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Royal medal for Zara Phillips delights the horsey set at London 2012

In Greenwich Park, yet another gold near miss for Team GB did little to damp the spirits of the equestrian enthusiasts

Cahal Milmo
Wednesday 01 August 2012 13:00

Moments after Tina Cook and her horse Miner's Frolic had jumped over a miniaturised Downing St and Stonehenge to secure Britain's second silver medal of London 2012, Meredith Ball was shedding unabashed tears of joy on to her quilted Barbour and polo boots.

A lifelong horserider from the Chilterns, the 56-year-old housewife does not venture into the capital often. But, along with others wandering Greenwich Park yesterday lunchtime in a terribly genteel cavalcade of Hunter wellies and Chanel scarves, it was the turn of the countryside (or at least the posher end of it) to revel in a spot of Olympian elation.

Clutching her Union Flag, Mrs Ball said: "Simply wonderful. I could barely look as Tina approached the final fences. It is lovely our sport can make its contribution. I was mucking out 48 hours ago. Now I'm looking at the Thames, celebrating a silver medal."

Of course, notwithstanding the presence of HRHs William, Kate and Harry to cheer on Team GB royal Zara Phillips, the tweed-wearing Establishment did not have a monopoly on the jubilations on the Meridian.

For every perfect fedora at the equestrian venue, there was (whisper it so the Olympic brand watchdogs do not hear) a wonky Nike baseball cap and for every pair of jodpurs, a distinctly urban pair of rapper's jeans.

The resulting effect was something of a cross between the V Festival and Badminton, only with less mud and more smoked salmon and prawn sandwiches (the unchallenged best seller on the seafood stall).

As one ruddy-cheeked denizen of the shires, his leather wellies hitched up to his knees, put it: "It's all rather jolly, don't you think? Great atmosphere. Even the wine is passable."

The day had begun with hopes high that Britain could secure its first gold in equestrian eventing in 40 years after two days of dressage and treacherous charging around a London park in the cross-country. It reached its crescendo just after 1pm when mother-of-two Cook's final round, with a single penalty point, narrowly secured second place ahead of New Zealand.

It is a quirk of equestrianism that it is the team with the lowest score that triumphs. And in the end no one had a lower score than Germany, whose team, despite their last rider knocking down two fences on the final round to gasps of "ye-sss" from the less well-mannered end of the home crowd, finished with 133.7 points, comfortably ahead to Britain's 138.2. Not even the 12 fences designed to evoke Britishness, from a Cutty Sark and a montage of Trafalgar Square to Stonehenge, could deter a Teutonic triumph.

Overseers of equestrianism bridled, appropriately, at suggestions that their sport, with its thoroughbred steeds and followers, might be a touch elitist compared to, say, BMX or boxing.

A spokeswoman for British Eventing said: "We are the ultimate equestrian challenge; a healthy outdoor sport, where women and men of all ages compete on an even playing field. Thousands of volunteers and spectators support the sport at fantastic rural locations every weekend."

In the end, as Cook and 51-year-old colleague Mary King failed to push home their medal claims in the individual competition, it came down to the British team's unquestionably poshest Posh Bird to provide the common touch. Or, more to the point, her husband.

Rugby playing bad boy Mike Tindall, there to support his wife Zara Phillips, was asked what his thoughts had been as she completed her final round, in which she clipped down two fences.

Tindall replied using a robust four-letter Anglo-Saxon term unlikely to be deployed when he's in the presence of his wife's grandmother, before adding: "You always get little uptight. You want her to do well. And it ended up a really happy afternoon."

Meanwhile, the Queen's granddaughter, who expelled doubts about the merit of her own selection by scoring a perfect round to finish eighth overall in the individual event, showed how to deal with oiks unaware of equestrian etiquette.

When asked by persistent press photographers to pose while embracing her husband, she replied: "We already did. You missed it."

Age and experience need not be a barrier to Olympic glory

Amid the parade of gilded youth, it is easy to forget that experience also counts for something when it comes to sporting endeavour, writes Cahal Milmo. None are more experienced than Hiroshi Hoketsu, who at 71 is the oldest competitor at London 2012.

He and his horse, Whisper, take part in the individual dressage this week. Hoketsu, who competed in his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, leads the senior competitors who include fellow equestrian Ian Millar, 65, of Canada, who will break the record for most Olympic appearances by taking part in his 10th Games in London. The rower Greg Searle, a nipper at 40, won gold in Barcelona 20 years ago and has come out of retirement to compete in the men's eight final today.

Japan's Hoketsu, who looks 20 years younger than his age, swats aside questions about his advancing years. He said: "I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 71. I'm the same physique as I was at university. There's no special secret. I used to get up at 5am, go riding, go home and leave for the office for 30 years. Now I sleep until 7am. Luxury."

Saving the best till last is also something of a sporting tradition. Briton Mary King, who at 51 won a silver yesterday in her sixth Games, will, by Hoketsu's standards, have at least four more Games in which to improve that tally. But Hoketsu will not overtake the world's oldest Olympian, Sweden's Oscar Swahn, who was 72 when he competed in shooting in 1920. He has ruled himself out of the Rio 2016 Olympics because although he feels up to it, he worries that his horse will be too old at 19.

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