The Sydney-born blonde took her first ride at the age of eight on a neighbour’s pony. Back then her ambitions were to have her ears pierced, a navy riding jacket and a chestnut pony – and to ride at the Olympics. Now Edwina Tops-Alexander is the highest-ranked female rider in the world.
Text MARIA GRAAE Photography CAMILLA STEPHAN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.6
Australian Edwina Tops-Alexander is riding high. For more than two years she has been the highest-ranked female rider in the world and a magnet for high-end luxury sponsors such as Gucci and Jaeger-LeCoultre. She moved to Europe at the age of 24, and now at 38 she has established herself among the very best in the competitive showjumping circuit, taking on a world of royalty and new interests, and making it her own.
We meet Edwina at the Global Champions Tour at the Vienna Masters. She arrives exactly on time with a lot of energy in her walk and a big smile as she enters the room and takes a seat in a black upholstered leather chair. Australia’s most successful showjumping rider has her long hair in a casual ponytail, and is dressed head to toe in a black and white, exclusive Gucci equestrian wardrobe designed for her by the brand’s creative director Frida Giannini. On Edwina’s left hand sits an enormous, flawless white diamond ring, but to be honest this goes unnoticed until the photographer points it out at the end of the interview. Because what strikes immediately and keeps one’s attention is Edwina’s charisma and what a passionate athlete she is.
Arriving in Europe 14 years ago, Edwina rode for Belgian Ludo Philippaerts for three years before starting her own company, buying and selling horses for Australian clients in 2002. After getting involved in the business side of the sport, Edwina met her coach and future husband, Olympic gold medallist Dutch Jan Tops – one of the world’s top horse traders, as well as founder and president of the Global Champions Tour.
Besides her Olympic mount Itôt du Chateau, Edwina also brought the 10-year-old dark bay formerly known as Vleut to the show in Vienna. Since April, the top-looking stallion has been co-owned by Gucci and has been renamed Guccio, after fashion founder Guccio Gucci. The Quick-Star son shows great promise for the future, Edwina says, and resides along with 34 other horses in the stylish stable, Stal Tops in the Netherlands. The facility is set on 11 hectares surrounded by woodland and is not too far from the state-of-the-art equestrian property owned by their close friends, Alvaro de Miranda Neto and Athina Onassis de Miranda. Edwina and Jan live in Monte Carlo, Monaco, but with up to 48 competitions a year, they spend a lot of time on the road travelling.Monte Carlo holds a special place in Edwina’s heart. It was here that Jan proposed to her last year, and the following September they were married at Saint Paul’s Church in Monaco, celebrating their wedding with close family and friends including Charlotte Casiraghi, Princess Caroline and Princess Alexandra of Monaco at the stunning Hotel de Paris. The same year, Edwina won the Global Champions Tour, repeating her win from 2010. Her 2012 season in the prestigious tournament has also been strong, with an exceptional start as she claimed the Doha event after taking out a seven-strong jump-off of which she was the only female rider, and is still in the lead 11 rounds later with only the 12th and final round remaining at Abu Dhabi in November.
Describe the feeling and vibe of the Global Champions Tour.
“The tournament has being going for six years and has kept on adding new and interesting locations. It’s what our sport needs. We always have a minimum of 70 to 80 per cent of the highest ranked riders in the world, and the GCT offers the highest prize money in our sport, which makes the tour quite intense, competitive and very exciting. Our sport is also a business, but things haven’t declined during the economic crisis. This is because a good horse is not easy to find – there are so very few of them in the world suitable for top sport, making them a rare resource. Because of its fantastic venues and locations, the Global Champions Tour attracts people from all over the world, such as Jessica Springsteen and Marta Ortega. Live television is crucial in our sport, and because GCT offers this and internet coverage, everyone can be immediately updated and get a feel of these exciting events. I think the tournament will keep getting even stronger – it’s a really good concept.”
What sets you apart from the other riders here?
“I’m not unique. There are so many good riders here, and they are all here because they’ve earned the right to be here. I admire so many of them and each for different qualities. This sport is like a rollercoaster, there are many great riders, but you’re only as good as the horse you sit on. I find the best riders are the ones who have had hard times and who had to really fight for where they are. I did a lot of hard work and had my share of bad horses and bad advice. Now I’ve got a lot of support and I always give myself to the maximum, but I still have days where I make mistakes. I think the best riders are the riders that work the hardest. That’s what gets you the best results. And you have to be able to pick yourself up.”
Can you talk about Jan’s impact on your riding?
“Riding is so much about feeling, and he’s really good at teaching a rider how to feel something – that’s a rare gift. I admire him so much. He is fanatic about every detail and he’s very determined, but I never doubt for a moment that he’s got my back. He’s always confident and very sure of himself. He knows my strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes when I’m on a difficult horse and he wants me to jump a big fence, I’ll think, if he thinks I can do it, it must be OK. He gives me strength.”
Would you share those strengths and weaknesses?
“Once I saw tennis player Roger Federer being interviewed on television, talking about confidence issues; he’s won so much and I’ve won so little, really, and for him to have a problem with confidence was a good wake-up call. I’ve learnt that when in doubt, stay strong and keep positive and to remenber all the good times in my career.”
If you had a day off here in Vienna, how would you spend your time?
“First of all, phones are off limits. I would go see the Spanish Riding School, because I’ve never been there. I would visit the Sacher hotel, where we stayed on a previous visit – they have a fabulous spa there, I would have to do that again. I would have a nice dinner with Jan at the Steirereck, a two-star Michelin restaurant. It has the most amazing location in the middle of a park; I’ve been there once before and would really love to go again.”
I’ve also heard you like shopping…
“Absolutely, I love a good shopping spree! As part of my collaboration with Gucci, they help me with my wardrobe. I don’t have anything in particular that I go for – I buy a little bit of everything. Although now and then when I’m surrounded by my purchases I do wonder when I’m ever going to get to wear them, since I’m in my riding gear 24-seven. I like making an effort to take care of myself – it makes me feel better about myself and also makes me feel more feminine, which is a challenge for most women athletes.”
How have you been able to attract sponsors from outside the equestrian industry?
“Jaeger-LeCoultre is a polo brand so it goes hand in hand, and also Gucci has equestrian roots. The brands trust me to give them good exposure. With Gucci, I met and got to know Frida Giannini through Charlotte Casiraghi who is a very good friend of mine. Frida has designed our riding apparel for the last few years, we got talking and eventually she asked to do something for me exclusively.”
Is it true that you are superstitious about the riding clothes you wear?
“You know, I used to be, but not any more. At the 2007 Estoril Grand Prix in Portugal I was thrown headfirst into a fence: I split my upper lip and my teeth sliced through my lower lip. I swore I would never wear that jacket again, but then I ended up winning a Grand Prix wearing that very same jacket. There’s a lot of rituals and superstitions that go around with riders and athletes, but I try to stay confident and to avoid that.”
What’s it like working with fashion people?
“It’s good. We have the same love and passion for what we do, but they bring another perspective to things. It also opens new doors – last week for example I did a photo shoot for Vogue. These are fabulous and comfortable clothes to wear; I get the benefit of modern materials and the classic tailor-made look. I haven’t seen the new ready-to-wear collection, but I just got three of the new jackets. I’m known for wearing black and white, but since I get a lot of exposure I suggested we do something in colour, so they did a blue, green and burgundy jacket for me.”
As the interview comes to an end, and we wrap up our talk about horses and high-end luxury fashion, Edwina concludes with one final observation. “I’ve been lucky to be born and live in privileged parts of the world, so I make an effort to be happy with what I do and to feel good about myself.” •