New Zealand born Andrew Nicholson has finally won Badminton Horse Trails after more than 30 years of trying.
The Marlborough-based event rider has completed the international 4* event a record-breaking 37 times. And despite winning the sport’s most illustrious titles including the World Equestrian Games, Burghley a staggering five times, Pau and Lumuhlen, Badminton has always eluded him.
A life-threatening fall at Gatcombe Horse Trials in 2015, just three months after a sixth place finish at Badminton, saw him undergo eight hours of neck surgery and take a year out from eventing to recovery. He did not compete at 2016 Badminton’s Horse Trials as a result of the injury and fans wondered whether he would ever lift the Mitsubshi Motors Badminton trophy.
“When I was recovering from my neck injury Nereo and Avebury (the horse Andrew won three consecutive Burghley titles on) were the many reasons that I went out riding again,” said Nicholson. “It is important to have something to motivate you and for me it was those two.”
Returning to Badminton this week with Nereo the question on everyone’s lips was would it be this year? Could his inspiration to recovery help Nicholson mark his comeback in spectacular fashion and win that elusive title?
“I have come every year thinking I had a chance,” Nicholson said. “The first time I came in 1984 I thought I had a chance but I absolutely had no chance of even getting around. You got to talk yourself up when your young, don’t you? Now I’ve gotten old I’ve got some really good horses.”
With two horses entered, 14 year old mare Qwanza and 17 year old Badminton veteran Nereo, this year Nicholson had double the chance of many.
The first round of Dressage separated the horses, with Nicholson in sixth place on Nereo but languishing in 64th place on Qwanza.
Nereo, whom Nicholson has had since he was a four year old and describes as ‘one of my favourites’, now looked the best bet for victory.
Qwanza was the first of the pair to tackle the new look cross-country course, giving Nicholson a chance to get to grips with the Eric Winter designed jumps, including a ball finch brush fence not seen in eventing for over 10 years and some big, open and wide rustic fences that asked questions of both horse and rider. Nicholson had described the course as a ‘proper’ cross country challenge, saying it was a fair test of horse and rider. It certainly proved a successful test for Qwanza who surged up the leader board from 64th to 15th, jumping clear and gaining just 8.8 time faults.
Now knowing how the course was jumping it was time for Nicholson to head out on his big striding Nereo, who was one of the oldest horses to tackle the challenging course this year. The pair proved that age is just a number and cleared the course returning home just seconds over the optimum time of 11 minutes 35 seconds. They were the third fastest of the riders with only last year’s winner Michael Jung and fellow Kiwi Tim Price managing to make the time.
“Nereo is a lovely galloper, but with big strides so this undulating ground is hard for him. But he tries to please and gives 100 per cent every single time,” said Nicholson.
With Nicholson and Nereo now in third after cross-country fans dared to dream, but they knew the pair had been here before. In 2015 just before that neck injury which doctors said would result in paralysis in 96% of patients, Andrew and Nereo had gone from second to finishing the competition in sixth when the showjumping final proved their undoing.
“To want it [The Badminton title] for so long and so many times be so near and to slip back down that is pretty hard,” Nicholson said. “You have to get over it and come back each time.”
With two consistent showjumpers sitting in first and second, Michael Jung’s La Biosthetique Sam and Ingrid Klimke’s Horseware Hale Bob, Andrew and Nereo would have to go clear and in the time and hope that they would be the last to do so.
Nereo jumped the course of his life with all the poles staying up and the pair only picking up one time fault. As the pair round out of the stadium to raputourus applause Commentator Ian Stark said “None of us wanted to speak, none of us wanted to breath whilst he was out there.”
All eyes were now on Jung and Klimke, all except Andrew’s which were focused on Clare Balding as he gave an interview to the BBC from the warm up area.
When Jung and Sam knocked down a fence Nicholson moved up to second and it was down to Klimke to either be the first female winner in a decade or to pick up faults and hand the long-awaited victory to Nicholson.
“All I need now is for Ingrid to help me out,” said Nicholson to the BBC as everyone else held their breath and crossed their fingers (at least in the case of the Gazette’s editor) to watch Klimke and Hale Bob.
When Klimke knocked down the same fence as Jung a cheer erupted from amongst the Nicholson family, friends, fans and fellow riders. British number one and close friend Oliver Townend led the mob that engulfed Nicholson whilst Klimke was still jumping. With the focus now on celebrating Nicholson finally winning Badminton many missed Hale Bob refusing the treble, forcing Klimke to circle back, losing time and picking up for faults. Ultimately Klimke finished in ninth as a result but for the crowd that had gathered around Nicholson and his family there was just one thing on their minds, giving three cheers to the conquering hero and his horse Nereo.