*NEW* Legends of our sport: Olympic eventer and comeback king Mark Todd *H&H Plus*

  • Mark Todd was already an all-time great when he retired for the first time, in 2000. But when his comeback yielded yet another Badminton winner and further Olympic tilts, he cemented his supremacy, says Catherine Austen

    When the FEI awarded Mark Todd the title of Rider of the Century in 2000, it seemed a beautifully apt way to round off a lengthy, glittering career. He retired back to his native New Zealand and it seemed as though the eventing phase of his life was finished.

    Not even his most ardent fans could have predicted that, 11 years later, he would pull off possibly his greatest achievement – a fourth Badminton victory 31 years after his first. That win, on NZB Land Vision, encapsulated everything that makes Sir Mark – knighted in 2013 – a truly great sportsman.

    It underscored the fact that he had lost none of his courage, ability, “feel” and fitness at the age of 55 – plenty of his fellow competitors weren’t even born when he first lifted that iconic trophy. But, even more meaningfully, it demonstrated that he could adapt and raise his game to meet the demands of a sport that had changed considerably in his absence. His competitive edge was once more honed to razor-sharpness.

    “It was undoubtedly one of my most special moments,” says Mark. “When Blyth Tait said he was going to make his comeback, I told him not to do it. If I had known how difficult it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it. A lot of people said that eventing had changed, I wouldn’t be able to do it… that made me even more determined. That win made it all worthwhile.”

    Significant turning points

    To relate all Mark’s achievements would take considerably more than one article – he has, after all, published two full autobiographies. There have been scores of horses, all of whom have contributed something to the story. There are, however, a handful who stand out because they illustrate the most significant turning points in this multi-chaptered career.

    His mount for that 2011 Badminton was NZB Land Vision, a 10-year-old he had bought from Oliver Townend.

    “He was a very talented and genuine horse ,” says Mark, who took Blenheim’s eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S on him in 2010.

    “I was pretty confident he would go well at Badminton. He did a very nice test, and was giving me a good ride across country. But a lot of horses finished very tired that year, and as we came away from the Lake, he didn’t feel as full of running as he should have done. Going towards the Quarry, the thought went through my mind, ‘Should I pull up?’”

    Mark’s long, angular frame is unmistakable across country, and he had to use all his skill and balance to help the flagging grey through the Quarry. But the downhill run from there put some petrol back in the tank, and the pair galloped over the finish line with only a handful of time-faults.

    Land Vision bounced his way through the final trot-up, and showjumped clear to win, to the delight of everyone in the sport.

    Mark says: “I remember Lucinda Green, who has been a great mate for a long time, standing in the chute out of the main arena, and she caught my eye. I just took my hands off my reins and shrugged as if to say, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”

    Comeback king

    The NZB in Land Vision’s name stands for Sir Peter Vela and his brother Philip’s New Zealand Bloodstock. Sir Peter had backed Mark when, in the winter of 2007, a comeback to ride at the 2008 Olympics had first been suggested, and had extended that support afterwards.

    “Peter didn’t come to many competitions, but he was there for Badminton,” remembers Mark. “I don’t think he realised the enormity of it. He’s had big racing winners all round the world, and he said he had more texts congratulating him than when he had won any major race.”

    That comeback had started as a joke, and then turned into a personal challenge – but Mark hadn’t anticipated it mutating into a second career.

    He says, wryly: “The funny thing is that I was very happy with my life in New Zealand. I hadn’t really followed eventing much during my retirement. Tinks Pottinger [on the bronze medal-winning team with Mark at the 1988 Olympics] and Erik Duvander were visiting South Island to teach and stayed with us. One night after a few drinks they mooted the idea of me trying to find a horse for the Olympics the following year.

    “I said, ‘You find me the horse and I’ll think about it.’ I thought nothing more of it until I got a call around Christmas from Mary Hamilton, who had been on our 1978 World Championships team in Kentucky – she was now one of the selectors – saying she heard I was looking for a horse for the Olympics. I said no, I wasn’t, and she said, ‘I think I’ve found one.’”

    That was Gandalf, a grey 10-year-old who had won at CCI4*-S level with New Zealand rider Angela Lloyd.

    “That started me thinking, ‘Perhaps I could have a go,’” says Mark.

    Mark had trained racehorses for Sir Peter, and he could visualise the link – the equestrian part of the Olympics was going to take place in Hong Kong where New Zealand Bloodstock had a lot of business, the event would be on the racecourse…

    “I rang Peter and put the proposition to him. He said he’d arrived at the races and was about to open his first bottle of champagne… give him time to think about it. He rang me back five minutes later and said, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ I didn’t have an excuse after that!”

    Of course, Mark had to start his qualifications to ride at the Olympics from scratch and achieve them in a very short time-frame.

    “If at any stage we had missed a qualification, or the horse had got as much as a stone bruise and missed a run, the whole plan would have gone out of the window,” he explains.

    However, every milestone was met and every box ticked. Mark was selected for the New Zealand team and he and Gandalf flew to Hong Kong.

    “I’d been away from the sport for eight years. I’d done half a dozen events to qualify. Then the New Zealand team draws the number one spot and I was number one to go in the team,” he laughs. “I have to say, I did feel a bit daunted heading out on the cross-country.”

    The New Zealand team ended up in fifth place, and Mark jumped a double clear, finishing as New Zealand’s second-highest placed rider.

    “The Velas had had a great time at the Olympics, and Peter said to me, ‘If you want to do this, why don’t we buy some more horses and do it properly, and aim for London 2012?’ So it was all his fault!”

    The story of Charisma

    Mark’s talent for spotting potential, and of coaxing it out of unlikely sources, is perfectly illustrated by the story of Charisma, the “fat pony” who won him two individual Olympic golds.

    “Charisma was the kindest, friendliest horse,” says Mark. “Yet to ride, he had a really strong will. He and I would have an argument in the school and both of us would come out of the arena with steam coming out of our ears.

    “For a little horse [15.3hh] he was incredibly strong. He would put his head on his chest and run.

    “He loved people. When he retired, he went on this tour of New Zealand with my head girl Helen Gilbert and he met disabled kids, old people, and was always so gentle with them. But you wouldn’t put a novice rider on him to do anything more than a walk or trot.”

    Charisma, mostly full thoroughbred with a dash of Percheron, finished second at Badminton twice, won Saumur, Luhmühlen and the British Open Championships as well as those gold medals in Los Angeles and Seoul. It was the latter, aged 16, which Mark thinks was the performance of his career.

    “He was an incredibly tough, sound horse,” says Mark. “He was permanently on a diet – he was nicknamed Podge for a reason, and could live on the smell of an oily rag.

    “In Seoul, I had this feeling of déjà vu. Everything just felt right. He probably did the best test of his career; the H&H reporter Pegotty Henriques wrote that Charisma’s test was more technically correct than that of the winner of the grand prix dressage, Nicole Uphoff and Rembrandt, which made me feel quite good.

    “The sad thing is that when you look at it now, the test was so basic. Medium trot on a 20m circle, which we used to call the ‘wall of death’, a bit of half-pass, extended trot and counter canter. God forbid you did a change!”

    Mark and Charisma shared the lead after dressage with an Italian rider, who arguably benefited from some partisan judging from one of his countrymen, but by the final day they had a comfortable margin of three showjumps in hand.

    “I think he had the fastest time and the quickest recovery rate across country; he was an incredible athlete with amazing heart and lung capacity – I’m sure he could have won a 3½-mile steeplechase,” says Mark.

    One showjump down handed them their second individual Olympic title.

    “I was the second person in history to do that on same horse,” says Mark. “The first was a Dutchman, Charles Pahud du Mortanges on Marcoix in 1928 and 1932, and I had lovely message from his widow congratulating me. I can’t say I sent Michi Jung a lovely message when he did it in 2012 and 2016 – perhaps I should have done…”

    Charisma lived until the age of 30, when he sadly broke a shoulder in the field on Mark and Carolyn’s farm in New Zealand in 2003.

    “Two weeks earlier I’d done a demo on him at a charity polo event for Kenny Brown, who’d lent me my first pony and who had been paralysed in an accident. I’d done some tempi changes and jumped a little jump on him,” Mark says.

    “He’s buried on the farm. We got this really cool headstone, which the people who now own the property keep really nice, and they say that people still come to visit his grave.”

    Brilliance as a rider

    Mark won Burghley five times – on Wilton Fair in 1987, Face The Music in 1990, Welton Greylag in 1991, Broadcast News in 1997 and Diamond Hall Red in 1999 – and Badminton four times, starting with Southern Comfort in 1980 and concluding with NZB Land Vision’s 2011 triumph.

    In between came the two Badmintons that perhaps sum up both his brilliance as a rider and the extraordinary nature of eventing as a sport.

    In 1994 he took the catch ride on Horton Point, whom he had never ridden before the week of Badminton, and whose fairytale victory, aged 16, meant so much, emotionally and financially, to his owners Ros and Lynne Bevan.

    And in 1996 he took it again, this time on the former Nicky Henderson-trained racehorse and chronic head-shaker Bertie Blunt.

    “That was justice all round, certainly for the horse, who was exceptional,” says Mark.

    The pair had had “a lot of near-misses”, first at Burghley in 1994 when, having jumped clear inside time across country, they were belatedly eliminated for missing  a flag on the roads and tracks.

    “Allegedly – if I had, it maybe saved me all of 10yd,” insists Mark. “I was furious. I know the rules are the rules, but I never should have been allowed to start the cross-country.”

    Then, the following spring, Mark’s stirrup leather famously snapped at Badminton, just before the Vicarage Vee. They continued, Mark hitching his leg up almost on to the pommel between fences, and finished clear inside the time to go into second.

    Mark relates: “That evening he was lame behind. Everyone thought it was his back, that I’d been thumping around and he’d pulled a muscle. A week later this huge abscess burst out of his foot. If they’d found it in time, we could have got it drained and treated and he might have won Badminton that year.

    “There I was, with this amazing horse who could have possibly won two major three-day events and I hadn’t finished either one.”

    Mark was desperate to right that at Badminton in 1996 – and did so. “No horse deserved it more – he was so genuine,” says Mark.

    A new venture

    Just a handful of riders have competed in more than one discipline at the Olympics, and even fewer in more than one at the same Games. Mark showjumped as well as evented at both the 1988 Seoul Olympics – on Bago and Charisma – and that whetted his appetite for another go four years later in Barcelona.

    “Double Take was a station-bred horse from New Zealand and half trotter,” says Mark. “I had incredible fun with him, and won a lot on the county show circuit. I’d time it to rock up for the grand prix, he’d go and win it and I’d take off again. The showjumpers used to get really pissed off with me!”

    Double Take won Mark a World Cup qualifier in Helsinki, finished second in the British grand prix at Hickstead to Milton and jumped in the massive grand prix at Spruce Meadows. Even Mark admits that Olympic showjumping tracks are “huge”, and Double Take’s form had dropped a little at just the wrong time before Barcelona.

    “Bago had made the final in Seoul, but Double Take didn’t unfortunately, and after that I decided I couldn’t really concentrate on both disciplines,” he says.

    In 2019 Mark retired from eventing for the second and, he says, final time. He and his wife Carolyn have set up a new venture training Flat horses from their yard near Marlborough.

    He admits: “The thing with me is that I actually love riding and I love competing. That’s where I get the real buzz. It’s great training a winner of a good race, but you do all the hard work and then you stick some one else on [for the race] and they get all the fun! But I’m ready to get over that now…”

    It may be on two feet, rather than in the saddle, that Mark’s equestrian career continues, but it’s certainly a story that isn’t finished yet.

    Blyth Tait on Mark…

    “What was impressive to his fellow competitors was that he had a lot of success with horses that didn’t match his own talent,” says Blyth, who was on numerous New Zealand teams with Mark, including those which won gold at the 1990 and 1998 World Equestrian Games. “He made whatever he had successful; often we’d say we weren’t fans of a particular horse, and that would make him more determined to get the best out of it.

    “Success never went to his head. He is comfortable with people from all walks of life – he was always just one of the gang, and stayed exactly the person he was before he was successful.”

    Ginny Elliot on Mark…

    “He’s always been a very positive person,” says Ginny. “I don’t think he looks ahead and thinks, ‘Oh, what if…’; he thinks, ‘It will be fine,’ and it always is!

    “I was with him when Charisma arrived. I thought, ‘He’s jolly sweet, but you’re going to need rollerskates to ride him.’ But, typically, Mark thought, ‘Why not?’, and there you go, he became a double Olympic champion.

    “He’s very modest, but confident with it, without ever being arrogant. He’s a strong character, but is also very kind and thoughtful.

    “His wife Carolyn is a wonderful supporter and team player. She also has that attitude of ‘it’ll be all right on the night’, and they are a great combination.”

    A Classic winner

    During his first “retirement” from eventing, Mark trained in New Zealand and, in just his second season, achieved the Holy Grail – a Classic winner.

    He bought Bramble Rose as a yearling at Karaka Sale in 2001. “There was something about her – she marched up and down with her ears pricked,” says Mark.

    She won on her second start at three, and earned her place in the New Zealand Oaks.

    “The jockey who had been riding her all along smashed his foot against the stalls in an earlier race, so I had to find a last-minute replacement and we ended up with Opie Bosson, a very good jockey who had been out for a while and had just started riding again,” he says. “He gave her a beautiful ride and we won. It was very cool.”

    Mark took her to Australia, where she finished second in another Group One, and she was one of the favourites for the Australian Oaks. A shoeing issue upset her foot balance and although she finished third, she broke down.

    “But she won half a million in stakes, having cost about $32,000, and we sold her very well as a broodmare. She was a very good buy.”

    Sir Peter Vela on Mark

    “My lasting memory of when NZB Land Vision won Badminton is, when sitting round the lorry chatting afterwards, the number of other competitors who came up and who were genuinely delighted for Mark – I’ve never seen that in any other sport, and I thought it was remarkable,” says Sir Peter.

    “He has a skill and affinity with and understanding of the horse that I’ve never seen in anybody else. He’s gifted. I have no doubt that he will be outstanding at training racehorses again. He’s a genius – what more can I say?”

    Mark’s career in numbers

    4 Badminton wins

    5 Burghley wins

    2 individual Olympic golds

    2 team world golds

    6 Olympic medals overall

    7 Olympic appearances

    28 years: the gap between first and last Olympic medals

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020