Horse Power

March 13, 2012

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 06, 2012

In dressage – the equestrian equivalent of gymnastics – there’s one horse head and mane above all the rest: 11-year-old stallion Totilas. But after controversially switching nationality (for 15 million Euros!), he’s struggling to maintain his form ahead of the Olympics. Ben Cove discovers the secrets of his horse power.

Mention the name Totilas to anyone with even a passing interest in equestrian sports, and their face will light up with uninhibited exhilaration. This Dutch Warmblood stallion is, quite simply, the greatest horse ever to grace the dressage arena. Triple gold medallist in dressage at the last World Equestrian Games, he has that je ne sais quoi: an intangible, inexplicable, priceless sparkle, the type of which had never been witnessed in his sport until he arrived on the scene three years ago.

“Totilas blew everyone’s minds at his first international event,” explains Carl Hester, Britain’s number one dressage rider who has competed against the 11-year-old stallion and his Dutch rider, Edward Gal. “Normally horses are either too relaxed or too on edge, but Toto’s temperament was impeccable. He moved with grace, with emotion, with spectacle. Almost instantly, he and Edward were breaking world records and transcending our sport like never before.”

Amidst the traditional conservatism of dressage, Toto, as he’s known, was fastbecoming a four-legged rock star; a superior being who single-handedly sold out arenas, quadrupled TV ratings and re-wrote records.

With his Facebook following spiralling into tens of thousands, and T-shirts with his image selling for hundreds of Euros, dressage had its first true superstar. At one horse show in Germany a female fan even tried to buy a rubber glove covered in the horse’s spittle.

Mention the name Totilas to anyone with even a passing interest in equestrian sports, and their face will light up with uninhibited exhilaration.

“We’re under no illusions. We know that, for the uninitiated, dressage can be boring to watch,” admits Hester. “But Totilas became to dressage what Tiger Woods, in his prime, was to golf. He added a new dimension and raised the bar. Suddenly those with no prior knowledge of the sport were hooked.”

Like so many defining athletes, Totilas has not been free of controversy. Born and bred in Holland – and having won a clean sweep of prizes under the Dutch flag during 2009 and 2010 – the stallion you couldn’t put a price on was sold for a reported 15 million Euros to a rival stable in Germany. Totilas’ Dutch rider, Edward Gal, who’d bonded with his equine partner for six years, was left devastated. “I felt like I’d been struck by lightning,” he admitted.

Germany, long the dominant force in international dressage, had already surrendered its stranglehold to Holland, its closest rival, so when the Germans lured him across, it was seen as a significant statement of intent.

Beforehand, eyebrows were raised if a million Euros were paid for a grand prix horse, let alone 15 times the amount. The move sent shockwaves throughout the dressage fraternity.

With the superstar stallion coming to terms with new surroundings and now operating under a new flag, and a new German rider, dressage fans waited in anticipation.

Totilas is so popular that a female fan even tried to buy a rubber glove covered in the horse’s spittle.

“This is where it gets interesting,” says Carl Hester. “Dressage is not an individual sport.

It’s a partnership. Many saw Totilas as untouchable while Edward was on the saddle, but he had to start over with the German rider.”

Fast forward a year, and Toto is now struggling in his quest to recapture former glories. The harmony that once oozed effortlessly from his and Gal’s performances has faded now that Matthias Alexander Rath, stepson of the new owner, is in the saddle.

Ahead of this summer’s Olympics, where the duo will compete under the flag of Germany, teething problems cloud their preparations.

“I don’t envy the pressure Rath’s under,” admits Carl Hester, who will face Totilas and his new rider in London. “Rath is a young guy, a great rider. But Totilas is expected to be extraordinary, and the chemistry he enjoyed with Gal takes years to nurture.”

It looks like Totilas will need his je ne sais quoi more than ever before. “With Gal aboard, I’d have said Totilas was a dead cert for gold,” Hester adds. “But now it will be wide open.

It just goes to show: no matter how much money you have, you can’t buy sporting supremacy.”

The world’s highest-paid stud

Although Totilas cost 15 million Euros, much of this money will be recouped in breeding fees. In 2010, his first year of breeding, the Dutch Warmblood stallion received more than 350 stud applications from countries all over the world. Half of the requests came from German stables where 175 mares were approved, each stumping up the breeding fee of 5,500 Euros. In total, this amounts to an annual revenue of more than a million Euros a year for 2011 and 2012. Should Totilas win Olympic gold this summer, this stud fee could double the following year.

Populous has designed London’s Olympic equestrian venue at Greenwich Park. It has also worked on Ascot (UK), Keeneland (USA) and Happy Valley (Hong Kong).

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