Hail Vale­gro!

One last dance for Bri­tain’s favourite horse

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Char­lotte Du­jardin in­ter­view,

This week one of Bri­tain’s finest sport­ing cham­pi­ons will per­form in com­pe­ti­tion for the last time. On Wed­nes­day, he will bring to a close a com­pet­i­tive ca­reer en­com­pass­ing four Olympic medals (three of them gold), sev­eral world and Euro­pean ti­tles and a plethora of records. That his de­par­ture has been less cel­e­brated than that of the year’s other grand re­tirees such as Jes­sica En­nis-Hill or Steven Ger­rard may have some­thing to do with the fact he has four legs, a tail and is not known for the elo­quence of his post-match in­ter­views. None­the­less, the emo­tional pull when Vale­gro trots his way through his rou­tine at Lon­don’s Olympia Horse Show on Wed­nes­day night will be sig­nif­i­cant. This, after all, is the nation’s favourite danc­ing horse.

“It’s go­ing to be emo­tional,” says Char­lotte Du­jardin, the dres­sage rider who has been with him through­out his golden era. “It’s the first time many of his fans have seen him per­form in this coun­try since Lon­don 2012. And now it’s the last time. So it might get tear­ful. On the other hand, we don’t have to get too up­set. He’s not dy­ing. He’s just stop­ping do­ing com­pe­ti­tions.”

She has a point. Watch­ing one day last week as Vale­gro pre­pared for his exit, he does not look a com­peti­tor un­duly con­cerned about the forth­com­ing turn of events. It seems, as he poses for pho­tos and does a turn round the pa­rade ring for the tele­vi­sion cam­eras, that he is tak­ing the end, as he did ev­ery­thing else through­out his stel­lar ca­reer, in his long, el­e­gant stride. “We made the de­ci­sion in Rio,” says Du­jardin. “What bet­ter way is there to fin­ish than at the very top? Very few horses do that. Usu­ally they stop through in­jury or when they are not able to pro­duce. We didn’t want that. It was im­por­tant for us that he went out on a high. He’d done so much for us.”

And by us, Du­jardin is not sim­ply re­fer­ring to her­self or to the horse’s owner and her long-term men­tor, Carl Hester, or even to the rest of the GB dres­sage team. She means her sport as a whole. “He changed ev­ery­thing,” she says. “Be­fore 2012 if I said to some­body ‘I do dres­sage’, they’d have looked very blank. Since Lon­don peo­ple recog­nise me as the girl on the danc­ing horse. I was nom­i­nated for Sports Per­son­al­ity of the Year. A dres­sage rider nom­i­nated for Spoty? To have that recog­ni­tion has been huge for our sport.”

Since the pair em­bed­ded them­selves in the na­tional con­scious­ness, the offthe-beaten-track yard where they work has seen a steady in­crease in vis­i­tors, from the lo­cal MP, through pop stars to other sport­ing prac­ti­tion­ers anx­ious to dis­cover pre­cisely what magic was be­ing spun in ru­ral Glouces­ter­shire. What Vale­gro and Du­jardin did was pop­u­larise what had, un­til they ar­rived, been the most es­o­teric of pur­suits. To watch them in ac­tion you did not have to be an ex­pert on the nu­ance of dres­sage to recog­nise here was some­thing special. The horse’s ath­leti­cism, tim­ing and show­stop­ping sense of oc­ca­sion were com­ple­mented by Du­jardin’s ease and con­trol. Ac­cord­ing to Hester, be­fore their dou­ble act stormed into the sport, con­ven­tional wis­dom had it that even the very best of dres­sage horses were good at some part of the dis­ci­pline in­volved, but were in­evitably weak on oth­ers. Not Vale­gro. He was bril­liant at ev­ery as­pect. “He’ so good, it will be very odd for the crowd at Olympia,” he says. “They’ll be watch­ing him for the last time think­ing, wow, he’s still the best there is.”

Hester had orig­i­nally bought Vale­gro to com­pete on him­self. But one day, watch­ing what the then in­ex­pe­ri­enced Du­jardin did when she rode the horse round the pa­rade ring, he im­me­di­ately ap­pre­ci­ated there was a con­nec­tion he could not match. “Their first ride in a grand prix they came fifth,” he re­calls. “That’s un­heard of.” And from there the pair didn’t stop win­ning, set­ting records as they went that are un­likely to be touched in a gen­er­a­tion.

“He is a horse built for the job,” Hester says of the mount he bought as an un­schooled young­ster in Hol­land. “He has no weak­nesses. Nor does Char­lotte. She has an amaz­ing abil­ity to feel move­ment. Ev­ery­thing they did to­gether was an eight, nine or 10.”

That abil­ity to de­liver huge scores not only al­lowed Du­jardin to hoover up all the in­di­vid­ual ac­co­lades, but it pro­pelled the GB team to a sum­mit pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied by the all­con­quer­ing Ger­mans. The first time the wider pub­lic be­came aware of quite how good the part­ner­ship could be was at the Lon­don Olympics. There the judges were unan­i­mous in their praise, award­ing record scores to the pair.

“Not for one minute did I think I’d be com­ing away with that,” says Du­jardin of the gold medals won in both the in­di­vid­ual and team dis­ci­plines. “To stand on that podium in front of the home crowd, every­one bang­ing their feet, shout­ing, it was in­cred­i­ble. It was a mo­ment that will live with me for­ever.”

And it was just the start of a fouryear pe­riod lead­ing up to the Rio games in which ev­ery­thing the two of them touched turned to gold.

It was not just the re­lent­less work the pair put in, spend­ing hours ev­ery day in the yard’s in­door arena prac­tis­ing each and ev­ery move un­til it be­came sec­ond na­ture. There was some­thing else, some­thing ex­cep­tional about Vale­gro’s char­ac­ter that en­abled Du­jardin to excel un­der the most se­vere com­pet­i­tive ex­am­i­na­tion.

“What’s so amaz­ing is he’s not afraid of any­thing. The big­ger the at­mos­phere the bet­ter. Lots of riders could only go for an eight be­cause their horse didn’t have the tem­per­a­ment. I could go for a 10.”

It was Du­jardin’s de­ci­sion to bring the part­ner­ship to an end.

“I think pos­si­bly if I’d done an­other year, I could have won more, I could have bro­ken more records,” Du­jardin says. “But I’ve al­ready done so much, why push it? What is the point of do­ing that? Give him the chance to re­lax, go round the coun­try as an am­bas­sador for dres­sage, get­ting a hero’s wel­come wher­ever he goes. Given what he’s done for the sport, it’s the least he de­serves.”

Not that she in­tends to join Vale­gro on his ex­tended lap of honour. At 31, she is still in the prime of her sport­ing life. She is all set to de­fend her ti­tle in Tokyo. In­deed, the re­tire­ment of her dou­ble act part­ner has only piqued her de­ter­mi­na­tion. “I’m still as hun­gry, if not more so. I know he’s a horse of a life­time. But maybe I’ll de­velop a horse that will help the team chal­lenge again in the world cham­pi­onships or the Olympics and that would be mas­sive. Just to achieve a lit­tle bit of what we did with Vale­gro on an­other horse, that would be in­cred­i­ble.”

‘It’s the first time many of his fans have seen him here since Lon­don 2012. So it might get tear­ful’

Golden duo: Char­lotte Du­jardin (left) who flew the flag for Bri­tain at Lon­don 2012 with her ‘once in a life­time’ horse Vale­gro (right)

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