matthew, educated in his village school, may hobnob with nobil-ity on the circuit, but he isn't one of them.
He admits to being a bit of a go-it-aloner, though Zara Phillips is a good friend. "You'd never know she was a royal, she swears as much as anyone," Wright says, "and I've been at meetings where her mother makes the sandwiches." The hunting ban? "I'd love to meet Tony Blair to discuss it with him," he smiles with a hint of menace.
His career as an eventer has also been partially spurred by tragedy. Caroline Pratt, one of Britain's top riders, who suffered a fatal fall at Burghley two years ago, was a family friend. She grew up and lived in the same village as the Wrights and worked with them at their stables, riding several of the horses they trained.
"She helped me a lot as a kid, and was always someone for me to look up to," Wright says. "I was there when it happened, a freak accident in the cross- country. Obviously we were devastated, but at least she went doing something she enjoyed.
"Basically, when you get on a horse you know there is always a risk. It's not like riding a bike, is it? A bike goes exactly where you want it to. A horse is a living creature, it's got a brain and a will. Things can happen.
"There was an accident at an event the other day when a plane flew over and frightened a horse, which jumped on top of this guy. That's animals."
As if to underscore his words, and the inherent perils of the sport, a few days after we spoke last week another leading eventer, Northern Ireland's Sherelle Duke, died at the age of 28 when her horse toppled on her at Brockenhurst.
The cross-country is the most hazardous phase of three-day eventing. "I started in showjumping, but I always enjoyed the thrill of the cross-country," Wright says. "I was always fairly fearless, I'd jump anything. I hated the dressage bit - that was always for girls as far as I was concerned - but I had to come to terms with it. A bad dressage and it's goodnight."
It is hard to make a living out of eventing, and Wright acknow-ledges that he could not do without his monthly four-figure cheque from the élite Lottery fund. "If you have your own horses, the cost of trying to run them, transport and everything, is phenomenal. So you have to promote yourself to get outside rides, owners paying you to keep and ride their horses.
"I rode Burghley at 18, which is relatively unheard-of. I did the European Championship at Blenheim last year [he finished 13th] on a horse I broke myself, which showed that instead of just getting on horses I could also produce one and get it to the top level."
He has also won a silver medal in the Young Riders Championship in Austria on a home-bred skewbald, Park Pilot.
Beijing and/or London? "It all depends on horse power. It is difficult with horses to make long-term plans. I hope to have two or three that will make it.
"I would love to become an Olympic champion. I have always had this strong will to win, whether it's riding or playing pool in the pub. I'm a winner. I get pissed off if someone overtakes me down the M1, and I've had to learn to curb that a bit."
His girlfriend, Nini French, 27, who works with him, is also an eventer, and was the Olympic star Pippa Funnell's head girl for five years.
Wright is one of a fistful of young cavaliers, all of whom are under the age of 25 and who include Harry Meade, the son of the former Olympic gold medallist Richard, Oliver Townend and Kitty Boggis, who will be at their peak by 2012 and equipped to save Britain's blushes should the better-publicised pursuits, such as athletics, not come up to scratch on their home patch - with a little luck on the horses.
THE ICON: A MESSAGE FROM LESLIE LAW
Know what works best for you - and your horse
Matthew seems to have a lot of talent, and his future really is in his own hands. With 2012 six years away, the most likely horses that will be competing then will be within the ages of four to seven years old right now, and it is never easy knowing if young horses will live up to the dreams you have for them.
My advice to potential 2012 riders would be to start finding the right trainers, who are most compatible to you and your chosen horse. These are tangible things you can start to work with before embarking on your yearly plans and dealing with situations that might arise along the way.
Even the best of riders can encounter hiccups, such as injury to their horses or to themselves, but it is how you deal with those unexpected road-bumps that often determines your success.
The three-day event requires a great deal of determination, and it is so important to stay focused on yourself and your horse and to know what makes you both perform at your best. Some riders need distraction to take their mind away from the job in hand, while others need complete solidarity before the event, so you have to stick with what is right for you.
A fresh start is also needed each day. A disappointment in the dressage ring cannot affect your cross-country ride or a letdown in the cross cannot detract from your showjumping - as we often see in major competition, the overall winner does not fail to display determination right until the very end. These are the riders that become Olympic champions.Reuse content