Heartbreak Hill: South African rider’s Olympic dream dashed

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When they named the thoroughbred foal Heartbreak Hill, no one imagined just how much heartbreak there would be.

Heartbreak Hill, affectionately known as Harry, was to be the first South African-bred horse ever to compete in the Olympic Games. Harry’s rider, Paul Hart, was selected to compete in eventing, a grueling discipline a little like an equestrian triathlon that combines dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping.

Harry’s Olympic journey was a milestone in a country where the arduous quarantine for the deadly African horse sickness makes exporting horses for international competing expensive and difficult.

But the international Court of Arbitration for Sport on Saturday ordered South Africa to drop Hart, 45, from the competition in favor of Alex Peternell, 30, a South African rider based in Britain who had appealed his exclusion from the team. The CAS is top court for the resolution of sporting disputes.


No Hart, no Harry. Peternell will ride Asih, a German horse imported to Britain in January.

After Saturday’s ruling, the the South African Olympic committee initially declared it would not enter a contestant in the competition if it could not send what it said was the more experienced team of horse and rider. But the Switzerland-based court ruled Monday that the selection rules take into account only the rider’s international ranking, not the performance of the rider and horse together. The court declared Peternell, who is ranked higher than Hart, to be South Africa’s eventing rider.

Heartbreak Hill, a former racehorse sired by an imported American stallion named Rocky Marriage, was born in the Western Cape in 1996. He will be too old to compete at the next Olympic Games.

Hart was lucky to get Harry nine years ago. The previous owner sold the thoroughbred when the horse lost confidence and began stopping at jumps. But Hart says Harry turned out to have amazing talent.

“He is a sensitive horse. You can’t be in a rush at all. You have to be very calm around him,” Hart told South African media. “He knows when a show is coming up because of his routine. He picks up at the right time, he does it all. He knows.”

The court ruling left South Africa’s equestrian community bitterly divided, sparking dueling Facebook support pages for Hart and Peternell, where accusations of corruption and mismanagement are freely traded. A pro-Hart and Heartbreak Hill page had 1,286 supporters as of Wednesday, compared with 260 for a page backing Peternell.

Hart’s supporters accused Peternell, who has lived in Britain for 11 years, of ungentlemanly behavior for taking his omission from the team to court and using South Africa’s flag to further his own career. Peternell’s supporters muttered darkly about corruption.

Tubby Reddy, head of the South African Olympic committee, issued a statement Wednesday that barely concealed the organization’s anger and disappointment: “It is indeed a very sad day for us as a country to be instructed to select an athlete into Team South Africa against our will, but being a disciplined member of the Olympic movement we have no option but to adhere fully to this decision,” the statement said.

He described the court decision as “unfortunate as it forces upon the South African public an athlete that they do not necessarily recognize and one that they do not necessarily support.”

Peternell released a statement Tuesday on his Facebook support page noting that the selection criteria calling for the highest ranked rider to be chosen were well known.

“All I have ever sought throughout this whole horrendous process was for the decision to be made fairly and in accordance with the set criteria, and being allowed to proudly compete for my country,” the statement said.

Hart also released a statement, expressing bitter disappointment. “My representing South Africa, on a locally bred horse, would have paved the way for other riders to do the same and would have provided invaluable learning opportunities for me to share upon my return.”

The only South African who didn’t get to comment was Heartbreak Hill.


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-- Robyn Dixon