Tina Cook is racing’s own Olympian and she deserves the heavens to relent as much as any competitor at the whole of the London Games. Last Sunday the skies smiled at last and something called sunshine briefly broke out across the Sussex Downs letting us revel in the thought that Tina and her event horse, Miners Frolic, could be history in the making.
She will be doing it from a place that has seen plenty of it already. For it was on these ancient Downs above Findon that Ryan Price won all the majors in the jumping cannon before switching to the flat and winning classics there too. It was up here that Tina’s father Josh Gifford trained Aldaniti to take Bob Champion to immortality in the 1981 Grand National. The opening sequence of the Aldaniti film was the nearest racing has come to the Olympic dream of Chariots of Fire. Now Tina and Miners Frolic bring us our chance of real gold.
It will not be easy and it has to happen soon. The Dressage section of the Three Day Event discipline starts next Saturday, the cross country will wow Greenwich Park on Monday and the next day sees the show jumping finale in the specially built arena in front of the 17th century glory of the National Maritime Museum. By Tuesday week, Tina and the horse she calls Henry could be just a footnote or a treasured memory in every household in the land.
If they were to triumph Miner Frolic’s homecoming would make Findon seem the centre of the world just as it did when Aldaniti got back from Aintree that April Sunday morning in 1981. “I was ten years old” remembers Tina. “But as I used to get car sick I stayed behind with Granny and watched it on the telly and cried and cried like the rest of my family. The next day was quite amazing. Crowds and crowds of people came from all over the country. The horse was unboxed in the middle of the village and there was bunting everywhere as we marched him up the lane and everyone piled into the yard and my Mum was horrified as they trampled all her precious daffodils. It’s nice to remember that Nick and Valda Embiricos were there as Aldaniti’s owners since they now have a half share in this horse.”
That propensity for tearfulness was most marked in her much missed father who was himself blubbing at home four years ago when Tina and Miners Frolic defied the stifling heat, pouring rain and cramped cross-country track dimensions to win team and individual bronze medals at the Hong Kong based last equestrian Olympics. Josh’s death in February was but the lowest part of what Tina bluntly describes as “an absolutely shit year” which has also seen the end of her marriage and, exactly 12 months ago, the seemingly certain end of any conceivable chance of wearing the Union Jack on her saddle cloth at Greenwich next Saturday.
Miners Frolic was sick. So sick with colitis that the Arundel Equine Hospital said that they did not think he would get through the night and his other part owner Sarah Pelham travelled down from Wiltshire to say goodbye. “I have never seen anything more horrific,” she says. “He looked like a Brooke Hospital rescue picture. He was hallucinating, had gashes where he had thrown himself around, his muzzle was pink from rubbing it against the wall and his feet were iced to try and prevent the fatal onset of laminitis. I didn’t expect him to live let alone get to London.”
That the horse did so owes much to vet Andy Crawfurd, to Sarah herself who fed Miners Frolic up to five times a day when she took him back home for recuperation, but most of all to the bold but patient 41 year old who trots her protegee through the butterfly sprinkled hay seed towards us. They have been together ten years and it shows both in the controlled suppleness of stride and their trusting familiarity one to another. Miners Frolic is by the High Top stallion Miners Lamp out of the 1994 Horse and Hound Cup winner Mighty Frolic but was such a tall lanky four year old when his owner breeder Mauric Pinto sent him to Tina’s brother Nick that it seemed a good idea that she should take him away to see “if there was anything there.”
A rider practically before she could walk and a British team member since her Junior days, Tina has the experience to know the need for time. “He was not born brave,” she says leaning on Miners’ Frolic’s neck with real affection, “but he has a wonderfully kind and generous nature and always wants to please. So I have planned his career carefully so that his confidence has kept increasing and he is a lovely horse to ride. For while he is a very athletic horse, he is also very obedient and does not pull too hard . I think that will be very important at Greenwich which will be very tight but also has steep hills where thoroughbred speed will be required.”
Ah yes Greenwich. How far away it seemed last Sunday with the Iron Age earthworks of Cissbury Ring high up to the left of us and the sun sparkling on the Solent out beyond Worthing. How ever farther did it feel for Tina who over the years has seen one Olympic dream after another snatched away before this horse of a lifetime was on his death-bed but twelve months ago. Before the Atlanta Games she had two of the best horses in the country only for them both to go lame. At Sydney she had travelled all the way south with a horse called The Gangster only to never get a run. When she failed to get selected for Athens she thought “sod it, I better go and see if I can have children.”
Isabelle and Harry are now a delightful – to outsiders at least – seven and five years old and had been badgering their mother earlier to put them both on the back of their pony Iona. At the beginning of 2008 Miners Frolic was a progressive but, in eventing terms still in-experienced ten year old and his making the Olympic team for Hong Kong/Beiiing was both a surprise and a challenge to his rider who, in her own words, “was still carrying a bit of post-baby fat and worried about my fitness in all that heat.” The delight of not only helping the British team to a bronze medal but of jumping a second clear in the show jumping to take an individual bronze had seemed only the beginning. “He was our best horse in the competition,” says Tina, “and then next year we won team and individual gold in the European Championships at Fontainebleu. “I am told I was the first mother,” she adds with a laugh, “to win an individual gold. Everything was going swimmingly. I thought Greenwich here we come.”
Not much changed in 2010 as they were part of the team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky albeit Tina and Miners Frolic got their wires and tracks crossed at the water. It was at Badminton last year that things began to implode. “I had to pull him out half way through with a lump on his wither,” says Tina. “Now we have all had lumps there before and you treat them for a few days and then get going again with a bit of extra padding. But this just would not go away and one night, after weeks and weeks of antibiotics, he was showing colic like symptoms (discomfort in the stomach that can sometimes lead to a twisted gut) and I did not like the look of him. I put him in the box and drove him down to the vets straightaway. Thank heaven I did.”
“Something had happened in reaction to all those antibiotics,” she continues, “and he just fell away. It was horrendous. He had so many blood transfusions that they ran out of the stuff and I had to take one of our other horses down to be a donor. The vets, particularly Andy, were tremendous but it did look as if we were going to lose him and even when he got through it and went off to Sarah’s to recuperate any sensible thought of riding in London seemed out of the question. But when he came back to us at the start of November he looked tremendous and I thought ‘why not start him off slowly and see if we can give it a go.’”
“Giving it a go” has long been a Gifford family motto. I remember Josh shouting it at me as I struggled rather windily round in a novice chase at Cheltenham in the ‘60s. Tina’s mother Althea has always kept a serene and smiling exterior but in her youth she was dashing enough to win show jumping championships at Wembley’s Empire Pool. Brother Nick took the stable over from his father in 2003 and last season’s unhappiness has in My Life and Utopian, at least two smart new horses to press forward with a training career in which Tina plays an ever increasing part as his assistant. But even by Gifford standards, “giving it a go” hardly seemed fuel enough to get Miners Frolic his now much needed Olympic qualification in the few months remaining.
Yet the years of mutual understanding and Tina’s still unquenched ambition began to pay off. Josh got very ill and then died in early February. Just two weeks later she defied the winter weather and her own grief to take Miners Frolic all the way to Ballindenisk in the west of Ireland to jump two splendid clear rounds, finish third overall and put the horse right back in the Olympic picture. “It was as if,” said British riding supremo Yogi Breisner in that careful but still slightly Swedish voice of his, “he had never been away.”
Whatever the traumas of getting there the Irish venture proved an inspired one as the rains came and wiped out both Badminton and Chatsworth and with them the opportunity for others to shine. Tina was still in main contention when she took Miners Frolic up to Yorkshire for the Bramham Trials in early June but two uncharacteristic errors in the show jumping seemed to have put everything in doubt. “I had a four and a half hour drive home thinking I had blown it,” says Tina. “We had been told that we would be called before lunch with the team. One o’clock and two came and I thought I must be out when Yogi finally rang. He said ‘how are you feeling?’ and I said ‘it rather depends on the next part of the conversation.’ Then he said You are in’ and there were whoops and tears and everything.”
Phone calls like that are one of the tipping points of every Olympic discipline as is the empty ache of rejection and the swelling pride of realising a lifetime dream. This one had the added weight in that it is not talking about an outsiders chance. “Of course you need luck in all competitions,” says Yogi Breisner, “and our horses are not likely to lead after the dressage. But Tina is one of a group of hardened competitors who know each other well and thoroughbred class will be a help round Greenwich. Ever since it was planned, I have always thought that you would need a quick witted pair round there. Miners Frolic and Tina are certainly that but the expectation and indeed the 20,000 capacity stadium will be unlike anything they have faced before.”
Tina sounds realistically ready for it. “Look,” she says, “of course I will get nervous and of course I can feel the adrenalin pumping around on a day to day basis but the most important thing of the moment is trying to make sure we can get him there. The trot up for the veterinary inspection is on the Friday of the opening ceremony and if he is not completely sound he will be out. Tread on a stone, bump him off the horse-box ramp and it could be disaster. He does a good dressage test but his chance will come in the jumping phases although the course is so tight and the time will be so hard to get that I don’t anticipate it will be a pleasure to ride. This is the sort of thing that could light up any horse but he has a wonderful brain and I think he will handle it.”
In Britain this weekend there are goose bumps at just writing that sentence as there will be for those penning equivalent hopes for other disciplines. But what adds an extra fascination to Tina Cook’s case is the realisation that there is very much a third string to her life beyond that of being a mother with an Olympic dream. As we rejoin her own mother and brother in the flintstone yard from which the Grand National story started with Jerry M in 1912 , it is clear that putting the Gifford family business back on the map is very high in her thinking and she in theirs. She even puts the racehorses first.
Well she rides them out first. After dropping off the children at the village school, she rides two or three for Nick before going back to her own yard, the now partly derelict soon to be sold Soldiers Field, to do the eventers with the help of Rosie Strong and Rachel Tolley, the latter now 17 years with her after originally arriving for a week’s “work experience.” Tina is unpretentious but exact and the assets she brings to the racing yard are incomparable. “She is like a mounted physiotherapist,” says Nick Gifford, “if I have anything that seems to be moving not quite right she will get on it and by putting it through her eventing disciplines on the flat she can not only tell what’s wrong with it but put it through a set of exercises to get it right. In the old days we just had to call the vet. Now 8 times out of 10 Tina fixes it.”
The siblings make an impressively complementary pair although admitting they “have their moments.” Next week will see the start of Tina’s three days of destiny with the horse of a lifetime but as she looks-out up the downs another future also beckons. “I just love being with the racehorses,” she says. “Using my experience to feel what is wrong, working with the thoroughbred brain. I might even train a few point to pointers. Dad would have loved that.”
Over the next three weeks there may be even more memorable events than a triumph for Tina and Miners Frolic. But there won’t be a happier – nor a more tearful one.