Spirit Son - in his hurdling daysThe French-bred racehorse Spirit Son was a successful 5-year-old when he suffered an unexplained collapse. The gelding, owned by Michael Buckley and trained by Nicky Henderson, had four wins from five starts and was fancied to win the Champion Hurdle at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival.
However, a tendon injury ruled him out of the race. He recovered and was sent away to recuperate and get him ready for a return to racing.
Then disaster struck. Spirit Son was found collapsed on the floor of his stable. Nicky Henderson rushed down from Scotland to see what could be done.
The horse could not get up – and people feared the worst. But he rallied and was soon able to stand while being supported.
About six weeks after his collapse, he was well enough to be taken to the O’Gorman Slater Main equine hospital in Newbury where a scan revealed he had a neck fracture. For a more precise diagnosis he was taken for a CT scan which revealed he had two fractures – one each side of his neck.
As Nicky Henderson wrote in the Racing Post: “There were two known surgeons who could perform an obviously extremely complicated and undoubtedly dangerous operation, one in the USA and one, John Walmsley, in Hampshire, who luckily was prepared to perform what was going to be a huge task with major risks involved. But it was the only option.”
An operation under general anaesthetic was tricky for a horse that was still recovering his balance and strength. But a most unusual surgical procedure was carried out using metal implants. And it was successful and Spirit Son recovered.
As Henderson wrote: “The prognosis for racing always has been and still is very low, but he deserved a chance to have a life, whether it’s on a racecourse or in another role.”
He was not to race again and Spirit Son arrived at the Greatwood charity for retired racehorse at Clench Common near Marlborough on November 6 last year. Announcing his death, Greatwood said that his condition had deteriorated during the summer months and he had to be put to sleep this morning – October 8.
Sometimes you pick up a book about a sportsman’s life – whether autobiography or ghosted biography or a bit of both – and you wonder whether it might not be a tad too soon for this person to warrant a book. You could never think that about Marlborough-based Andrew Nicholson and his new book Focused.
He has, after all, been representing New Zealand in the Olympic Games for 30 years. He was the world’s top eventer in 2013 and in that year topped the British eventing standings for the fifteenth time.
The book is published during an eventing season in which he has scored two unrivalled hat-tricks – winning Barbury and Burghley three times in a row with the same horse, the amazing Avebury.
Focused is subtitled My Life in Pictures and it has an excellent collection of photographs from his youth in New Zealand up to recent triumphs.
It was written with Catherine Austen who used to report for Horse and Hound: “We’ve looked at thousands of images and selected some really interesting ones – not just pretty shots of horses jumping fences, but ones that tell a story and show the progression he has made as a competitor and a horseman.”
Andrew Nicholson, now aged 53, told Marlborough News Online that he wanted the book to have a balance of the bad days and the good days: “It shows what you have to go through to get to the good days.”
His introduction reveals much of the horseman he has become. And he is frank about his ambition to be number one in the world, “but first and foremost I have to make a living”:
Andrew Nicholson & Avebury at Barbury (2014)“It was this basic necessity that started my involvement with horses, breaking in young thoroughbreds for trainers in New Zealand and then working as a farrier at the age of 15. I then progressed to earning money from training and selling horses, and finally from the prize-money. The financial principle is the same today.”
The book makes it very clear that top eventing riders do not just ride their top horses in top events. In order to bring young horses on, they need to go to many of the lower ranked events and to competitions that cater especially for less experienced horses.
And that’s where travel comes in: “The travelling is what I find gets me down.” At the busiest part of the season, he may only be at home on Mondays: travel on Tuesday, vet inspection on Wednesday, competing Thursday to Sunday, usually getting home late on Sunday.
Among the intriguing photographs in the book is one of Nicholson with his four eventing four star winners. Nicholson writes: “You can see that they are all different shapes, but what’s more interesting is how much more different they are to each other when they are not eventing fit.”
“Quimbo looks the most thoroughbred of the quartet, even though he probably has the least thoroughbred in him; Mr Cruise Control looks like a gigantic hunter; Nereo stays reasonably elegant, while in the middle of winter Avebury looks like a hairy kid’s pony.”
Avebury - after a good rollOne of the books main attractions is the way Nicholson writes so clearly about his horses and their idiosyncrasies.
Nereo & Avebury - doing their own thingWhen Marlborough News Online visited Andrew Nicholson’s Westwood Stud near Marlborough, Avebury was not looking very much like the smart horse that enters the dressage arena with such aplomb. Alongside Nereo, Avebury bred by Nicholson and born when he was based near Devizes in 2000, was out in the field enjoying some well-earned R and R.
As Nicholson said, he was ‘being a horse again’ – so much so that the two horses avoided eye contact with Nicholson just in case he had come to take them away from the freedom of the field and put them inside again.
I asked Andrew Nicholson whether he agreed that too much emphasis in eventing was now put on the dressage stage of competitions: “It’s starting to change back to cross country. This season at WEG [World Equestrian Games], Badminton and Burghley cross country played the major part. Ten years ago you could get away with a rubbish dressage. Now you have to be good at all three stages – because the standard has come up so much.”
Nicholson is not sure whether he will go to the Rolex Kentucky event which starts the new season in April 2015. He won it in 2013 with Quimbo. But last year Avebury was decidedly off-colour after his first trip by air: “Avebury felt flat – I don’t know whether he didn’t like the plane or didn’t like America!”
Jet Set IVTwo of the season’s final eventing competitions are in France. Le Lion d’Angers championships are for young horses. He will be taking Jet Set IV for the seven year-olds’ competition and Swallow Springs for the six-year olds’ competition.
Then he goes to the season’s finale, the four star competition at Pau. Nicholson won that in 2012 with Nereo. This year he is taking Qwanza the eleven-year-old mare he rode to seventh place at Kentucky in 2012. Last year they came to grief at Luhmühlen…
…and which is the family’s favourite photograph in the book? I assumed it would be the happy family groups of the children on their ponies. But as we left, a small voice said that his favourite photograph was the one of “Daddy in the water” – and there it is: Andrew Nicholson and Qwanza all but submerged after falling at the first water complex on the Luhmühlen cross country course last year.
It shows vividly that even the best of eventers have those bad days: “You see”, he said with a broad grin, “what I have to put up when I get home!”
You will have to buy the book to see that photo of Andrew Nicholson.
Focused – Andrew Nicholson My Life in Pictures – with a foreword by Captain Mark Phlillips (Racing Post Books) £20.
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