No one could say that eventing is ageist.
The lasting memory of Badminton 2011 may well be the sight of 21-year-old Laura Collett, the youngest rider in the competition, sitting demurely in the press conference between two men more than twice her age. Mark Todd is 55 and Andrew Nicholson is 49. Both were on championship teams and riding at Badminton long before she was born.
Laura’s pale, English-rose skin and youthful features contrasted sharply with the deeply tanned, weathered complexions and features carved out of rock of the men on either side of her. Between them, they have dominated the sport of eventing for three decades. Laura only rode at her first four-star last autumn. Yet here they are, and here she is. On a day when, generally, experience counted, Laura is still up there with these gods of eventing.
Of course, she hasn’t completed her first Badminton yet. She has to prove herself one more time in the showjumping arena tomorrow, and it will be so easy to let the occasion overcome her. But I think she will be fine. Sports psychologists will tell you that great athletes, “winners”, all share the ability to deal with immense pressure on the big occasion. It makes many of us retreat into ourselves and underperform; the best actively use it to raise their game.
And Laura knows all about pressure. She has won more three-day events than anyone else her age has ever done, both at under-21 and senior level. She has been junior European champion twice and young rider European champion once — on two of those occasions on the horse she is riding here, Rayef. She has felt pressure and not buckled — and she knows that.
Mark Todd has both won and lost Badminton from the overnight leader position. It would be extraordinary if he could win Badminton 15 years after his last victory, but because it’s Toddy and normal rules don’t apply, no one is really that surprised that, after an eight-year retirement, he’s here once again. I wonder if he is?