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April 25, 2014

Winning The Warm-Up

Mark Todd and Oloa looked ready to roll in the warm-up. Lisa Slade Photo

Coming off a course walk, we saw him in the warm-up, maybe the greatest rider ever: Mark Todd. You know the crowd at Rolex Kentucky is educated when they leave the action in the main ring and stand three people deep to watch one of the sport’s legends warming up.

Lisa Slade and I worked our way into the crowd, standing just a few feet away as Todd’s gorgeous liver chestnut trotted by, lovely and limber, loose and supple. He looked like the winner warming up, a quality animal with a big, kind eye, ridden by the two-time Olympic champion who’s still hungry for a big win at the age of 58.

“I didn’t realize how lovely a rider he was on the flat,” Lisa said, as he effortlessly sat the trot, moved with the horse.

“Can you imagine how many fences he’s jumped, how many events?” I said.

“He’s the same age as my parents,” noted Lisa with awe.

The horse worked in a circle by our end of the ring, a buoyant, bouncy trot as Todd sat cool, relaxed, no sign of nerves. “Nice,” said his helper, who we figure must have been in diapers when Todd was winning Olympic medals in the 1980s.

He performed a quiet change of lead to the right, then missed behind when swapping to the left. Todd quietly pulled up to the walk, circled and tried again, executing it just right this time.

I was wishing I’d picked him on paper to win, as I’ve never yet earned Rolex's bottle of champagne awarded to the press member who correctly guesses the winner. What a great story it would be for Todd to have his first Rolex win as he nears the age of 60, to have an enduring hero who can still go in and show how it’s done.

When Oloa’s boots and tail wrap came off, we headed up to watch his test. But by the first two movements, it was obvious that the horse who finished sixth last year at Burghley (England) had come undone in the arena and didn’t look anything as he had in warm-up. We sadly watched as his scores flashed across the board, well below the leaders with a 61.5, and Todd held him together as best he could through the canter work. Who can’t relate to that? The challenge of dressage on a fit Thoroughbred, it happens to so many riders, even the very, very best.

There’s still a long way to go this weekend, and as Lisa and I remarked, “Do you think he EVER misses [over fences]?” No, I think when you’ve won your first Olympic gold medal 30 years ago and hardly taken a break since then….you maybe never miss?

We all want a hero to cheer for. As long as Mark Todd is saddling up, he’ll be mine. I’ve said to myself like 10 times over the years, “I’ll probably never see him ride again,” and somehow he keeps coming back and proving me wrong.

How cool is it to keep at it once you’re way past anything to prove to anyone? The amount of time and work and money that goes into riding at this level, to love it enough to just be that addicted is about as impressive as all the championships he’s won over the decades.

It’s not an award that anyone wants to win, but Mark Todd did win the warm-up. He’s not the only one who had a horse react to the cool weather this afternoon, the wind and rain and whipping flags. But he gives us all a riding lesson with every phase of every event, and here’s hoping he’s going to be back for many more.

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