Laura Collett has clinched Olympic gold on her Games debut

Credit: AP

Olympic ‘journeys’ are rarely straightforward, and yet few competitors at the Tokyo Games have taken such a tortuous route towards clinching a gold medal as Laura Collett.

The 31-year-old from Gloucestershire became the first British female Olympic eventing champion this morning, part of a stellar team that dominated the team event. Yet while Collett has long been recognised within equestrianism as an exceptional talent, winning multiple medals at under-21 European championships, it was a horse from outside the rarefied world of eventing which first propelled her into the public consciousness.

Following his retirement from racing in 2012, the two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kauto Star was sent to Collett by his owner Clive Smith to learn dressage. The decision prompted an outcry from racing fans, furious that Kauto Star was being ‘demeaned’ after such an illustrious steeplechasing career, and that he was not being kept at the yard of his long-term trainer Paul Nicholls.

Collett, then just 23, found herself caught in the crossfire. “I was asked to have him for two weeks to see if he was safe enough to go to someone to do some low-level dressage," she recalls. "There was a media storm and Clive Smith and [Collett’s coach] Yogi Breisner felt it wasn’t appropriate to move him again, so he stayed with me.

"It got blown way, way out of proportion. There were headlines saying ‘Laura Collett to compete Kauto Star’. They were saying I wanted to aim him at the Rio Olympics! It was extraordinary."

In fact, Kauto Star had a happy time hacking and doing some schooling. Collett rode him in a few demonstrations at equestrian events, including at Olympia in 2014, but he never competed.

Credit: John Lawrence/Former race horse Kauto Star being ridden by Eventing and Dressage rider Laura Collett back in 2012

The saga took a tragic twist in June 2015, when Kauto Star had to be put down after suffering a bad injury in a freak accident in the field while Collett was away competing at Hickstead. Collett was accused of lying about the nature of the accident, first on social media and then in the press, and became the subject of a sustained hate campaign. She was criticised for conducting a photoshoot for a sponsor the day after Kauto’s death was announced and even received death threats.

At the time, Collett hit out at "malicious rumours" that Kauto had run into a wall, and insisted she had "never cried so much in my life" after he was put down.

Now, six years on, the pain is still raw. “I adored him – he was an absolute gent and lovely to have around,” she says, "but I’d never take on a horse like that again. It was done with the best will in the world, and it ended up being awful.”

Collett maintained her composure in public, but her self-belief was dented. Just two years previously, Collett had suffered a terrible fall on the cross-country while competing at Tweseldown which left her in an induced coma for several days with multiple fractures, and caused the permanent loss of sight in her right eye.

“I have no recollection of the fall,” she says. “I’ve watched it on video quite a few times – I find it weirdly fascinating – because I needed to know whether it was my fault or not, and it wasn’t. I think I would have felt differently if it had been my mistake.”

She has learnt not to give anonymous criticism on social media so much weight and to trust in the talent, skill and determination that has meant she has run a successful business since she left school at 16. With family support but no financial backing, Collett has always had to buy young horses “raw” and produce them herself, a painstaking business that takes years.

Her Olympic partner, London 52, is the culmination of this. Collett spotted him in Germany and persuaded Karen Bartlett and Keith Scott to help her purchase the spectacular bay in 2016. The 12-year-old, known at home as “Dan”, was visibly very able in all three phases of eventing – dressage, cross-country and showjumping – but, Collett says, had to learn to recognise that in himself.

“The turning point was winning at Pau,” she says. “I had always known he was potentially one of the best horses in the world, and I went there knowing that we were good enough to win. That was the weekend he changed – he no longer needed me to give him confidence and hold his hand. Now he believes in himself and he knows how good he is.”

The same could be said for Collett. Ahead of today’s show jumping event, the British team – completed by world No1 Oliver Townend and Tom McEwenare – had already put themselves into the gold medal position after a superb cross-country performance.

"We are all as hungry and as competitive as each other," Collett, who will compete in the individual event later today, says. "We respect each other, we like each other and we have fought our way on to the team. There is no weak link.”

And so it ultimately proved.