[View an extensive library of images of Andrew Hoy here]
A casual observer probably wouldn't notice, but on the road between Somerby and Oakham, in rural Leicestershire, is a line of flag poles, adorned with the national flags of various countries.
The team at Somerby Stables is a very international one. It is home to Australian equestrian Olympian Andrew Hoy, his German wife Steffi and their two children, supported by a team of grooms and riders from Australia, England, Italy, Germany and France.
At 62, Andrew has been to more Olympic Games than any other Australian, a total of seven games since Los Angeles. At those games he has won a total of three team Golds and one Individual Silver. This week he sets off for Tokyo as hungry for success as ever.
So why here? How did Australia's longest serving Olympian come to be living and working in the heart of the East Midlands?
The United Kingdom is a major hub for the equestrian sport of three-day eventing. Top riders from all over the World base themselves in this country, where competitions take place on almost every day of the week, March to November. England hosts two of the seven top flight 5* events which happen worldwide, at Badminton and Burghley.
Andrew moved to the UK twenty years ago and counts the Gatcombe Park Estate of The Princess Royal as one of his British bases, among others. When he began looking for a new long-term base a few years ago, he had a particular set of requirements, such as indoor and outdoor schools, hills to train on and plenty of grass paddocks, "where horses can be horses". When they found Somerby Stables, it had everything they wanted apart from accommodation for Steffi and Andrew on site, something the owner was prepared to build for the right tenant.
They are strong believers in the local community. Wherever possible the team use the village shop in Somerby, their vets are all based at the excellent equine hospital in Oakham, and their haylage comes from a local farmer. Andrew and Steffi's son joins their daughter at a local primary school next year. "We wanted the children to grow up in this sort of environment, surrounded by farmland and this property had everything we wanted," the man from Culcairn, New South Wales, told me, as his son motored past on a battery-powered John Deere tractor.
Born on a farm in February 1959, Andrew was comfortable with horses at a very young age. His Great Grandfather trained a Melbourne Cup winning horse and Hoy was riding by the time he was six. He attended a local pony club on a horse owned by his uncle, while his Aunt was an instructor, so everything was done properly. "Before he became a cattle farmer, my Father was an engineer," Andrew told me. "He had a great attention to detail in every facet of our lives."
He was selected in unusual fashion for his first Australian team in 1978, at the age of 19. "I remember my Father and I were busy on the farm when they were told there was an important phone call. My Father spoke to the caller and when he came back I asked him what it had been about. He told me that they wanted me to be on a team to go to the Wodl Championships in Kentucky, but that he had told them, 'we will let you know'". At the time, Hoy had only ridden his current horse to Intermediate level but some withdrawals had created a space and he was destined to fill it.
"Back then," he recalls, "the powers that be never expected horses to return from such overseas trips. I was told that an American would pay good money for my horse while I was there and I would return on my own. I didn't want that, so the local community set about trying to fund a return trip via events and sales of various sorts in the local town of 10,000 people."
Andrew’s partner for his eighth Olympics is the 12-year-old Anglo-Arab Vassily de Lassos, bred in France and later produced to 3* level by Tom Carlile. The horse is 80% thoroughbred so the shorter, more race-like cross country course which the Tokyo Olympics will offer will suit them well. Andrew’s childhood home in New South Wales has also prepared him well for the heat and humidity of this Olympics. At the test event, held a year in advance to test out the logistics of the event, Andrew was approached by the British Team Doctor who remarked that he was walking around after his cross country ride in his helmet and body protector, with not a bead of sweat in sight.
The story of how the Paula and David Evans came to own him is remarkable. Andrew met Paula Evans through the Willberry Wonder Pony charity when Paula came to attend a clinic which Andrew had offered as a prize for the fundraisers who had raised the most for the charity. As is the way with twists of fate, Paula fell from her horse and broke her collarbone. Embarrassing though it was, this led to a friendship which culminated in Paula and her husband deciding that they would like to own a share of an event horse with the Hoys. Vassily was too expensive for their budget but Andrew suggested that they go in with another party and share the ownership. Instead the Evans’ decided that they would extend their budget and buy the horse outright, a decision which led to their first event horse being an Olympic team member.
When they kindly invited me to spend some time with them for an interview, they were preparing to start their circuitous journey to Andrew's eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo. A games like no other. Equestrians are used to the vagaries of international travel to competitions, horses needing a period of quarantine before and after travel to any destination outside of Europe. This year, however, the COVID pandemic has made the logistics even harder. The Japanese organisers have enforced an isolation period for the human team members - Andrew and his groom Clementine - which they will spend in Dorset at the base of fellow team member Chris Burton. They have also restricted the numbers of connections who can travel. Only one of each horse's owners may attend, but Andrew's horse Vassily de Lassos is owned by the Evans family and they kindly gave their seat on the plane to Andrew's wife Steffi, so that she could be there to support.
Once horse, rider and groom have completed their quarantine period, they will travel with the Australian team to Liege in Belgium, from where all the Olympic horses will fly, via Dubai, to Tokyo. Once there they will be transported to the Equestrian Centre where they will then remain throughout the competition, travelling only for the cross country element of the eventing discipline, held on Sea Forest Island in the harbour.
As Andrew sets off for his eighth Olympic Games, it is worth considering some statistics for the Australian team as a whole. 62% of the team will be travelling to their first Olympics, and for 60% it will be their only games. For one athlete’s career to include as many as Andrew’s is truly remarkable, and he lives just down the road.
If you would like to follow Andrew Hoy’s progress, along with that of the British team who go into the competition as favourites, then there will be extensive coverage on TV and online, starting at half past midnight on Friday 30th July 2021.