Last weekend 16-year-old Taloubet Z won another World Cup qualifier in Germany and in England a racehorse called Cue Card won his third Grade One Bet Fair Chase. Both are outstanding horses in their disciplines and no doubt in various news reports words like “great” and “legend” were used freely when describing them; legitimately, as both are fine horses at the top of their game. Maybe it’s the time of year with all the “Best of” Lists going to start rolling any day now, but I started thinking about who all the great ones are across equestrian sports and what factors are considered.
Valegro is currently the horse that springs to mind whenever greatness is talked about, but it needs to be remembered that dressage is subjective and scoring has changed in recent years. Judges can now give half marks and are encouraged to use the full range of marks. Horses are also being bred to produce flashier action these days. When Nicole Uphoff and Rembrant won their second Olympic title in 1992, the horse, although perfectly trained, looked almost Thoroughbred, he is so light in his frame. He is also without the extravagant and, to some observers, over exaggerated front end action of say, Tortilas. Arguments about dressage champions will go on forever because of the human element involved about judging, but no matter how high his scores, if number of titles count, Tortilas does not even make the top three. He is well behind Valegro, Rembrant and also Reiner Klimke’s Ahlerich.
Greatness in show jumpers is possibly easier to quantify even though jumping height on its own does not make a show jumper magical, or only puissance horses would be considered for the jumping hall of fames. One has to consider performance at the World Championships, where the top four riders all swap horses, which makes for some strange results. Who would have thought that Shutterfly, winner of three World Cups would so violently dislike the saddle change process during the final four in 2006? Does that stop him being a great horse? Possibly not, but lacking a World Championship or Olympic individual gold probably does. The truly great can do it all; jump five 1.60 tracks clear in four days at an Olympic Games, remain faultless when ridden by three complete strangers at a World Championship and be fast and agile enough to come out best in countless Grand Prix jump offs. Hickstead, the peerless partner of Eric Lamaze, did all of those things and no matter how far you go back in jumping history, there will not be many who could equal, never mind better, that outstanding champion.
Here judging greatness over the ages is almost as difficult to judge as dressage. The sport has done away with the long format and cross-country fence design has changed so radically that today’s tests just don’t compare. Even today’s dressage tests contain movements that were unheard of for eventers twenty years ago, so measuring relative merits is almost impossible. That is until Michael Jung and the indomitable Sam arrived on the scene. The nature of eventing means that even getting a horse to successive Olympic Games is an achievement, and winning in successive Games is almost unheard of. Up until 2012, only two other horses had done it – Marcroix for the Netherlands back in the 1920s and Sir Mark Todd’s Charisma in the ’80s. But neither of them also added a world title, a European title, and team gold at all of those championships. Don’t forget to top all that off with the Grand Slam of Badminton, Burghley and Rolex Kentucky. Sam is a most remarkable horse, in this century or any other. He can be counted as the greatest not just by the amount of his championship wins, but the manner in which he does it – leading from start to finish is perhaps even more impressive!
You would think with racehorses it might be easier, after all they just run surely? Well yes, except when they have to jump as well! Like eventing, the nature of Steeplechasing precludes huge winning streaks, but, even so, only one horse has ever had the rules of racing changed for him to try and make contests more equal. Back in 1957, a horse was born in Ireland named Arkle and he proved to be so good that he was allotted the top weight in races of 12stone 7lbs (175lbs) while all others in the race carried the minimum weight, 10 stone (140lbs). Even with that allowance, it took horses good enough to be champions in their own right to catch him, and it didn’t happen often. This weekend sees the running of a famous British handicap, The Hennessy Gold Cup. Top weight now is a mere 11stone 10lbs (164lbs)! Arkle’s victory in 1965 was recently voted the best ever in the race. 35 races, 27 wins and not worse than third in the other five even with a broken foot in the last one!
Man o’ War dominated American racing for two years in the 1920s, losing only one of 21 races and like Arkle carrying huge weights, pounds more than his rivals, while still recording massive winning margins and track records. For many he was the best ever in North America. But for sheer pulsating brilliance, the epitome of speed and class, it is hard to look past Secretariat’s performance in the Belmont Stakes. Yes, it also won him the Triple Crown, but he did it in a track record that still stands almost fifty years later. Frankel, the recent unbeaten British champion, never broke a track record once and the excuse was that he was never pushed or extended by his rivals… That might stand up if any other horse in Secretariat’s Belmont had even seen which way he went after the first quarter! His time is still nearly two seconds faster than the next best in the history of the race and the winning distance was a staggering thirty-one lengths. Secretariat was not infallible, he lost five of his twenty-one races, but on that day in New York, by any measure, he was one of the greatest horses to look through a bridle in any discipline.
But does measuring greatness even matter? Whatever horse sport you enjoy, half the fun is discussing what you have seen and comparing that to other performances you have watched or heard about. The nobility of a horse straining every sinew to grab first prize, that is what makes horse sport entrancing and all the horses, whether they finish first or last, great in their own right.