Exclusive: Harrie Smolders on horses, football, Tokyo 2020, and riding for €11m

The Dutchman is World No.1, coaches Bill Gates' daughter and has already qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Harrie Smolders is on top of the world.

The No.1 ranked showjumper has already qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with the Dutch team, and is one of the big names at the first ever Global Champions Playoffs.

Smolders made his Olympic debut at Rio 2016 before completing an unprecedented double, taking both the Global Champions Tour and Global Champions League, in 2017.

This has been another stellar year for Smolders, becoming world number one in May, overhauling Olympic silver medallist Kent Farrington of the United States.

But at the age of 16, young Harrie had a big decision to make: horses or football.

Stable Family

A football fanatic, he played with his local side until he was 16 and great Dutch names roll off his tongue when you ask who his favourite player is:

“There are many, if you look at the 70s then everybody thinks about (Johan) Cruyff, in the 80s we think about (Marco) van Basten, (Ruud) Gullit, (Frank) Rijkaard… Also I can mention in the 90s and this century of course, (Wesley) Schneider and (Arjen) Robben.

At the moment with Virgil van Dijk we have a very good defender actually, so there are too many to mention.”

The Olympian jumper chose horses over football, and the decision came naturally:

“I played for a local club in our town, my position was mostly as a striker or as an offensive midfield player, like a number 10.

"I loved both [horses and football] actually, a lot, they gave me a lot of pleasure. But my feeling was that I had more chance in horse riding.”

Football's loss was the equestrian world's gain but, in reality, it was no contest.

Smolders began riding aged eight. His sister was already riding and his father and grandfather both rode and bred horses.

Now 38, Smolders is at the top of his game.

Jumping's multi-million Global Champions Playoffs

The Flying Dutchman', as Smolders is often called, is taking part in this season's brand new event called the Global Champions Playoffs which began in Prague on December 13th.

The competition features the individual Global Champions Tour finale as well as the Global Champions League Super Cup Final featuring the top 16 teams.

An unprecedented prize pot of over €11 million ($12.7m) is on offer this weekend with the GCL Super Cup Final victors taking home a cool three milion euros.

Smolders says the exciting new format of the competition promises much for fans:

“It’s the first time but I think the format is really well thought out... I think the good thing is everything counts, it will be exciting sport, it’ll be really tough to win one."

"That is how sport makes it interesting, if at the last split second you can still win it."

Tokyo 2020

The man from the small village of Lage-Mierde in Brabant made his Olympic bow at Rio 2016, finishing seventh in the team event and 27th in the individual.

With two strong years behind him and sitting top of the rankings, expectations will be much higher at Tokyo 2020.

"We qualified in Tryon [at the 2018 World Equestrian Games] so now it’s very important for us to get the right horses for a few riders to have good chances in Tokyo.

"We still have two years so hopefully next year some new combinations come up that are capable to do the Olympics.”

Coaching Bill Gates' daughter

Smolders also has an interest in the fortunes of a rival competitor.

Jennifer Gates, the daughter of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is an equestrian enthusiast and signed a "training partnership" with Smolders in June.

Later that month the 22-year-old finished 10th in a five-star event in Monaco, one place ahead of her new coach.

Stanford graduate Gates already owns her own equestrian centre in California, Evergate Stables, and plans to focus on riding and competing before until she starts medical school next year.

Back in June, the Microsoft founder's daughter couldn't wait to get started with Smolders:

“Harrie is incredibly talented, and I’m looking forward to training with him. It’s an exciting time for me to be graduating from college and shifting my focus to training and competing full-time this year,” she said.

Smolders and Jurgen Klinsmann

Football never seems far away for Smolders and he appeared in an interview in August with football star Jurgen Klinsmann - whose daughter is also a keen rider and jumper - with both discussing the similarities and differences between the two sports.

"In our sport we have to do different things," Smolders told the Global Champions Tour, "It’s not only the riding and looking ahead to the championships, we also have to manage what our goals are on particular horses in a certain period of time."

"Besides that there is also the financial side of our horses that the team manages. Soccer is ahead of us because for every single thing there is a specialist.

"I’m the coach, the trainer, the rider… there are so many things to do and there is still room for us to improve, using specialists to help with each part."