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March 21, 2011

Mark Todd Has Nothing Left To Prove

Mark Todd rode in his first World Championships in Kentucky in 1978 and returned more than 30 years later to compete in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, this time aboard NZB Grass Valley. Photo by Kat Netzler.

But that’s not going to stop him from taking aim on his seventh Olympic Games.

The silver Mercedes pulling into a quiet residential road in the south of England’s commuter belt could signal the return of any businessman from a day at the office. But one thing distinguishes this driver from his neighbors. It’s Mark Todd, sporting icon, who now aims to rewrite his own legend by representing New Zealand at a seventh Olympic Games.

Single again, home for Todd is now a midsize house 5 minutes drive from the barn. It has ample room for guests, with recent visitors from Down Under including children Lauren and James and prospective “new” teammate Blyth Tait. At 55, Todd has also found unexpected enjoyment in extending his culinary repertoire, turning his hand to interior design and even the pedantic process of applying to the local building control department for permission to extend his kitchen.

But one thing that hasn’t altered is his focus on competing. Todd’s 2008 Hong Kong “comeback” may not have turned into the headline event his admirers dared to anticipate—Gandalf finished 17th, and the team was way off a medal—but as the London 2012 cycle has progressed his barn is full of talent.

Indeed, he has a strong enough hand to consider an appearance at Rolex Kentucky this spring for the first time since riding Just A Mission in the late 1990s. Final decisions about which horses to take to the Badminton CCI**** (England) or to Rolex Kentucky depend on the possible sale of his 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games team bronze medalist NZB Grass Valley and the likelihood of a “wet” Badminton, which has moved forward two weeks to Easter this year.

A Deep Bench

But U.S. fans could yet see Todd in action on his preferred 2012 prospect, NZB Land Vision, who won the CIC*** at Blenheim (England) and finished as runner-up at Boekelo CCI*** (the Netherlands) three weeks later to convince Todd that he could become his best horse ever.

“Put it this way: There isn’t any other horse I crave,” he said. “Land Vision is a very good horse, very trainable. He finds dressage easy—of course it helps that he’s an eye-catching gray—and his cross-country is just very good as well. He reminds me a lot of Welton Greylag [his 1991 Burghley winner] and, oddly enough, Charisma [his two-time Olympic gold medalist].”

Todd wasn’t always sure Land Vision would be a strong galloper, but he ended up one of only two horses [of 63 starters] inside the time at Blenheim, despite Todd setting off steadily in the beginning of the course.

“Being a Thoroughbred sort of person, I really like him,” said Todd. “He’s real quality. I have no doubt now that he will do the four-star time and distance.”

Relative newcomer Major Milestone is more likely Badminton-bound. Todd’s “eyes on the ground,” British dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin, have helped improve Major Milestone, but his tests are still too unpredictable to justify an expensive flight across the Atlantic.

Like Land Vision, he’s another originally produced by Oliver Townend. Major Milestone was then campaigned at advanced by Owen Moore, but when Moore decided he didn’t want to take him on to four-star, owners Peter Cattell and Diane Brunsden gave the ride to Todd four outings before Burghley last year.

“He could be good. I don’t know yet,” said Todd. “At one stage I thought, ‘Look, you’re not 25 any more, you don’t want to break your neck unnecessarily.’ In the end he gave me a fantastic ride round Burghley. If only we could get higher up in dressage! I was really pleased with his mark of 54, and that he had actually done a test.

“We’ll see if he’s calmed down over the winter,” Todd added. “I’ve taken him to some indoor dressage to ponce about and hope he might just settle.”

He also thinks a lot of the 16-hand NZB Regent Lad, acquired early in 2010 and who finished the season winning an advanced class at Aston le Walls. “He’s of unknown Irish breeding, allegedly a grandson of Cruising, and I think there could be some Connemara in him,” said Todd. “He’s smart, with tons of attitude, and also a contender for 2012, when he will be 10.”

However, one whose relatively young age might count against his short-term retention is NZB Grass Valley. Only 10, and with 11th place at WEG on his resume, he is “vaguely” on the market along with NZB Mouse, in compliance with the terms of Todd’s highly commercial sponsorship deal.

During his spell as a racehorse trainer, which he undertook after retiring from eventing following the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Todd had horses for the Vela brothers, owners of New Zealand Bloodstock. They agreed to help when he broached the subject of taking up eventing again, at the time a one-off personal challenge to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

“They enjoyed Hong Kong as much as I did, so decided to stay in—but everything has to be on a business footing, and I have always known horses would be sold to offset the costs,” Todd explained. “We’ve been buying horses around intermediate and advanced with potential, and horses that will be around 10 or 11 for 2012, so they have residual value in 2013. With this NZB arrangement, there’s no point me having a 14-year-old, even though that’s not old for an eventer any more.

“Having said that, no one has stepped up with the money yet for Grass Valley, so I would be keen to take him to Badminton,” he added. “His dressage has improved again, and he could be really competitive this year.”

All Systems Go

The British season starts in early March, and with Badminton earlier than usual, it’s been all systems go in Todd’s barn for months. He feels “spoilt” by the undercover facilities rented at Headley Stud, near Newbury in Berkshire, just an hour’s trip from Badminton.

His horses missed not a day’s work in the unusual winter freeze that paralysed the U.K. horse industry for nearly a month. He’s also had time to produce a number of 6- and 7-year-olds, as well as a 5-year-old German mare Coquette who “jumps far too well to event” and is dubbed “the next Shutterfly” at home.

Headley Stud is one of the nation’s most enviable private training centers. It was originally built by show jumper John Nicholl, but both equine and human accommodation (apartments, conference rooms and ample “chill out” areas) have been substantially updated by British-based U.S. rider Jules (Julian) Stiller, who bought the stud in October 2009. It boasts indoor stabling for 34 (more are planned) with direct access into the indoor school, an outdoor manege, horse-walker, all-weather gallops, 20 cross-country schooling fences and 60 acres of newly re-fenced turnout. Stiller has offered it for U.S. team training in 2012, and the Kiwi squad have already had a two-day concentration there.

All of New Zealand’s London 2012 contenders will be based in Great Britain; Jonathan Paget, who made an impact at WEG, is about an hour from Todd in Surrey, and Blyth Tait—1996 Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Champion—returns soon. He hasn’t had an official appearance since the 2004 Burghley CCI**** (England).

Has Todd offered Tait any advice on the “comeback” experience?

“Apart from telling him it’s a ridiculous idea? Well, it doesn’t all drop back into place as quickly as you’d imagine. In Hong Kong I had to think much harder about everything I was doing; it’s only now that I feel I am actually back to where I left off in 2000,” said Todd. “Riders have to go so much faster nowadays, right from the ‘off,’ and this was a real shock to me at first.”

Todd believes competitors at the top end are riding better and better.

“But lower down I’m not quite happy about the standard,” he said. “People ride too fast at the fences. With all these hedges and rounded profiles, they know they can get away with it to an extent. It’s been happening for about 10 years, with course builders being too soft. Only now are we seeing a reversal, but until they build fences riders learn to respect, it won’t make a difference.

“Riders do have to be responsible and not just hope the horse will sort it out,” he added. “You can’t teach this; riders have got to want to do it for themselves. There’s nothing like having a hairy moment over an old-fashioned upright to make you think, [expletive], I’ve got to do something about this.’ ”

The long format disappeared during Todd’s sabbatical and at the beginning of Tait’s. Like most riders of his generation, Todd was sad to lose it but would not now wish to revert.

“All that training for roads and tracks and pounding along the lanes! I’d have to agree short format is better for the horses, and they last longer,” he said. “But it’s changed the sport. We need a different sort of horse, and the Thoroughbred has diminished. You can train a non-Thoroughbred to do less than 10 minutes [cross-country] and no longer say, ‘Well the Germans might lead the dressage, but they won’t be in front after cross-country.’”

But he expects Tait, 49, to not take long picking up where he left off: “Blyth being Blyth, he will have bought a horse that suits him, planned this all meticulously, and I’m sure we’ll see him winning very soon.”

The Kiwis went to WEG with a “starter’s chance” of a team medal while being quietly sure of Andrew Nicholson’s individual chances.

“People thought that when Blyth and I disappeared it would carry on the same, but we were in the doldrums for a bit,” said Todd. “But these things are cyclical. Now Caroline Powell has stepped up to the four-star plate, Andrew is riding as well as ever, and for a country of our size, having three or four younger riders coming through is a huge achievement.

“It’s a really neat team to be involved with at the moment,” he added. “Everyone helps each other, which is one reason why we got two bronzes at WEG, the first medals of any kind in eventing for New Zealand since my bronze in Sydney. It gave our national sport just the push it needed; there’s buzz and a real energy about it all. That’s what drives anything, and it certainly drives me.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Mark Todd Has Nothing Left To Prove" ran in the March 21, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

 
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