Written by: Bernadette Hewitt
After bagging a gold medal for his country in London last August, Great Britain’s Peter Charles is already planning his next Olympic crusade.
The round that brought home the first Olympic team gold in 60 years for British show jumping belonged to Peter Charles. As Murka’s Vindicat landed over the final “Tower of London” fence and Charles punched the air, the crowd in Greenwich erupted in a frenzied ovation. History was made, a national dream came true and Peter Charles had delivered exactly what he’d told his teammates, his owner, and his wife, he would.
The term “focussed” doesn’t begin to describe Peter Charles going into that round. He’d reassured Olga White, the businesswoman and passionate enthusiast who has supported the Charles family since 2005, that the young, and relatively inexperienced, “Vinnie”, would cope.
“He was a bit stressy starting off,” recalls Peter, “but he got better and better. After the second day, I said to Ben (Maher) and Nick (Skelton) I will be right there when you need me at the end. And I said to my wife and Olga that tomorrow would go great. I believed it. It was as if I knew it.”
The way the victory played out made it all the more epic. A great friend of Peter’s, eminent national news anchor, Alistair Stewart, put it into context. “He said I’d jumped the most important round in show jumping history because it was here in London,” relates Peter. “Whatever else happens in our lifetime, that will never happen again. You dream about it, to be the last rider in, to win it; but to do it at your home Olympics? That is having your cake and eating it and I’ll treasure that for ever.”
As for the gold mail box – he has that too. Each of Team GB’s gold-medal winning Olympians was honoured in their home town by having their local post box painted gold. It’s a beacon in the sprawling Hampshire village of Alton, home to the Charles family. He may have been known locally as a show jumper, and perhaps remembered as a European champion, but the difference is now that everyone knows what that is and what it means.
There has been huge media interest, of course, and lots of PR work since that day in Greenwich Park last August, and a lot of time invested in a project which Peter is evidently frustrated will not now take place this year. While he has no ambitions to be a show organizer, he was able to leverage support for an international show at Whitehall’s Horse Guards Parade (where the Olympic Beach Volleyball competitions were staged) which would surely have been the archetypal legacy build for post-Olympic London. While the concept, masterminded by his friend Simon Brooks-Ward, will carry over to 2014, it galls Peter that the equestrian showcase they had planned, with jumping from ponies to a five-star Grand Prix and dressage, has been quashed by the possibility of a Global Champions Tour event in Kensington Palace Gardens. While a great venue, it will not have the same effect for those who take their Olympic legacy seriously. Peter is more direct: “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
He concedes that the GCT has done a lot for the sport, but passionately believes that it is too elitist to be the UK’s only show. In Peter’s opinion its premise is contrary to a clear pathway for younger riders on their way up. That need for a pathway has resonance in any country on the hunt for Olympic glory. “If you can’t get there on talent, and if the likes of me, John and Mike Whitaker get left at home because of a bunch of “pay cards” (riders who ‘pay” the organizer to compete), that’s wrong. The FEI have let them get away with it and they’ve created a monster. I’ll give Jan Tops credit for delivering a good product in business terms, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that he’s making money.”
Like Tops, and most professional riders, dealing has always been a core business for Peter. From the end of September to December last year, was his busiest time for horse sales. Advising high profile clients throughout the world and making sales, mainly for the USA, is his speciality. His latest deal saw the departure of his Olympic partner, Murka’s Vindicat, to the Springsteens for 18-year-old Jessica to ride. For Charles it was a sensible decision, although he admits, “I was the big bad wolf. A lot of people in our family didn’t talk to me for a while.”
His philosophy is that the sale enables the future, and great things to happen again. For anyone producing horses as a business, the key is to produce them to the start of the dream. Once you start living the dream, a lot can go wrong. To bring the point home he cites the example of an exceptional young Irish prospect he’d made a multi-million bid for which died the very evening prior to our talk.
Vinnie, however, seems very much part of a new dream. “They love him,” says Peter of the Springsteens. “He has the best stable in the yard, and everything is all about Vinnie. What he will do is introduce Jessica to all the big things in show jumping and he will never look sideways. He is the straightest horse you could ever put a bridle on. From that point of view, he’s a great sale, a great buy and a great advert for the yard as we trained him here for six years.”
According to Peter, Jessica’s mentor, Laura Kraut, said they couldn’t have bought a better horse for her.
Team Murka also comprises Harry, Scarlett and Sienna Charles and their ponies. One of Peter’s proudest “Dad” moments was when the whole family qualified for and rode at Olympia, London’s World Cup show. It was a first for four direct family members (the Whitaker clan is enhanced by cousins). Peter insists on a rounded upbringing, and all three are at private, academic schools so that if horses don’t work out as a career they have plenty of other options. “I’m not an absent parent by any means,” Charles stresses, “I try to be there for them.”
Rocking and Rolling
After a serious, horrendous, back injury in 2006, Peter credits Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival circuit with getting his career back on track, as having slipped so far down the rankings it presented the chance to go out and win Grands Prix. “It got me rocking and rolling again, and I also pulled in a lot of clients. I’ve had two Grand Prix winners already this season – Super Trooper de Ness and Flaming Star — and it’s good to see them flourishing. But it is hugely expensive, and my horse-power has changed, plus with three young kids on the pony circuit, it’s not an option.”
Never one to chase rankings points – home life is too important – or to over-jump his horses, Peter plans to start with some new prospects in late March.
He has two “fabulous” horses coming up, both of which “excite me and will keep me in the sport.”
One of them is known as Rio. He always has been, but it fits, as this is the game plan for Peter Charles. “I’ll be 56 years of age and I can actually pretty much guarantee that I will be there with a serious chance of winning an individual medal with one of these two.”
Remember London. Don’t even begin to doubt it.
Peter and Murka’s Vindicat delivered the first Olympic team gold in 60 years for British show jumping with their final jump-off round in London. “Vinnie” has since been sold to Jessica Springsteen.
PC In Brief
Born in Liverpool but with an Irish mother, Peter Charles has ridden for both Ireland and Great Britain during his 35-year career. He took up Irish nationality prior to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and in 1995 rode La Ina to win the individual gold medal at the European Championships in Switzerland, Ireland’s first show jumping medal in over 30 years. His success continued into 1996 when he won the Du Maurier Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows. Three years after winning his third consecutive Hickstead Derby, and team gold at the European Championships in 2003, Peter suffered a serious fall in which he ruptured his spinal sheath, shattered ribs and broke a vertebrae. After his recovery, reasoning that he had British owners, lived in Britain and paid British taxes, Peter set into motion plans to change his nationality again. He was given clearance by the FEI in 2008 and has ridden for team GB ever since.
“You dream about it, to be the last rider in, to win it; but to do it at your home Olympics? I’ll treasure that for ever.”