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The Big Read: Andrew Nicholson's journey from broken neck to Badminton triumph

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo after winning the Badminton Horse Trials. Photo: Stephen Bartholomew / Libby Law Photography
Andrew Nicholson and Nereo after winning the Badminton Horse Trials. Photo: Stephen Bartholomew / Libby Law Photography

Make no mistake: Andrew Nicholson overcoming a broken neck to triumph as the Badminton horse trials' oldest winner, at 55 years, nine months and six days, on Nereo, is among the most uplifting stories in sport.

Not to be outdone, 17-year-old Nereo, the chestnut gelding Nicholson has trained for 13 years, also became the oldest horse to win the four-star event.

Anyone who has scrutinised Nicholson operating as a businessman and a rider will understand the unbridled passion accompanying his 37th, but first victorious, completion of the event. No one has completed more.

A phlegmatic nature belies a man who has staked everything on his horsemanship.

"The feeling is unbelievable," Nicholson said. "I've been waiting so long for it. When I was young it seemed quite easy to win Badminton; just be brave and away you go. I found out it's very difficult."

Nicholson's words hold weight. His last journey, in 2015, to the Duke of Beaufort's estate in Gloucestershire saw him and Nereo enter the showjumping as overnight leaders. Three dropped rails later they had finished sixth.

Rival William Fox-Pitt triumphed after going clear on Chilli Morning. Nicholson passed him on his way to the arena as the echo of a British ovation roared out through the entrance. He had to pull Nereo away as he guided him towards the theatre. Nicholson was left lamenting what might have been.

This time Nicholson received the ovation. Patrons rose as he and Nereo's owner Libby Sellar received the winner's trophy.

Observers might also note a sentimental narrative. Nicholson took the record as Badminton's eldest champion from Sir Mark Todd who was 55 years, one month and 24 days old when he completed his fourth victory, on NZB Land Vision, in 2011.

Todd finished fourth (on NZB Campino) and sixth (on Leonidas II) today.

Nicholson, Todd's long-time rival and teammate, was also his groom during his maiden victory on Southern Comfort III in 1980.

The chances of Nicholson winning Badminton dropped to negligible on August 9, 2015 when he broke his neck at the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park.

A shattered vertebrae was the difference between maintaining his vocation or tetraplegia.
His mount Cillnabradden Evo failed to clear the last cross-country fence. Nicholson heard a pop as he fell. He got up, realised the horse was fine, and wandered back to his lorry in preparation for his next ride.

Similar accidents to the cervical spine paralyse 98 per cent of sufferers and destroy the lives of others when the delicate but mandatory surgical procedure goes awry.

Nicholson was saved because the vertebrae's explosion released the pressure on his spinal cord. He got up, walked around and didn't exhibit the usual devastating symptoms.

In short, Nicholson's recovery has been miraculous. Just over a year later, and with only subtle changes to his riding technique, he finished second at Burghley.

Now he has added the elusive Badminton crown.

Listen: Andrew Nicholson on the Radio Sport Breakfast

Shaking Nicholson's hand sends a firm message that no horse under his command gets much free rein.

That's the way it has to be when your sport is your livelihood. Nicholson's a businessman first, rider second. You can't afford to let any opportunity escape your grasp.

He and second wife Wiggy turned what was a 40-acre Wiltshire beef farm in the early 2000s into one of the more enviable per capita operations in the equine fraternity. They commissioned the building of stables, a dressage ring, showjumping paddocks for all conditions and - with prize money from being the No.1 rider in the world - an indoor arena. The arena is without lights, so Nicholson wouldn't be tempted to ride more than his staple eight to nine hours a day. His horses are generally bought as two or three-year-olds from breeders in Spain. The Nicholson team break them in before on-selling them to owners.

Nicholson believes a horse requires a minimum of five years' training to reach four-star level. The flipside is once they're experienced, their bodies are deteriorating. The skill is managing them as they get older.

Nereo is the poster-horse for such principles.

Andrew Nicholson. Photo / AP
Andrew Nicholson. Photo / AP

Upon arrival in England, Nicholson lived with the family of Stanley Powell. Powell had escaped from prisoner of war camps during World War II, returned to England weighing four-and-a-half stone and went on to make a fortune as an agent for products like toothpaste in Nigeria.

When Nicholson was struggling during his first season, Powell encouraged him to persevere. He flew back to the Waikato, vowing never to return, but Powell's influence prevailed. A pivotal moment was completing a full year in the climate.

"I have never been more frozen than back during those February mornings taking the horses out; freezing hands, face and feet," he told the Herald during a visit to his property in 2015.

"You knew how to appreciate a sunny spring day."

Such attention to routine and detail has seen Nicholson beat the paradox that you need loyal owners to succeed but need to succeed to find loyal owners. It might also explain why he was out working on his tractor at 5am after his 2015 Badminton disappointment.

Perhaps, a ninth four-star title - alongside those won at Burghley (five times), Kentucky, Pau and Luhmuhlen - in addition to three Olympic Games and three World Equestrian Games medals, means Nicholson might gift himself a sleep-in tomorrow.

- NZ Herald

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