Wonder horse or ultimate Plastic Brit?
It took two lords, cloaks and daggers to find Britain's best hope of Olympic showjumping gold in 60 years
Anyone learning that the nation is pinning its hopes on a long-overdue Olympic gold medal from a competitor born Sanctos van het Gravenhof could be forgiven for assuming that yet another Brit of the "Plastic" variety has been recruited for the 2012 cause. And they might be right – except that this one is a horse.
How a Dutch-bred gelding came to be the subject of a £2 million swoop in an attempt to win Britain its first major Olympic showjumping prize in 60 years is one of the great sporting coups. It involves a plot which embraces two horse-loving Tory peers – one an Arsenal director and close friend of the Prime Minister, the other a soft-furnishing billionaire – a Ukrainian financier, a US Olympic gold medallist and one of Britain's most prominent horsemen.
The handsome 10-year-old bay – who has now been renamed Hello Sanctos – was snatched from under the noses of other countries in a cloak-and-dagger operation just hours before the equestrian world's version of the transfer window closed on New Year's Eve.
The two Tory tycoons, Lord Harris of Peckham, 69, the chairman of Carpetright and a David Cameron confidant who is on the Gunners board, and Lord Kirkham, 67, founder of the DFS empire, put up the cash and authorised David Broome, the veteran showjumper and Olympic bronze medallist renowned for his rides on such horses as Mr Softee, to dash to Germany to buy the horse that, it is believed, will give Britain its best chance of Olympic equestrian gold since Colonel Harry Lewellyn rode Foxhunter to glory in the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Britain's only gold in those Olympics.
Broome had to move smartly against rivals from Germany and the United States, and also buyers from the Middle East. For 12 months Santos had been stabled at Elmpt, near Düsseldorf. He was owned by Peter Wylde, a member of the American gold medal showjumping team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, who then sold him to a Ukrainian financier, Alexander Onishenko.
Katharina Offel, the Ukrainian showjumper, had ridden Sanctos until last year but their partnership ended unexpectedly and the horse was suddenly available again. Broome, 70, was recruited by the peers to secure him for Team GB. "When they heard about the horse and its potential they instructed me to go over and have a look," he said.
Broome did so, and brought in Scott Brash, one of Team GB's newest and most talented riders, for a second opinion. They instantly agreed it would a great coup. Says Lord Harris: "We think we've got one of the best horses in the world. He'd only had three fences down in 30 grand prix events so we had to get in very, very quickly. Such was the competition, we had to keep very quiet about it."
Brash, 26, a Scottish builder's son from Peebles who started riding when he was seven, says it is "great" that Britain has a horse of this quality. "I had won the World Cup in Toronto on a horse called Bonhomie when I got a phone call from David Broome to ask if I would go and try out this horse in Germany on behalf of Phil Harris and James Kirkham.
"I told them how impressed I was and they said they would buy him for me. I don't know if he was available because his previous rider didn't get on with him or what, but he's brilliant with me. He is a very careful horse who doesn't want to touch the jumps. Our partnership has seemed to work well, because we won the World Cup in Florida together."
They compete again at the Super League event in St Gallen, Switzerland, next week, with Team GB's Dutch performance director, Rob Hoekstra, announcing the showjumping team of four horses and riders, plus a reserve, next month.
"I think we have a great chance in the Olympics," says Brash. "But in this sport so much depends on the fitness of the horses." He has another quality mount in Intertoy, "but obviously you can only ride one. Sanctos is a little bit of a nervous horse, but since I've had him he's come round a lot. He's different from a lot of others, he seems to need to get to know everyone first before he can relax. But once he gets into the ring he can really take those fences in his stride. He has such a lovely, flowing rhythm."
Although stabled at Brash's home in Peebles, Sanctos will be based in Holland and Belgium before the Games. "We are away in competitions most weeks but fortunately he's a good traveller," says Brash.
Showjumping used to enjoy huge TV ratings during an era which embraced Harvey Smith's famous two-fingered gesture. But since then there has been a steep downturn in its appeal, though major shows at Olympia can still attract full houses.
What it obviously needs is the surge of publicity that Olympic success would bring, and Brash makes a bold suggestion that he feels would help. "I've always felt that it is crying out for people to bet on it. That would create a lot more interest. If the public understood a bit more about it, it's an unbelievable sport. Betting on showjumping would encourage the public more, which is what it needs."
So, Sanctos to emulate the fabulous Foxhunter at Greenwich Park and become a four-legged friend etched as deeply in the nation's hearts as a pooch named Pudsey? It may be worth a modest flutter.
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