Toytown: Zara Tindall’s superstar who would ‘buck, bolt, nap and rear’ but went on to win at the highest level *H&H Plus*

  • What this horse of a lifetime lacked in looks as a “toad” of a youngster, says Catherine Austen, he made up for in talent and presence, partnering Zara Tindall to World and European Championship glory

    HAS there ever been a more compelling, pressurised two minutes in British horse sport than Zara Tindall’s showjumping round at Aachen in 2006? Here was a 25-year-old member of the royal family with the World Championship title within touching distance.

    Her horse, Toytown, was exceptional, but it was no secret that this phase could be his Achilles heel. They were in the most intense atmosphere imaginable, the stadium packed with 40,000 German spectators who had just watched Bettina Hoy secure them team gold. And Zara couldn’t hear the bell.

    Zara says: “The judges were using this tiny, tinkly bell. Everyone was going way too far down the arena and missing their start. I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ I made sure I stayed up at the end of the arena where I couldn’t get caught out – but I couldn’t hear the bell anyway, because Bettina had just jumped clear and the crowd was going mad. I was cantering around thinking, ‘Why hasn’t the bell gone…?’ And then I looked at the clock, which had started, and thought ‘No!’

    “I was literally flat out – which was probably, in hindsight, a good thing, because I couldn’t get backwards at all; I just had to get on with it.

    “In that moment of half-panic, half-pressure, Toytown jumped really well; he just had the middle part of the treble. There were still two to jump, but I just knew he was going to jump them.”

    Britain had its first world champion since Ginny Leng 20 years earlier – and eventing had the kind of media attention it hadn’t enjoyed since Zara’s mother, Princess Anne, was competing in the 1970s. Sport is as much about temperament as talent, and Zara and her rangy chestnut partner had both in spades.

    UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 22:  Zara Phillips, Daughter Of Princess Anne,  Competing In The Cornbury Park Horse Trials In Oxfordshire. She Rode Her Novice Horse Called Toytown And Came Eighth.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

    Zara and Toytown competing at Cornbury Park when the horse was a novice

    TOYTOWN’S competitive career started with Meryl Winter, who bought him as a “wishy-washy, skinny, ugly” four-year-old. He was a “complete toad”, who would “buck, bolt, nap and rear”, Meryl told H&H in 2017. But he took to eventing, as a six-year-old, immediately: “It was just a case of sitting there, thinking where you were going and he’d lock on to the fence.”

    He was now worth quite a bit of money and Meryl decided it made financial sense to sell him. Mark Phillips, who had taught Meryl at a clinic, took his 19-year-old daughter Zara to see the horse.

    “He looked like an empty coat hanger the first time I saw him, but when I got on him, his movement and his demeanour and his aura were so amazing that you’d look past how weak he appeared muscle-wise,” remembers Zara. “He just had a big frame to fill, but he still floated along, like nothing I’d ever sat on before in my life or probably will again. He had everything. He had the brain for it and he loved his work.”

    A “family syndicate” was put together to buy Toytown.

    “You don’t see something that moves like that, jumps like that and has that much quality every day,” says Mark. “He was a dressage horse, a racehorse and a jumper – and was rideable. The whole package.”

    Toytown “had the wow factor” from the word go, says Zara.

    “He was such a performer. He lived for showing off and people looking at him. But he was still so weak, and the showjumping took time. He was so good across country because he could cover the ground and he was quick over a fence, which is the best trait to have – but you need them to bascule a bit more [in the showjumping]. So that was a big process that we went through, getting him stronger to be able to take that time over a fence.”

    With Zara Tindall and Toytown’s first five-star helping the buzz around Burghley in 2003 their runner-up slot was heralded as the most impressive top-level debut in memory

    The pair led the CCI3*-L at Windsor in the autumn of their second season together after dressage and cross-country.

    “Then we knocked all the showjumps down!” says Zara. “It was disappointing, but it was always a stepping stone – the best he was going to be was at the top level. I was 21 when I won [the under-25 CCI4*-L at] Bramham in 2002, and that was probably the first time he’d jumped double clear.

    “When he stepped up to the bigger tracks, then you absolutely knew. He’d just eat courses up for fun.”

    Their first championship was the young rider Europeans at Wiendorf, Germany, in September 2002, where they won individual silver. And after finishing fifth in the CCI4*-L at Luhmühlen in June 2003 – with four showjumps down – they tackled their first CCI5* at Burghley three months later.

    ACTON TURVILLE, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 09: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Zara Phillips riding Toytown in the cross country phase, prior to withdrawing, on day 3 of the Badminton Horse Trials at Badminton on May 9, 2009 in Acton Turville, England. (Photo by Indigo/Getty Images)

    Zara and Toytown at Badminton in 2009

    There was already a huge buzz about Burghley that year; Pippa Funnell was attempting to become the first person to win the Rolex Grand Slam, having conquered Kentucky and Badminton that spring. Zara’s top-level debut brought added attention, but surely this relatively inexperienced horse and jockey couldn’t win it?

    It was the first time many people had seen them and, as “Noddy” – as Toytown was nicknamed – powered across the arena in extended trot, gazes were sharpened and shoulders straightened. Bettina Hoy (Woodsides Ashby) was well out in front at the end of the dressage, with a score of 36, and Pippa, with Primmore’s Pride, was second on 39.4. However, only 2.4 penalties behind in third were Zara and Toytown.

    “I loved Burghley and I loved having him there; that was where he was meant to be, that was his big stage,” says Zara.

    G6G0X8 Berghley Horse Trials

    Zara and Toytown at Burghley

    Burghley’s cross-country course – designed by Zara’s father – is probably the toughest in the world, and 2003 was the final year of the “long format” with roads and tracks and steeplechase phases. The young pair – 10-year-old Toytown and 22-year-old Zara – soared round, looking more like they were galloping round Cheltenham than a vast, technical eventing track.

    She says with humour: “I remember getting abuse from my father when I finished because I was too far inside the time [by 23 seconds], but I remember coming down the hill and having no control. He was doing his own thing, like, ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got this!’”

    Bettina had a stop – and Pippa collected 2.4 time-penalties. This meant that although they were on the same score going into the showjumping, Zara was in the lead. Whichever of the two British women won, it was going to be a hell of a story.

    Pippa jumped clear; Toytown knocked out the final element of the treble; Pippa won the grand slam and Zara was runner-up at her first five-star.

    “He jumped a good round and I couldn’t have asked for more, really – but Pippa still owes me!” laughs Zara. “In those days, I was probably mega disappointed, whereas nowadays – with more experience – I’d have been delighted. But when you’re young and you’re coming up the ranks with this amazing horse, you’re not mature enough to look at the positives of it.”

    BLENHEIM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 9: Zara Phillips and Toytown compete in the Dressage section of The Blenheim Petplan European Eventing Championships held at Blenheim Palace on September 9, 2005 in Blenheim, England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

    Zara and Toytown at Blenheim

    Everyone else could see only the positives. It was the most impressive top-level debut in memory, and exciting new blood for the British team with the Athens Olympics on the horizon.

    However, Toytown spent 2004 on the sidelines, having done a leg. He was aimed at the new CCI5* at Luhmühlen in 2005, rather than Badminton, to give him more time.

    “Then I had really to manage where I ran him; he was fragile and he had too much movement and always tried 150,000%, which is not a great combination when you’re trying to keep them sound,” says Zara. “If it was bad ground, I’d save him for another day. He was my only horse and he was precious.”

    Aachen, GERMANY:  (FILES) British rider Zara Phillips on "Toy Town" jumps the Eventing individual competition of the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, in Germany, 27 August 2006. Phillips won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award on Sunday 10 December 2006, to emulate her mother, the Princess Royal.  The 25-year-old, whose father Mark Phillips was an Olympic gold medallist in the same sport, finished ahead of runner-up Darren Clarke who was a Ryder Cup hero for Europe against America only a few weeks after the death of his wife Heather through cancer.  Phillips won the individual gold on Toytown in the three-day eventing competition at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen in Germany. She produced a near faultless performance over the three days of dressage, cross country and show jumping.  AFP PHOTO DDP/JOCHEN LUEBKE **** GERMANY OUT ****  (Photo credit should read JOCHEN LUEBKE/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

    Zara and Toytown at Aachen

    They finished second – to Bettina Hoy on Ringwood Cockatoo – at Luhmühlen, completing on their dressage score, and were selected for the European Championships at Blenheim that autumn.

    Again, Bettina led the dressage, with Pippa second on Ensign, and Zara tied in third with Germany’s Frank Ostholt. No one who was there will ever forget the weather on cross-country day at Blenheim in 2005 – torrential, ceaseless rain.

    Zara says: “For the first two minutes, he was galloping and shaking his head to get the water out of his ears. It was absolutely awful, but he just got on with it and smashed it. It was the wettest I’ve ever been, I think, in my whole life.”

    They finished that day in gold-medal position and had a showjump in hand. Not that they needed it.

    “I think I felt quite confident in his jumping there, weirdly. I don’t know why!” says Zara. “We managed to do a double clear at our first senior call-up – and I remember getting my medal, with William Fox-Pitt [individual silver] on one side and Ingrid Klimke [individual bronze] on the other. Mum had been European champion, so it was special.”

    Zara Phillips wears her gold medal and poses with her horse Toytown after becoming European Champion at The Blenheim Petplan European Eventing Championships held at Blenheim Palace on September 11, 2005 in Blenheim, England.    *** Local Caption *** Zara Phillips (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage)

    Zara and Toytown become European champions at Blenheim

    Everything the following year, 2006, led to the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Aachen; the first time eventing had taken place at the historic venue.

    “The crowd at Aachen is the most knowledgeable you’ll ever ride in front of,” says Zara. “At every point on the cross-country, he pulled it out of the bag. He just wanted to do it.”

    Britain had a world champion. Was it possible that Zara and Toytown could do the treble – European, world and Olympic gold medallists?

    “I felt that I’d love to go to an Olympics, because he was the best horse in the world, but sadly we didn’t do that,” says Zara.

    “I wish I hadn’t gone to the 2007 Europeans [in Pratoni] with him, because I could have saved him and looked after him for the Olympic year in 2008.”

    Zara Phillips of Great Britain rides on her horse Toytown during the cross country stage of the European Equestrian Championship in Pratoni del Vivaro, south of Rome, 15 September 2007.AFP PHOTO/ TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

    “I could have saved him
    and looked after him”: if ever there was a tinge of regret, it was at the 2007 Europeans in Pratoni
    where very firm ground put paid to Zara’s Olympic dream with Toytown

    They led after cross-country in Pratoni, but firm, very dry ground had left the great horse sore, and they had a stop in the showjumping. Toytown ran a few more times over the next two seasons, but it was becoming harder to keep him sound and supple. His final event was at home at Gatcombe in 2009. He lived in retirement with Zara until he was 24.

    “He was so high-maintenance that he’d only go in the field for a short time and then he’d be at the gate, digging a hole and going, ‘Let me in, I need to be pampered!’” says Zara.” By the end, his feet were becoming a real issue. We did everything we could, but then I looked at him and thought, ‘It’s getting worse; this isn’t a good life for him.’ That last week, having made the decision, was the worst of my life.

    “To have one horse like him is what dreams are made of. I was very lucky to have him early in my life; he taught me so much, and I think he would have succeeded in any era of the sport. I really cherished every run we had – he was the perfect cross-country horse, even when he was pulling my arms out!”

    Oliver Townend on Toytown

    Zara Tindall and Oliver Townend during day two of the Burgham International Horse Trials in Morpeth.

    OLIVER was on the British squad with Zara and Toytown at all three of their senior championships.

    He says: “Like all exceptional horses, it’s hard to pinpoint just what made him so good; for me they were a partnership who grew up together. I remember him very early on in his career; he was completely genuine and wanted to do his job right. It’s the same with humans: the ones who turn up for work every day, are tough and who really want to do it are the ones you want. Zara knew him inside out and they were great friends; that helped them achieve what they did.”

    Toytown’s character

    Zara Phillips at home with Toytown

    ZARA says: “My friend [Irish event rider] Sherelle Duke died on the Sunday before the World Equestrian Games. I spent most of my time in Aachen in Toytown’s stable with him, and he got me through it. He loved attention so I’d sit in there and he’d put his head on me. If you weren’t quite close enough, he’d yank you back into him. He knew when stuff wasn’t right and he loved being in people’s company.

    “He was always on the clock; he knew exactly when he should be fed, and if you hadn’t fed in time he’d kick the door as if to say, ‘Excuse me – I should be fed first, I’m the most important person here!’ He was definitely the king of the yard, the boss. He was a major self-rater. Confidence was not lacking in his personality.”

    Mark Phillips on Toytown

    Mark Phillips

    WHAT is Mark Phillips’ lasting memory of Toytown? Not that first Burghley, nor Blenheim, nor Aachen.

    He says, with an audible wobble in his voice: “The night before he was put down, Zara and I took a couple of bottles of rosé and glasses and just sat with the old horse in his field. I suppose we wanted to say thank you to a horse of a lifetime.

    “He was like Columbus, who was the best horse I ever sat on. When you get on the same page as each other, there is nothing you can’t do. You have all the aces in the pack.”

    This efeature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 10 June 2021

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