Racing: It's Otto crowned the king showman

Genevieve Murphy looks at the horse who has become an equestrian hero
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The Independent Online
If you want a concise summing-up of It's Otto's talents you need look no further than Geoff Billington, who has ridden the 11-year-old show jumping gelding for the past five years. "There's nothing Otto can't jump; he's a once in a lifetime horse," Billington said. "I'll never ride another like him."

While Mary King was in London yesterday to collect the Spiller's Award as leading equestrian personality of the year, It's Otto was on his Continental travels, unaware that he had been nominated as leading horse. Both horse and human titles were decided on votes cast by readers of Horse and Rider and Pony magazines, for whom Otto has become a favourite equine pin-up since finishing sixth (and best of the British) at the Olympic Games last year.

Otto has no doubts about his star status. "He's quite highly-strung, but he's also very sensible and intelligent," Billington said. "The big- time atmosphere always works in his favour, he knows he's a superstar so he rises to the occasion."

Though he loves people, Otto can be distinctly bolshie towards horses - as Jenny Ellis, a veterinary nurse who became his groom at the start of the year, has discovered. "He'd lick you to death but you have to watch him with other horses," she said. "It's only because he wants to be king, he's that sort of person."

Ellis is now both long-distance lorry driver and groom to It's Otto and Niko on their current tour of five Continental shows: Bologna, Paris, Moorsele, Dortmund and Zurich. She is sometimes daunted by thoughts of driving such precious cargo and she is already devoted to her charges.

Otto (her special favourite) travels well and he settles into temporary stabling like an old pro. In Paris last weekend, Ellis had wondered whether he would be upset when the rubbish tip close to his stable was being emptied, but he appeared to find the performance quite enthralling. Watching the equivalent of the Household Cavalry clatter past was another riveting diversion in Paris.

Having finished third in the Volvo World Cup qualifiers at both Bologna and Paris on It's Otto, Billington has now earned his place for the World Cup final which takes place from 30 April to 4 May in Gothenburg. Barring injury, he and Otto will also be automatic choices for the British team that contests the European Championships in Mannheim from 27 to 31 August.

Such an ambitious itinerary could only be dreamt about when Billington began riding Gerard Lever's Dutch-bred gelding. Even a year ago, when everyone was wondering who would be the rider to join the Whitaker brothers and Nick Skelton at the Olympics, there could be no automatic assumption of team selection.

It was not until last year, when It's Otto's earnings reached pounds 250,000 in prizemoney, that the gelding established himself as just about the best show jumper in Britain. The horse who wants to be king had achieved his goal.

SPILLERS AWARDS: Equestrian Personality of the Year: M King. Horse of the Year: It's Otto. Spillers Diamond award: British Paralympic team. Scholarships: B Pallas (show jumping), L Beckett (dressage), J Gibbins (horse trials).

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