Life of muck and mirth

show-jumping's travelling entertainer, Geoff Billington
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The Independent Online
Catching up with Geoff Billington is no easy task, even when he is not riding a horse. He has autographs to sign, tack to check, a script to run over. He agrees to talk for a few moments in a quiet corner of the Wembley Arena, away from the ceaseless hubbub of the Horse of the Year Show. Then his mobile phone goes: his star ride has kicked a hole in his stable backstage. "People think this is an easy life," Billington sighs, hurrying off to see that all is well. "But it's bloody hard work."

And it doesn't stop when the last muck is swept up at the Arena. "In the olden days we used to stop after Wembley," Billington recalled. "Now - well, let's see. We leave here on Tuesday, and go to Bremen, Stuttgart, Leeuwarden, and Monterrey. Then I go to South Africa to look at a horse, on to Vienna, Berlin, Maastricht, Frankfurt, Geneva and Olympia."

It is a schedule to weaken the knees of a Foreign Secretary, but the rewards can be worthwhile: the other week Billington, riding the stable- vandaliser It's Otto, picked up a cheque for $60,000 for second place in the Calgary Grand Prix. By contrast, days later he was competing in Wolverhampton, where the top prize was pounds 500.

Every now and then Billington gets back to his home base in Nantwich in Cheshire, where he has a dozen horses, half of them top-class competitors, the other half youngsters that he is bringing on. "Sometimes I'll hang on to 'em," he said. "Sometimes I'll sell 'em. Depends on the circumstances. If someone offers me good money I'll not turn them down."

On his travels Billington cannot help but notice that crowds tend to be larger at overseas events than they are in this country. "I don't know why it is," he says sadly. "And I don't know what can be done. People say that it is always the same old faces at the top, but when I was an up and coming youngster riders like Harvey Smith and David Broome didn't go easily to make room for us."

Whatever the reason, show-jumping in this country has had its problems. The Horse of the Year Show itself very nearly didn't happen, and when it did television cameras, the catalyst for substantial sponsorship, were absent. Not that the crowd, as noisy as ever if not quite as numerous, cared a jot.

The highlight of Thursday evening was an entertainment featuring Billington and his long-time friend and rival John Whitaker, the former world No 1 and erstwhile partner of the great grey Milton. This was a beginner's guide to show jumping, entitled, as celebrations of sporting excellence often are, "Simply The Best".

Behind the gags and pratfalls lies some much-needed marketing nous. "We're after the boyfriend who gets dragged along to a show," Billington said. "The girlfriend will be a fan already but if we can convince him that this is a bit of fun then we will have made a convert."

To judge from the audience reaction - they were in stitches - they made a few converts on Thursday night. Whether or not anyone will have actually improved their riding skills under Whitaker and Billington's expert tutelage (sample: "The thing is to keep it bouncing underneath you like a rubber ball") is a different matter.

One lesson was inescapable: for all their efforts at humour and showmanship the riders will always lose the battle for the affections of the audience to their supporting cast, the horses. Far and away the biggest cheer of the night, a hysterical, rush-down-the-aisles racket worthy of Take That, was reserved for the magnificent Milton, who wasn't even competing, but made a guest appearance as the finale to "Simply The Best".

After the hype, the reality, and a reminder that despite - or rather as well as - the dry ice and rock music, the pony club scampers and parading Shire horses, the Horse of the Year Show is also a sporting event.

Billington barely had time to catch his breath after clowning around before he was legged up into the saddle on Virtual Village Niko for the Traxdata Challenge, a single-round jumping competition against the clock. The danger of competing so soon after teaching people how to ride is that several thousand people are secretly willing you to cock things up, and Niko had clearly not been paying attention in class.

Into the arena they galloped, Billington bobbing in the saddle in best bouncing-ball mode. But Niko clobbered the fourth fence and didn't like the look of the seventh one bit, stopping dead. Another go was to no avail, and, doffing his hat, the combination retired. As he put it earlier in the show: "Don't become a show-jumper, it's difficult."

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