Equestrianism: Wily Fox ready for gold run

The man who taught Madonna how to ride has unfinished business in the Olympics
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The Independent Online

Halfway through interviewing William Fox-Pitt, an Old Etonian who is married to the TV racing presenter Alice Plunkett and is better known to the wider public as The Man who Taught Madonna to Ride, and you felt you had intruded into a world normally sequestered by Hello! But it was that kind of morning down in the Cotswold countryside near Stow-on-the-Wold, where the five eventing riders of Team GB had gathered. A few yards away, his then fellow team member Zara Phillips, whose significance for certain media lay in the fact that she is 11th in line to the throne, was attempting to concentrate on equine matters while denying she had become engaged to the England rugby union player Mike Tindall.

"It's tough for her but it's great for the rest of us because we can go unnoticed," said Fox-Pitt. Not for long, he couldn't. Two days later and Phillips was ruled out of the Olympics following an injury to her horse Toytown. She had missed Athens for a similar reason. It was "a huge loss to the team", said Fox-Pitt, knowing that in terms of celebrity profile, the focus returns to him, a character whose imposing physique, being constructed to giraffe-like proportions, you can hardly avoid noticing. He understands only too profoundly Phillips' current frustration.

The Dorset-based rider was one of the favourites for individual gold at the 2004 Olympics, only for his partner Tamarillo to be withdrawn after the cross-country phase because of a minor injury. His contribution towards a team silver was only part consolation. "This is a fantastic opportunity to put Athens to rights," he said. "It was hugely disappointing and, sadly, cost me a medal – and the team a gold medal. But there's plenty of 'what ifs' in sport, and my career is full of them. You have to pick yourself up and take what's good to come out of it. The fact is that Tamarillo was ultimately fine. He's competed well since. So, in that sense, we got lucky. I'm hoping that we get a bit luckier next time."

Fox-Pitt, who will select his Olympic mount from one of three horses, including Tamarillo, added: "It's a particularly frustrating sport, but in many ways it's the same as being a footballer or an athlete. There's lots of things that can go wrong with their bodies. The same with horses. What's amazing is how rarely things do go wrong. When you think of the pressure the horses and athletes are under it's remarkable that bodies do stay in one piece."

Which is not to underestimate the inherent risk to life and limb in equine sport. "Sadly, I've known most of the people who have been killed," says Fox-Pitt, 39. "[When it happens] it does hit home and make you do some serious thinking. You have to take every precaution. You have responsibilities to be fit – and ride in conditions that are safe. Beyond that, if you start thinking about the risks in eventing, you would not do it."

Madonna could attest to the dangers. Three years ago, the singer suffered three cracked ribs and a broken collarbone after a riding accident. Undaunted, she climbed back into the saddle, with the aid of Fox-Pitt's expertise. "I haven't helped her for a while," he said. "We've both got a lot of commitments. She's someone I've got to know quite well as they live nearby. She's very keen, and we've had a lot of laughs."

"Madge" could hardly have had a more learned or well-bred mentor than a man whose mother was also a member of the British three-day event team.

Fox-Pitt plans to continue at least until London 2012. He smiled wryly. "Eventing is a very fine line between technique and courage. I always say, when you're young, you've got courage and no technique, and when you're old you've got technique and no courage. It's finding the balance."

At Beijing he will closely follow the progress of the rowers. "They're the people I most admire, people like [Sir Steve] Redgrave and [Sir Matthew] Pinsent [who was in the year below him at Eton]. Just imagine what they've done and put their bodies through, with very little gain for the amount of pain put in, apart from their medals."

Beyond eventing, he and Alice harbour ambitions to train National Hunt horses. "We train a few point-to-pointers," said Fox-Pitt, whose mother bred Flat racehorses. "I've got great backing from owners and friends. I wouldn't want to train a lot, though. I'd never want to be a Martin Pipe or Paul Nicholls."

You suggest his dream would be a Grand National or Cheltenham Festival triumph. "It would. It'd be good fun." First the seriousbusiness of that elusive Olympic individual and team gold.

Life and times

Born: 2 January 1969

Height: 6ft 4in

Weight: 12st 8lb

Educated: Eton College and University of London

Parents: Born into a keen equestrian family; his motherand father both competed atthe Badminton and Burghley horse trials

Family: Lives in Dorset with his wife, Channel 4 racing presenter Alice Plunkett, and their children, Oliver, two, and Thomas, one.

Other interests: Writes a regular column in 'Horse and Hound'; is a director of the Event Riders Association; always wanted to be a vet

Favoured Horses for Beijing: Ballincoola, Parkmore Ed and Tamarillo.

Career Highlights: Won Burghley in 1994, 2002, 2005 and 2007; won Badminton in 2004; won the Gatcombe Park Open in 1995, 2000, 2003 and 2005; won an Olympic silver medal in eventing at Athens in 2004; and won European Championships team eventing gold in 1995, 1997, 2003 and 2005.

Tom Bateman