Regal Realm aka ‘Poncho’
Regal Realm: from Australian stock horse to Badminton winner and world champion *H&H Plus*
Featured Image: Regal Realm and Lucinda at the 1984 LA Olympics Credit: Getty Images
‘Regal Realm’ might rate as one of Australia’s best Thoroughbred exports; but how many know? Read on.
From herding cattle in Australia to winning world eventing gold, this headstrong horse – who didn’t do Polos or affection – became Lucinda Green’s “most talented of all”, as Martha Terry discovers.
LUCINDA GREEN has had many beloved champions.
Six Badminton victors, seven gold and five silver-medal winners. And while they all had their fortes and foibles, Regal Realm – her fifth Badminton winner and 1982 world champion – is the horse she puts “in the position of the most talented of all”.
Regal Realm’s story begins 10,000 miles away from the scenes of his great victories, under the fierce Australian sun on the dusty Comboglong cattle station in New South Wales. Bar the brief and rather brutal invasion of humans into his life for branding and castration, the young thoroughbred spent the first two years of his life almost untouched, roaming the vast outback in search of food and water, and developing the tough, independent spirit that would later become his hallmark.
Headstrong and defiant when it came to being broken in, Regal Realm – nicknamed Poncho – soon became the one stock horse that all the jackaroos wanted to ride. He was quick, nimble and incredibly sure-footed, pounding over the iron ground for up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
While Poncho was spending his time heading off stray cattle, Australian event rider Merv Bennett was finishing 12th at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 on an inexperienced horse called Regal Reign.
“After Montreal, our team manager Sir Alec Creswick told me he’d find me another Olympic horse,” says Merv. “Sir Alec identified an exceptional station horse among those on his cattle station [Comboglong]. He phoned and told me to pick the horse up as he had found ‘the one’.”
Sir Alec had picked out Poncho, a small, wiry six-year-old with a sun-bleached coat, so renowned for his brilliance as a stock horse that he looked like a scarecrow because he was so overworked.
“The station hands told us that he was the favourite horse everyone wanted to use as he was so handy at everything,” Merv adds. “He was even still saddled from work that morning when we came to pick him up.”
WITHIN three years, Merv was back at the Olympics – the alternative version held in Fontainebleau in France after the boycott of the Moscow Olympics – with both Regal Reign and his reserve horse, Regal Realm. For the Australians to make the great trip north to Europe, they planned to sell their horses after the three-day event – it was the only way they could pay their way.
Lucinda Green was also in Fontainebleau, riding Village Gossip, who finished seventh. But she was on the lookout for a new superstar.
“After Gossip, I didn’t have any top-level horses,” Lucinda says. “I’d done some testimonial work for Rolex and had £10,000 in my account, so I was ready to buy something decent. At the end of the competition, all the Australian horses were for sale for £20,000, except for Regal Realm, who was £10,000 as he was only reserve.”
The Australian rider David Green (later her husband) told Lucinda “that’s a really good little horse” and encouraged her to try him out.
“There wasn’t anything to jump, and I wasn’t about to part with £10,000 – the most I’d ever spent – without checking that he could,” says Lucinda. “There were some steel crowd barriers at about four feet high, so I pointed him towards them, jumped over and then he tanked off with me into the Fontainebleau Forest.”
The Australian chef d’equipe Bill Roycroft was furious.
“He said, ‘You shouldn’t have done that! It’s not your horse to risk.’ I felt so small.”
But this uncontrolled foray into the forest sealed the deal. Regal Realm came home with Lucinda to Appleshaw, Hampshire.
IT was a rocky start. Within three weeks, the horse was “crippled lame” with a problem in his front fetlock joint.
“It was shattering as all my money had gone on him and it was as good as down the drain,” says Lucinda.
The FEI vet Paul Farrington decided that Regal Realm was “short of oil in his joint capsule”, and pioneered a treatment that has since become routine in competition horses. His suggested cure was a hyaluronic acid injection – originally derived from a cockerel’s wattle but now a synthetic oil – into the joint capsule.
“It was a new science and no one knew much about it,” explains Lucinda. “Paul himself hadn’t tried it but he recognised that it could cure this problem. It was his pièce de résistance.”
Regal Realm “never took another lame step” over the next five years of competing at the highest level.
However, his physical wellbeing wasn’t Lucinda’s only concern in the early stages of their partnership. Thanks to his background in the outback, he was unused to affection.
“He was an extraordinary horse, very hard to get to know,” says Lucinda. “My idea was always to have a love affair with any horse I rode, but he just wasn’t interested. He’d spent seven years in the bush and people weren’t important to him. He didn’t do Polos, or cuddles. He was his own man who kept himself to himself. It took a year to get inside his trust. Gradually, though, we learnt to connect. But he never liked Polos.”
Lucinda believes she has Village Gossip to thank for her ability to get the best out of Regal Realm. Both horses were brave and wanted to go flat out across country, but they were also sensitive and resented being told what to do.
“I’d learnt the hard way, following a great deal of tears and refusals, that if I let Gossip go the speed he wanted to, he wouldn’t refuse; it was an incredible lesson in the art of cross-country riding,” Lucinda explains. “This was an unorthodox sort of horse – Gossip would come flat out into coffins, but he’d slow and right himself in the last two strides. If I slowed him down, he lost confidence and would stop.
“Regal Realm also needed to be allowed to go, and think everything was his own idea. And he was an amazing package, an incredible athlete. He was completely hollow, but it never mattered. We’d go round with his ears in my mouth, but he was a genius – and I could feel that from those two Fontainebleau crowd barriers. The Australians thought he could have been an Olympic showjumper, too, although he never basculed, but he just went ‘boing’ into the air.”
HOWEVER brilliant and scopey Regal Realm’s jump, dressage was always a struggle due to his conformation. He was ewe-necked and “narrow as a razor blade”. He was well set in his ways by the time Lucinda started training him and so sensitive that she reverted to doing her dressage tests in a jumping saddle.
Lucinda modestly believes that a sponsored trip to America in 1981 to train with Bert de Neméthy proved pivotal in their World Championships bid.
“I stayed with General Jack Burton near the USEA [United States Eventing Association] training establishment [where Bert was], but it snowed and so I couldn’t get out to drive to my lessons,” she says. “I decided I’d walk through the three feet of snow, and I think my determination made an impression on Jack.
“He was judging a few months later at the World Championships in Luhmühlen. We came into the dressage arena in a novice outline in a jumping saddle, and General Jack gave us 49 when anything under 50 was considered good. We went on to win double gold, and I always think it’s because he was judging – I think he only saw the snowdrifts I’d walked through. I’m always grateful for his generous marking.”
Badminton followed in the spring of 1983, and once again vet Paul Farrington came to the rescue.
“Regal Realm overreached early on at a big oxer after the lake, when he stumbled on landing,” says Lucinda. “He took a big chunk out of the bulb of his heel.
“In those days, you could attend to your horses throughout the night, and Paul went into his stable every few hours to ultrasound it. He trotted out sound the next morning and won – I was incredibly lucky. Paul should take so much credit for this horse’s success.”
This superstar pairing franked their Badminton form with double silver at the Europeans in Frauenfeld that autumn, and headed to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 as hot favourites.
“I always maintain we were lucky to win the world title, but at LA we paid our dues. For there was a very good Swiss dressage judge, Anton Bühler, in LA, who gave us our rightful mark – 53,” says Lucinda. “Regal Realm was by then going in a better outline than at Luhmühlen, and he did a really good test for him, but our team was horrified by our mark.
“Across country, he did his usual brilliant job to go inside the time. There was an oxer off a bank on to the golf course at fence three with shocking dimensions. It was fair, but a proper course, and Regal Realm was made for it.”
All the British team had to jump clear to win gold, which they didn’t quite manage, but Regal Realm’s foot-perfect round clinched silver and individual sixth.
“There was so much disappointment from everyone else, as he was tagged as the gold medallist, but I really thought he couldn’t have done better. He did his best in all three phases when it mattered most; there were just five others better on the day.”
At the 1982 World Championships in Luhmühlen, Lucinda and Regal Realm clinch individual and team gold
They were also sixth at the European Championships at Burghley the following year, having almost been dislodged by a virtually impenetrable bullfinch.
“We were early to go and the bullfinch was a big black wall – you didn’t think any horse could jump it,” Lucinda remembers. “It was too big to jump over, but he just read it and bravely pushed his way through it. I nearly got pulled off with the branches, and told the rest of the team to grip tight.”
After five years with Lucinda at top level, Regal Realm took his first lame step since his joint treatment after arriving at Appleshaw.
“We’d never had any trouble in five years; he’d done all you could ever want a horse to do,” says Lucinda. “So we gave him another injection, did Burghley [double clear and seventh] and his sponsor, John Burbidge of SR Direct Mail, very kindly flew him back to Australia, with me as flying groom, to spend a comfortable retirement in Jim and Sue Gunn’s outback home in Queensland.”
And so the little horse with a huge heart turned a full circle. The best stock horse on the ranch who flew across the globe to become the best eventer in the world – and back again.
“Brilliant from the start”
“When we first got Regal Realm home and found him fussy with his mouth, we discovered he had a tooth growing sideways which had to be surgically removed, and the resultant hole required daily care from then on,” says Aussie Merv Bennett, who trained him from stock horse to Olympic level.
“He was a brilliant jumper from the start, winning numerous showjumping competitions. He took longer to take to dressage. Because of his tooth, he had learnt to carry his head high, and it took time for him to accept the bit. But he had extremely good stamina, no doubt as a result of his sire being placed in a Melbourne Cup.
“He was very similar to my [Olympic team bronze medallist, pictured] Regal Reign – highly strung and extremely intelligent,” adds Merv. “But Regal Realm was smaller and would always be more suited to a smaller-framed person than me.
“We knew from the minute we saw Lucinda on him, they were a match made in heaven. I rode Regal Reign at the Luhmühlen World Championships and it was a delight to watch Lucinda win on Regal Realm. His success gave his former owner Sir Alec Creswick huge enjoyment and we all still reflect on his career with great fondness.”
A golden promise
“When Regal Realm won the World Championships in Luhmühlen in 1982, Britain hadn’t won double gold for some time,” says Malcolm Wallace, chef d’equipe at the time. “We were watching the showjumping and, of course, Lucinda jumped clear and Lord Hugh Russell said, ‘Ah’ rather sternly.
“‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.
“‘You’ll see later on,” he said.
“We had a party that night to celebrate and invited every team. I spent £1,000 on champagne. Lord Hugh Russell arrived on a bike under an umbrella, under which it transpired he was wearing just a pair of Union Jack underpants. He’d made some promise if Britain won gold.”
“A cage fighter”
“Regal Realm wasn’t very big, but he was one of the toughest horses on the circuit,” says Ian Stark, who was on the same silver medal-winning Olympic team in Los Angeles (pictured). “He was like a terrier of the horseworld. He was a brilliant, brilliant cross-country horse.
“Conformationally, he wasn’t the best; he was very upright and didn’t have the best paces, but he had such a good attitude and Lucinda rode him very well. He shuffled his way round the dressage arena and came into his own in the next two phases. He was a jumping machine, in both cross-country and showjumping, an absolute athlete. You could rely on him to produce a double clear.
“He made sure we won Olympic silver in LA with his clear showjumping. I was riding Oxford Blue, who hated showjumping and we had a few down. It was funny them being on the team together – they were total opposites. Regal Realm was like a little cage fighter, while Oxford Blue was a gentleman in a bowler hat.”
“What I remember best about Regal Realm was his extraordinary athleticism,” says Ginny Elliot, who was on the same Olympic team, riding Priceless, in LA 1984. “On the cross-country, he and Lucinda were like a pair of gymnasts.
“Lucinda always said Regal Realm couldn’t do dressage, but I wonder what would have happened if she’d had him from a four-year-old. She produced him fantastically well.
“I admired the way Lucinda dealt with the horse’s style, with his ears in her nose. Instead of insisting on him approaching fences in a classic way, tying him down, she adapted to him and trusted him.
“It’s a wonderful example of the rider adapting to the individual needs of the horse, making compromises.
“I took the memory of this example of horsemanship when it came to riding [1993 Badminton winner] Welton Houdini, who also carried his head very high. I remembered Regal Realm and thought if that’s the way he’s got to do it, so be it.”