Many great horses helped make Sir Mark Todd’s eventing career such an illustrious one, but everyone can only ever have one first Badminton winner. Sir Mark talks about Southern Comfort, with whom he won his first Badminton in 1980…
“Southern Comfort was owned by Shirley Woods — a well-known equestrian personality in New Zealand — and had done quite a bit when I bought him around Christmas time in 1979,” Sir Mark recalls.
“He was a Grade B showjumper, and Shirley had evented him and hunted him. I remember being struck by the fact that, when she rode him in either the New Zealand Three-Day Event or the national one-day event championships, I can’t remember which, she didn’t have her jumping saddle with her for some reason and she did the whole thing, cross-country and all, in her dressage saddle!”
Sir Mark describes him as a “lovely big horse — a good 16.2hh.” He was a New Zealand station horse, which means that he was bred on one of the big sheep stations.
“He was a great horse to deal with — always very genuine and nice to do,” says Sir Mark. “I do remember going cross-country on one of our earliest outings and giving him a whack with the stick. He put his head down and started bucking, so I never did that again!”
The plan was to go to Badminton in the spring of 1980.
“In those days, you did a couple of events and went straight to Badminton!” laughs Sir Mark.
They arrived in Britain in March 1980, six weeks before Badminton and did three national advanced classes, which went well.
“I was 23 at that first Badminton and just incredibly excited to be there,” says Sir Mark. “It had this mystical aura about it. I’d read books about it as a child, and it was my dream to get there.”
That Badminton was just the fifth three-day event of Sir Mark’s career.
“We did a very moderate dressage and were about midfield after that phase,” he says. “Sally O’Connor, who had helped the New Zealand team at the World Championships in Lexington in 1978, was over in the UK and she walked the course with me. By the time I was ready to go, there had only been about two cross-country clears or something — it had caused carnage. But I didn’t have a clue about that and I said to Sally, while I was puffing on a cigarette in the 10-minute box, ‘How’s it going?’ She said everything was fine, so I went out there believing everything was fine and that I just had to get round.
“I had one near-miss at the Footbridge; the horse landed on the lip of the ditch and went down on his knees and skidded along, but stayed straight, picked himself up and we carried on.”
Sir Mark and Southern Comfort were one of only three clear rounds inside the time, and finished Saturday night in third place behind Helen Butler on Merganser and Lucinda Green on Killaire.
He says: “He was a very careful horse and I’d done a lot of showjumping as well, so that phase didn’t worry me. Everyone expected Lucinda to win yet another one as Merganser wasn’t a very good showjumper, and he had four fences down, but Killaire put a foot in water, so that left me the winner.”
Sir Mark went into the press tent to ring his parents — it was about 4am in New Zealand.
“All I could say was, ‘we’ve won! They couldn’t believe it either,” he says.
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That victory was the catalyst for Sir Mark moving to England and making eventing his career.
“In those days it wasn’t really a profession — only Lucinda was a professional rider, and I thought I was having a bit of fun before I had to go home and get a proper job. Of course, all that changed,” he says.
He sold Southern Comfort to the US rider Torrance Watkins, who rode him at the 1982 World Championships, and he was leading US Horse of the Year with her.
Read Horse & Hound’s new series, Legends of our Sport, which features Mark Todd in the current issue of the magazine, out now (dated 23 April)
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