Skelton's cruel fate in redemption ride

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The hush which fell across the Olympic Equestrian Centre as Nick Skelton and Arko III entered the ring was as pronounced and immediate as that produced by a respected teacher applying a finger to his lips.

The hush which fell across the Olympic Equestrian Centre as Nick Skelton and Arko III entered the ring was as pronounced and immediate as that produced by a respected teacher applying a finger to his lips. Just the rhythmic pounding of hooves on turf and exhalation through the stallion's nostrils punctured the silence of the showjumping ring. This was Friday night, an hour before Paula Radcliffe abbreviated her 10,000m final by more than a third of the 25 laps, a few miles across Athens.

If anything, Skelton's emotional investment in these Games had been even greater than Radcliffe's. Not merely because he had been to the Olympic trough three times previously and had failed to partake of water. At one time, merely participating in this event would have been inconceivable. This was the man who had surveyed the Sydney equivalent from a hospital bed, his head snared in a metal contraption, like a brutal medieval torture device, to repair his broken neck - the legacy of a fall from a young horse - and allow the ligament and bones to fuse. This was the character who, a year later, had "retired" from the ring, and conceded: "My luck has run out".

Yet he had returned to ride, with the blessing of a German neurological specialist. In conjunction with his full recuperation a magnificent horse had materialised, as if gifted in penance by the gods. Arko, now a 10-year-old, is the property of John Hales, better known among the horseracing fraternity as the owner of the dual King George VI victor One Man. Arko, according to Skelton, now 46, was "a horse of a lifetime".

There was a sense of destiny when, the combination having leapt clear with insouciant abandon in the first round - one of only two pairs to do so - the final rounds of their opponents were characterised by a satisfying cacophony of trampled bars and poles, together with the spectacle of refusals, retirements and eliminations. In the second round, Skelton entered the ring last. A clear round would win it. Four faults would mean a jump-off for gold. Even eight faults would have given him an opportunity of silver or bronze. It was simply too inviting, an almost too symmetrical sequence of events.

The dream died within seconds. The British pair had overcome only three obstacles when Skelton heard the spine-chilling rattle of his mount's hoof dislodging a bar. It became worse, even as an entranced Equestrian Centre willed Skelton and Arko III to maintain their impetus and ride the remainder clear. They clattered two more, and that was it. Jilly Cooper's fictional sortie into the equestrian world was never like this. This was harsh reality. As a sombre Hales, whose nerves do not allow him to watch rounds (he relies on his daughter Lisa to talk him through), observed: "It's a cruel sport at times."

The spoils went to a gifted young Irish rider, Cian O'Connor, at 24 the youngest member of Ireland's squad, on Waterford Crystal, with a clear round following four faults in the first. It rewarded his country with their first-ever Olympic equestrian medal. O'Connor is a grandson of Ireland's former rugby international Karl Mullen, after whom his stables in Co Meath are named. He was first introduced to the showjumping ring only five years ago.

In contrast, Skelton's career may not be quite as old as the hills surrounding this Equestrian Centre, but there is not much in it. It can certainly be chronicled back to showjumping's golden era, when his association with Apollo and St James brought him top prizes in the 1980s, including three Hickstead Derbys. Skelton, whose autobiography, Only Falls and Horses, will presumably receive an updated chapter rather different than that planned throughout the last four years, stood afterwards, pallid and chastened by events, and the words he uttered around the time of the 2000 Games - "I've been close too often and seen it all go wrong" - appeared to mock him.

As he sportingly hailed Rodrigo Pessoa, offering a thumbs-up as the Brazilian passed, riding Baloubet du Rouet, on their way back to the ring to claim silver in a jump-off with the USA's Chris Kappler, Skelton muttered: "I had my heart set on it." Despite the lance to the heart, he accepted defeat with a Stoicism which, in the days following that "Paula Moment", has epitomised the British competitors. The cynical may suggest it has needed to, because since Solid Gold Saturday such rewards, Kelly Holmes apart, have been non-existent.

Skelton's horse was at fault, of course, but that is the nature of the contest. He did not dwell on that. Neither did Kate Allenby in Friday's women's modern pentathlon. She lay in silver-medal position after three disciplines, but then, in the riding, was allotted a beast named Babar, who had a propensity for leaving a trailing hoof behind at obstacles. No fewer than five were dislodged. Her opportunity was gone by the final event, the 3km run.

However, her compatriot, the 26-year-old world No 1, Georgina Harland, who started the run even further back, chased down 11 runners and a 49-second gap to secure the bronze. On the way, Harland passed Allenby, who had won bronze in Sydney. "Go get that medal for us," Allenby implored her team-mate, and Harland duly complied. It was testament to the best of British at the end of a week which has become the most frustrating of British. Skelton will concur.