hen you’re on the hunt for a story, sometimes the best thing to do is just ask. After completing a photoshoot with Sri Lankan Olympic hopeful Mathilda Karlsson, I asked her if she knew of any interesting people or stories I should pursue while on grounds at MET Oliva. Without hesitation she suggested I talk to British-born Hungarian show jumper Jamie Wingrave. “It would be good for him. He really needs to promote himself,” she said, in a big sister sort of tone, and set about making introductions.
Before the scheduled interview, I did some internet sleuthing (as you do) to scout out some more information about Jamie. And to be honest, I found very little. Curious, I thought, that a professional at the top level of show jumping doesn’t have a website or fan page. But in chatting at length with Jamie over coffee, what I came to discover mirrored Mathilda’s evaluation: Jamie doesn’t spend much time tooting his own horn; he’s too busy working on reaching goals, for himself and for others.
Horses are in Jamie’s blood. His family’s interest in the animal goes way back, as his great-grandfather was a farrier in the Royal Horse Artillery. “He was my father’s hero, quite understandably. So my father was always in the forge with his grandfather. And for that reason, they started to ride when they had the means to and the time, and I tagged along,” Jamie recalls. He tried a bit of eventing but “my attention span wasn’t what it should have been. As a kid all I wanted to do was show jump.”
From a young age, Jamie produced ponies and young horses to sell, and helped his parents fund the development of their farm in England. “It was a fantastic process — we built it together, which is nice to say as a young kid that you weren’t just spoon-fed, you actually gave something back.”
Weeks after his 21st birthday in 2002, Jamie won individual silver and team gold riding for Great Britain at the FEI European Championships for Young Riders. “On the back of that, I really felt like I had some momentum.” He linked up with Michael Bullman, a stalwart of British Show Jumping, and rode some young horses for him. Michael’s star rider at the time was Joe Turi, who was Hungarian-born but rode under the British flag for a decade. Joe and Michael set up shop in Hungary, but when Joe was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 2003, Jamie was invited by Michael to work for him at his Hungary-based stables. Two years later, Jamie switched his nationality to ride under the Hungarian flag.
“My change in nationality was really a little bit of juggling between my personal goals, wants, needs, and business. I realized quite early on riding in Hungary for Britain was quite a difficult thing to do,” Jamie says. Not to mention the scene in Britain is hugely competitive, and in order to stay in the sport he so adored, Jamie had to find a way to stay relevant and to give his horses and owners the opportunities he felt they deserved.
“I changed to Hungarian, which is a knife in the heart personally because which kid doesn’t want to jump for their country?” Jamie admits. “But at the same time, you open up the opportunity to go to four-star, five-star shows, championships, where not only is the whole notoriety change on that level, but also the notoriety of your sponsors and your supporters, the value of their horses. You can jump a ranking class at a two-star show and do nothing different than, let’s say, at a five-star show where the fences are the same height, but your horse is worth a different sum.
“Looking back I probably complained a little bit, at that time, too much for a young man who should’ve kept his mouth shut and worked — kept his head down and kept working. But it’s helped me stay in the sport.”
In 2006, Jamie represented Hungary at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Aachen, and under Michael’s tutelage competed in more than 30 Nations Cups. Jamie’s big move had paid off; he was indeed living the dream. Then in 2014, at age 72, Michael passed away, and Jamie once again felt himself on the precipice of reinventing himself.
“I had a very stable position with Mike, was very well supported. I had a giant umbrella over my head no matter what happened. And when he passed away, it was very much a case of ‘what now?’ I tried a bunch of things; I tried to get out there and not to be stagnant, get out there and try to improve myself and try to reach out and see what was out there.”
Following a stint in America and Switzerland, Jamie settled in his current base at the iconic Stephex Stables in Belgium, where he lives and works three weeks out of the month. He still has the business in Hungary, which is managed day-to-day by his girlfriend, Sophie Czmorek. It’s a lot to juggle (and a lot of road miles), but the motivation stems from Jamie’s intense desire not to stagnate, not to disappoint the people who helped him get this far.
Among his biggest supporters are Gáspár Gyula, a friend and sponsor to Jamie since he first arrived in Hungary (“We’re very loyal to each other.”) as well as his current primary sponsor and student, Melissa Vardinogiannis of Greece. “From the beginning, my parents gave me everything they could. Then Michael got involved and gave me everything he could. Then Gáspár Gyula was right behind me the whole time. Now I’m with Melissa. From the beginning it was like, ‘this is what we’re going to do, and here we are getting ready to push forward.’
“I’m a great believer that you can’t do this sport unless you have a very strong team. And I like to give back,” he says. “There’s so much work that goes on behind-the-scenes, there’s so much support — financially, time, blood, sweat, tears — it’s all in there. That minute in the ring is just the tip of the iceberg. So I try to give back to the people who are giving to me.”
Teamwork makes the dream work. From left: Leonard Mussa, Jamie, Cecilia Veronesi, Daniele Gaudenzi.
Even if that means putting his personal ambitions on hold. The business, the relationships, the success of the people who support him take precedence, an outlook Jamie credits to one of his first mentors, the late Tim Stockdale. “Tim was a great team player. I think that rubbed off on me as well.”
That’s not to say he’s not still competitive. In 2017, Jamie was the traveling reserve for the European Championships at Gothenburg with Quirosa, a mare Jamie owned with the late Mr. Bullman. Most recently, he won the 1.30m CSI1* Grand Prix at Knokke riding Melissa’s 9-year-old mare Kelly’ Tje F. At the same show, he and Indiana Jones Max, a gelding owned by Melissa, placed well in 1.50m and 1.55m CSI3* Grands Prix. Jamie says he has real ambition for both horses in the sport, and their developments are the result of a successful owner/rider collaboration.
Like many children who find their way into a barn, Jamie has always dreamed of going to the Olympics, achieving the ultimate success in the sport. But he realizes that the dream depends on a multitude of factors, from horse power to finances. So he’s adapted as necessary, taken advantage of opportunities presented, and is willing to put someone else's ambitions before his own, all with respect to the underlying current of learning, progressing, and staying relevant in the sport.
“We all have our personal goals and there will be a time for that. When things are going our way, when everything is set up properly and you have a solid foundation, then there will be a time for a little bit of personal reflection and hopefully a bit of glory,” he says. “From day to day, it’s about the teamwork. It’s about making sure you can make ends meet, put the right message out there, and be a good person.”
Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.