Jared Savage is a senior reporter at the New Zealand Herald

Who is Jonathan Paget? From bricklayer to Badminton champion

Not so long ago, Jonathan Paget was laying bricks on Sydney building sites and trying to learn how to stay on bucking broncos for eight seconds at rodeo school.

This morning (NZT), the 29-year-old became just the second Kiwi behind Sir Mark Todd to win the Badminton Horse Trials, the Wimbledon of eventing, after a thrilling finish. To cap it off, it was the first time he had competed at the famous course.

Paget was second going into the showjumping phase and went clear in his round. World, Olympic and European champion Michael Jung of Germany, also competing at Badminton for the first time, seemed destined to go clear to win only to drop the last rail to hand victory to Paget.

World No 1 Andrew Nicholson, chasing an elusive first Badminton title at his 33rd attempt as well as the grand slam (and the US$350,000 prize that went with it) finished third.

Paget looks very comfortable in the eventing world now and, even though he is already world No 4, is considered a rising star of the sport. It's not something that seemed remotely possible even 10 years ago.

Born in Wellsford, he moved to Australia when he was three and after school started an apprenticeship as a bricklayer.

He might still be doing it had his father not bought a lifestyle block on the outskirts of Sydney and furnished it with a horse.

"I just started bush riding with my dad,'' Paget said last year. "It was a great way to spend a weekend - go for a ride and have a few beers and hang out. There were a whole bunch of people who did it with us and it just went from there.''

Where it took him was rodeo school. He wanted to learn how to improve his riding and thought trying to hang on to a bucking bronco for eight seconds would help.

But Paget wanted more and decided to take a year off bricklaying and work at an event yard.

"I love working with the horses and rodeo wasn't a good way to work with the horses at all,'' he said. "There's not much of a relationship with a horse when you were bucking them out of a chute for eight seconds ... I just like the lifestyle of being with horses all day. It was hard work but it didn't feel like work at the time.''

He was spotted by former Olympian Heleen Tompkins and recommended to Frances Stead, who owned Clifton Eventers. He still rides her horses and won Badminton on Clifton Promise and was also 14th on Clifton Lush.

In less than two years, he went from never having jumped a fence to competing at three-star eventing level (the second-highest level). In 2008/09 he was the nation's leading event rider, in 2010 was seventh at the world equestrian championships in Kentucky and last year helped the New Zealand team to second at the world equestrian festival in Germany and bronze at the Olympic Games. He also finished 10th in the individual event in London.

Paget is well ensconced in the eventing circuit but accepts he's different. "I'm a bricklayer who rides a horse,'' he said. "Most of these guys have been brought up differently. I try to fit in but I grew up in Sydney in the suburbs and laid bricks. I didn't grow up in a dressage saddle.''

It also meant he "copped a bit of shit'' from his mates for a while. Paget thinks his rodeo background helps him at times "when things get a little wild or ugly''.

It was a tense ride this morning and it took some time for Paget to discover he had won. He couldn't watch Jung's ride because it followed immediately after his and he relied on the crowd's response.

"I'll need a week for this to sink in,'' he said. "I wasn't looking. I was hanging out with the horse and I heard them say it was going down to the last line.

"I've spent a bit of time with Michael and he's such a perfectionist. When he gets to the last fence, you expect him to have it down.

"The crowd cheered and I thought, 'Well, he deserves it'. Then I heard the crowd groan and I thought, 'S***, I think I just won'.

"Winning Badminton is everyone's dream. I came here knowing that I could win, but I never thought I would win.''

There might be some from Paget's former life who might struggle to believe it, too.

- NZ Herald

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