Edwina Tops-Alexander is the highest ranked female show jumper in the world. In 2017 she gave birth to a baby girl, Chloe, and in 2018, after clocking up numerous victories, she became the inaugural winner of the $1.4m Longines Super Grand Prix in Prague. CANDIDA BAKER looks at the life and times of an inspirational rider.
The list of Edwina Tops-Alexander’s firsts just keeps tumbling – unlike the fences she’s jumping. In December she became the second ever woman to win the Paris Longines Grand Prix on her amazing mare, 11-year-old California, becoming the first Australian to take pride of place on the winner’s podium.
Only a week later, at the Coruna World Cup in Spain, Tops-Alexander and her nine-year-old stallion, Vinchester won their first 1.60m class together, with the horse having only just jumped 1.50m a few days before that stellar performance.
Her winning streak continued when Edwina, once more riding California, became the first ever winner of the inaugural $1.4m Longines Global Champions Tour Super Grand Prix in Prague on December 16, 2018 – beating German veteran Ludger Beerbaum by a mere half-a-second. But half-a-second is all the triple-Olympian needed to cement her place in equestrian history.
All of this topping her success in Aachen, Germany 2006, when she became the first Australian to make the final of the individual jumping competition at the World Equestrian Games, finishing fourth.
Originally from Turramurra, in Sydney’s northern suburbs, Edwina started riding when she was eight-years-old. “We weren’t a horse family,” her mother has said, “but we had neighbours with horses, and Edwina used to watch them ride. She decided she wanted to learn, and she loved it so much she joined the Avondale Pony Club in North Turramurra.”
The young Edwina’s ambitions were mostly relatively modest. She wanted her ears pierced, a navy blue jacket and a chestnut pony. The other ambition, to ride at the Olympics, seemed not quite as easy to achieve, but the goal was a portent of things to come.
Even her first horse wasn’t exactly star material. “He was an un-broken four-year-old pinto,” she recalls, “not exactly first horse material when you’re eight, but somehow we survived.”
Edwina attended Pymble Ladies College, and after school gained her degree as a Bachelor of Physical Education, all the while training and riding. Her competitive streak didn’t too long to assert itself, and by 1995 Edwina had won the Australian Young Rider Championship.
Even determined champions have their rough patches, something all of us would do well to remember, and the sport almost lost her when she was 18. “I had a horse that just refused all the time,” she recalls, “and I almost stopped riding.” But she persevered, training, and riding different horses and in 1998, only three years after her AYR Championship, she made her debut riding for Equestrian Australia in Hong Kong, moving to Europe later that same year taking her horse Mr. Dundee to Belgium with her. Edwina was based with Belgian show jumping star Ludo Philippaerts for three years before she made the decision to branch out on her own, creating her own company buying and selling horses for Australian clients.
“The fact is,” Edwina has said, “that unfortunately Australia is not the core place for my sport. If it was, I’m sure many more of us would want to live there, but Europe and the U.S is where we have to be based. It was a great place to grow up, and gave me the chance to compete in many different sports, but Europe is where the best show jumping is.”
It wasn’t the easiest time though, starting over. “She had to prove herself right from the start over again,” her mother says, “but after six months she came home and told us that she wanted to be based in Europe.”
As she became better-known in Europe, and the winner’s podium became a regular event for her, another side to Edwina started to show itself to those around her. Always interested in fashion, her perfect turnouts, and her style gained her admirers in the fashion industry and some A-list sponsors, including Gucci, Equifit, and the Swiss watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre, for whom she’s an ambassador. In her downtime she likes nothing more than a shopping spree. “For anything,” she says. “I just like shopping!”
‘Strong’, ‘powerful’, ‘motivated’, ‘talented’, ‘petite’, ‘determined’ – these are all adjectives that people who know Edwina have used to describe the diminutive blonde, who says, as the highest ranking female rider in the world: “I don’t feel any different as a woman rider to any male – but it does feel good to beat the boys.”
Edwina’s achievements have been consolidated with her extraordinary partnership – and marriage – to previous Olympian and renowned horse breeder and trainer Jan Tops. “She was raw talent when I first met her,” he says. “But she didn’t have a huge amount of knowledge about how to do the technical flatwork and exercises that would take a horse to the top.”
It was literally a match made in horse-heaven. The couple met when Edwina first moved to Europe, but didn’t actually begin a relationship until 2000. Edwina was keen to learn, and Jan to teach her. “She tries 100 percent every single day,” he says, “and that’s what sustains her.”
In 2006 while they were at a show in Malaysia, Jan hatched a plan – the Global Champions Tour. Edwina could immediately see that the merits. “All he had to do was pull it off,” she said at the time. In only five years the GCT has it lifted the level of prize money by hundreds of thousands of dollars – in Aachen, for example, it went from $150,000 to $1million.
The philosophy behind the GCT is that less should be more in show jumping. “Show jumping horses are valuable, unique and hard to come by,” Edwina says. “We believed that if we could create something that meant competitors could earn more, and jump their horses a bit less, then the horses welfare would be better looked after.”
Jan was already famous in the equestrian world for his ability to create partnerships between horses and riders, but his partnership with Edwina (they married in 2011) has allowed that talent to blossom. “He’s found me amazing horses,” Edwina says. “But also what you need to remember is that every horse is different. You can’t ride every horse the same way, and so the right way to ride the horse is as important as the horse itself.”
And there is no doubt that some of the horses she’s ridden will be remembered forever. Horses like Pialotta, Socrates and Cevo Itot du Chateau, for example, with California and Vinchester hot on their heels as champions in their own right.
But of all of those horses, it’s Cevo Itot du Chateau, affectionately known as ‘Toti’, that remains her horse of a lifetime. No fan of show jumping could surely ever forget the little 16.1hh chestnut gelding out of Le Tot de Semilly, given to Edwina by her husband as a Christmas present in 2007, that took her to victory not once, but twice in 2011 and 2012 on the Global Champions Tour.
“He’s not anywhere as large as many of the other horses,” she says, “but he’s got heart and he and I just connected straight away. Toti has earned more than $3.5m in prize money – an amount even a top racehorse could be proud of. He retired in 2014 at the age of 18 but according to Edwina still rules the roost. “He’s got a bit more weight than he used to have, but he’s still very active.”
These days the couple divide their time between Monaco, where their daughter was born, and Valkenswaard in The Netherlands, where their magnificent stable, Stal Tops, is set on 24 acres, surrounded by woods. The property has three Grand Prix fields, a staff of 12, and on average 35 horses present when they are not at competition. Edwina rides five to eight horses a day, runs, eats healthily – and, she says, “gets lots of sleep,” although it’s a bit hard to see how she has the time to sleep. She’s achieved representing Australia at the Olympic Games at Beiging, London and Rio, and in 2011 and 2012 was the overall champiton of the Longines Global Champions Tour twice in a row. She’s won Grand Prix events in over 10 different countries during the course of her competition career.
Perhaps the best bit of her recent inaugural LGCT Super Grand Prix win, was that she didn’t realise she had won! All three leading jumpers, Dutch rider Frank Schuttert, Ludger Beerbaum and Edwina all had four penalties over two rounds. Pulling all stops out, the Australian couldn’t actually see her results. “I thought the crowd was just cheering because I’d finished,” she says. “I really didn’t think I’d won. After I had the fence down, I thought, ‘right, I just have to go for it.’” And so she did!
The next week, leading up to Christmas, saw her at the Olympia Horse Show in London, with three mounts, Dakota, Veronese Teamjoy and Vinchester, her stunning stallion. Although she finished a creditable 13th overall in the top 30 rider standings – to put that into perspective, she was the only Australian in the top 20.
Looking back at her decision in March 2017 to “retire indefinitely” from the sport she so loves before the birth of Chloe, seems, in hindsight, as if it was never going to work for this power house of a competitor. In September 2017 she was already back to five-star competition in Switzerland surely making it one of the shortest retirements in the world.
Although she is a strong advocate for women in sport – across the board – she does not like to see showjumping as ‘Men against Women’. “For me it’s horses against horses,” she says.
May the best horse win.