Written by: Bernadette Faurie
Mark Todd’s comeback to three-day eventing has yielded Olympic and world championship bronze medals, a fourth Badminton title, and now the ultimate acknowledgement for his services to the sport. But Sir Mark’s thirst for achievement isn’t quite quenched.
A chance to catch Sir Mark Todd at home on a Saturday is as rare as hen’s teeth, but it had been an extraordinary few weeks for the British-based New Zealand legend.
The month before, at Chatsworth International CIC, he got the call every son or daughter dreads, the news that his father had died. With a commitment to teach in Brazil he headed straight to the airport for a gruelling three days, before jumping on a plane back to London for his investiture with the New Zealand Order of Merit. Prince Charles bestowed the honour on the two-time Olympic champion, four-time Badminton and five-time Burghley winner at Buckingham Palace. A knighthood is the highest honour awarded by the Queen ‘for those persons who in any field of endeavour have rendered meritorious service to the Crown and nation or who have become distinguished by their eminence, talents, contributions or other merits.’
London 2012 saw Mark Todd help New Zealand to take team bronze at what was his sixth Olympic Games. At 56, he was New Zealand’s oldest Olympic medallist.
In an instant Mark Todd became Sir Mark Todd. In another instant, Sir Mark Todd was boarding an aircraft for the trip home to New Zealand for his father Norm’s funeral.
Five days later, it’s a flight home, then up at 6 a.m. to ride four horses at an event. Hardly surprising then, that a few days chilling is required to recover from an emotional rollercoaster and “envelope syndrome” – i.e. being totally flattened and folded after a succession of economy flights. The 6ft 3in Kiwi was about to tell the Brazilians (he’s technical advisor to the team going up to Rio) that flying economy was now off the agenda.
Home, however, is a haven; an eventer’s 50-acre heaven to be precise. Todd’s property lies in a designated area of natural beauty in the county of Wiltshire, a short hack from the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road. The view carries as far as the eye can see “as long as you don’t notice the wind farm and the Honda factory,” notes Todd. The latter is a well-known landmark in the area, but insignificant as one looks out over the land dotted with cross-country fences and show jumps, leading down to the grass and all-weather gallops and up to two imposing ridges – the first route used by Prehistoric man.
Todd bought the place, known as Badgerstown, on a whim in the lead up to the London Games, his second Olympics since returning to the sport after retiring in 2000. It was once the Wiltshire base of another legend, Stan Mellor. Mellor was the first jockey to ride a thousand winners, and as a trainer, pioneered the import of New Zealand Thoroughbreds. Mark himself is sponsored by New Zealand Bloodstock, hence the NZB pre-fix for many of his horses.
The timing of the purchase was less than comfortable. “I had two weeks to sort out the finances. It’s amazing what you can do when under pressure, but it’s a huge commitment at my time of life,” he concedes. It took until July to finalize the details and Todd moved in a week after standing on the bronze medal podium in London with team mates Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget, Caroline Powell and Jonelle Richards.
Todd saw the scope of the new place (even though it was a bit of a wreck) when he brought some horses to school around the cross- country fences last year while based with the USA’s Jules Stiller at Headley Stud. “Jules has a fabulous facility but I had been thinking of buying my own small place. But when I saw this with arena, gallops, cross-country, accommodation and 37 boxes, I reckoned it had potential for me to earn an income from it later on, which you can’t off ten acres for your own horses.”
“Later”, however, means much later. For now, Todd and the rest of the NZ squad have next year’s World Equestrian Games in Normandy in the sightline, then Rio.
“We’re very focussed as a team and very fortunate to get the funding from New Zealand that allows us to get the training we want. After that it’s all about horsepower. Andrew’s got a really strong team of horses which is one of the reasons why he’s doing so well, and Jock’s got two good horses.”
Jock Paget’s Badminton win was reported widely as a shock victory, his win on a first attempt only the second time the feat has been achieved. The first, of course, was Todd’s in 1980 on Southern Comfort, with Andrew Nicholson grooming. It was no shock to Todd, however. Paget was no rookie turning up courtesy of funds raised at a “chook raffle” as Todd had been. “A lot of clever money would have been on Jock to win this year. He should have won Kentucky last year and was unlucky not to win Pau; he was due a win,” explains Todd. He helped Paget up to the World Equestrian Games in 2010 but claims no mentor status. He explains: “One of the reasons Jock’s where he’s at is that he’s a bit like a sponge. He’s spent time with Andrew and with Michael Jung; he soaks it all up, and he’s got a great attitude.”
With the Brits left scratching their heads after a poor showing at this year’s Badminton, Tina Cook was just one to highlight the New Zealand team’s cohesion as a significant advantage. “Everything is cyclical,” Todd explains. “When there was me, Andrew, Blyth (Tait), Vaughn (Jefferis), Tinks (Pottinger) and Trudy (Boyce) we were up there, but there were few others to take our places. However, now we have Jock and Caroline Powell, and Clarke Johnstone and other younger riders starting to come in. That’s the basis of a strong team.” But it’s in the team spirit that other teams acknowledge the Kiwis have an edge.
Todd and Nicholson help the others when they can, and there are training days, when for example everyone is in town, as last year when Britain became the New Zealand High Performance team base before London 2012. Former Swedish international Eric Duvander has become Kiwi-fied as team manager and so has Luis Alvaro Cervera, as show jumping coach, and then there’s the funding of $1.8 million NZ dollars (about $1.4m US) from the government agency, High Performance Sport NZ. But there must be an extra ingredient?
“We don’t live in each other’s pockets but we all get on well,” says Mark. “Being 12,000 miles from home is a bit of a factor. Most of us don’t have our families here so we naturally gravitate a bit towards each other. We are a team. Everyone is their own person, there’s no one we have to babysit, and you know that on a team they’ll be trying their best, that all counts for a lot. It’s probably a Kiwi thing.”
If you’re by now thinking “Kiwi” is laid back you’d be right, but it’s not that laid back. Team New Zealand might be left to do their own thing, but it has to be producing the results; otherwise the “if not, why not, question” is about what to do to make it better. “It’s the difference,” Todd explains, “between having a horse scanned or not, or buying a massage machine, and yes I can, it’s covered. Of course you have to justify any expenses, they don’t just give us a lump sum and say “off you go” otherwise we’d all be on holiday,” he laughs that dry, “laid back” laugh again.
That’s the thing about “Kiwi”, so easily does it conjure the image of them all at some beach resort. Nice, but purely imaginary. The real mental “thing” for the Kiwi team is having that security, and the fight. “We have to target who we’ve got to beat and at the moment it’s the Germans,” Toddy concedes. “They leave nothing to chance. That’s what our team management have tried to do – have everything covered. There’s no room for weaknesses. You can’t just say I’m a good rider I can do it – you’ve constantly got to work at it and the older you get the harder that is.”
With NZB Land Vision and his Olympic bronze medallist Campino off the road (hopefully back for next year) Todd has several targeted for Rio but he’d like a couple more that might get there. When we talked he was just off to Bramham CCI with Leonidas II, a “nice young one” of 15 rides from novice to advanced housed in Todd’s section of the farm. “You can’t be competitive with just one or two horses, unless you’ve got a freak of a horse. You need that mileage constantly to keep you competition sharp. It’s always been a bit like that but whereas before there were maybe a half dozen seriously at the top, now there are many more with young riders coming through all the time – pushing their way in!” he laughs.
Peter Cattell and Diane Brunsden’s nine-year-old Leonidas II stepped up to the plate at Bramham as Todd guided him home on his dressage score to second place. One that can do it then.
The type of horse for medals, he thinks, is changing again: “Michael Jung’s Sam, for example, and Jock’s Promise are nearly full Thoroughbred. There’s not too many fancy moving warmbloods winning the top, top events. A good Thoroughbred can jump, but they’re not bred to do it. You’ve just got to find those freaky ones that can do it.”
There’s a lot to do at Badgerstown, but as Todd says, the place has good bones. He might even, in the future, train a few racehorses again. After all, he’s in the right spot. He hasn’t got around to fixing up the house, but with a lovely picture window over the drive he can see the horses grazing in the paddocks. The ubiquitous trophies and family photos are on display, along with his Rider of the Century plaque, awarded by L’Annee Hippique in 1999. The rest of the redecoration can wait, although the pink tulle curtains have got to go.