There’s a palpable pause on both ends of the phone when Sir Mark Todd floats the notion this could be – if he is named – his last FEI World Equestrian Games. The 62-year-old quickly backs that comment up by saying he has been known to change his mind before.
“But I can’t keep going forever,” he says as he chases his sixth WEG berth. “I would be 66 going into another WEG . . . but it is just a number.” The conversation goes back and forth about age, decision making and the pros and cons of such a mission.
However, we’re quickly back talking about Todd’s incredible record, his enviable string of four very good horses he currently has, and what he loves so much about the current ESNZ High Performance programme and squad.
“We have a really good bunch,” he says. “We all get on really well and it is great to be a part of a team at something like that (WEG). We are all hungry for the same thing.”
He goes a step further to also say it is one of the better teams he has been a part of. Todd includes not just the riders, but the support team around the squad, the grooms, the owners and supporters too. “It is fun to be a part of it.”
That team camaraderie is what he looks forward to most at WEG. He remembers clearly his first World Champs – it was 1978 in Kentucky. He, Carol Harrison, Nicoli Fife, Mary Hamilton and Joanne Bridgeman headed across six months before the event after encouragement from Lockie Richards.
Unfortunately they did not get the backing of the then Horse Society, were not recognised as an official team and funded it themselves. A vet brought in by the Horse Society decided none of the horses were suitable to go.
“Lockie said if New Zealand was ever going to get ahead, we had to take the plunge,” said Todd. “We did it on a shoe string, selling our cars, doing jobs and fundraising to get there. It was only through the generosity of people at home and in the United States that we were even able to do it.”
Kentucky produced what he describes as the toughest champs ever.
“After that they changed the dynamics of the sport. Back then though, it was bloody hot and 100% humidity, and the horses just couldn’t cope. My horse was the best placed after the dressage but he broke down in the steeplechase – and we didn’t realise. We started on the cross country and got half way around.”
The horse, Top Hunter, was rehabbed and then sold to Jurg Zindel, an English based Swiss dealer who also offered Todd a job . . . and so began history as we know it.
In the ensuing years he won back-to-back gold medals at the Olympic Games, two team bronzes and an individual bronze too, representing New Zealand at eight Games. At World Champs, he was part of the gold medal winning teams at Stockholm in 1990 and Rome in 1998, where he also won an individual silver, and a team bronze at Kentucky in 2010.
He looks back and remembers a few ‘what ifs’ – like in Stockholm where he made a “stupid” mistake which resulted in a stop on the cross country and eventually denied him the gold, which was won by Blyth Tait. Then there was The Hague where he had a trip coming up a bank and a stop.
“That was another we should have won but didn’t,” he says. “It also happened in Rome, when I lost the gold on Broadcast News. I had a rail in hand over Blyth but had the first two fences down. I still got silver and we won the team gold by a huge margin that year.”
Heading back to Kentucky in 2010 was special for Todd. “It was neat because it was back at the same site of those first World Champs. I didn’t think I would still be going to this one, but after last year I said I would focus on getting to WEG this year. I have a nice team of horses too . . . but I am not sure who the front-runner is.”
Todd’s got McClaren – an 11-year-old Holsteiner who was recently second at Saumur CCI3* recently and seventh at both the Boekelo CCIO3* Nations Cup and CIC3* Blair Castle last year.
“He’s a late arrival to the list really,” says Todd. “This time last year he was doing his first 2* and that was pushing it to get him there. But he’s progressed so quickly. Boekelo at the end of the year was a massive learning curve for him – but for our rail in the showjumping he would have been fourth.”
Todd says the horse is an “amazing” talent. “He just keeps improving all the time and is solid in all three phases.”
Kiltubrid Rhapsody is an 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse. He was sixth at Badminton and been pretty consistently top 10 throughout his career. “He is a big horse and totally different to McClaren. He is a big 17hh with a really big engine, a great temperament and again solid in all three phases, improving all the time.”
Then he’s got his “two old boys” – Leonidas II and NZB Campino. Leonidas II was his Rio Olympic Games and 2014 WEG horse and is a campaigner at 4* level, placing fourth at Badminton, and sixth at Burghley among other top 10 finishes at seven CCI4* starts.
“Ahh, the enigma of Leonidas,” says Todd. “He is super talented but prone to doing odd things occasionally. He is well capable of winning a WEG, it is just whether he is in the right frame of mind to do it on the day.”
Campino is just coming back into work after having a forced break over the spring. “He has a lot of mileage and although he is 16 now, he is still fit, well and competitive.” The Hanoverian gelding was Todd’s London Olympic horse, was fourth at Badminton and fifth at Luhmuhlen, and has won a number of CIC3*.
He’s not picking a favourite out of his team but says he does feel lucky to have four in the running.
It’s somewhat disappointing to the veteran to have WEG downgraded from a 4* to a 3*.
“Most of the riders from the leading countries felt it should remain a 4* however, I think the course will be a bit like the Olympics last time – so a 3* with some 4* technicality and difficulty.”
Which raised the question as to what horses are best suited for that mix. The team is leaving no stone unturned as they prepare for WEG 2018. “We are looking at everything – statistics, what are the best horses to take, criteria, preparation and more. So barring horse health issues, we should go there with a very strong team again,” says Todd.
But there is only so much a team can control.
“The rest of the world aren’t just standing by and waiting. Every nation is upping their game – we have the riders and horse power, we just need to get it right. Back in the early days we were the kings of the eventing world in that era. We were the envy of most countries. It was the long format back then but thoroughbreds were the breed of choice, and New Zealand thoroughbreds particularly. It sparked a lot of interest in people coming to New Zealand to buy horses, and had a real knock-on effect.”
He reckons it is certainly tougher now. “We have three or four riders in the top 10 world rankings consistently. It is just in the last few years we just haven’t managed to pull it off when it matters. That does irk us somewhat. We win Badmintons, Burghleys and other big competitions on a regular basis, but come a championship and we can’t seem to pull it off.”
He’s hopeful the preparation for 2018 will change that.
The horse details:
McClaren – owned by David and Katherine Thomson
Kiltubrid Rhapsody – owned by Niki Ryan and Dr Elizabeth Donald
Leonidas II – owned by Diane Brunsden, Peter Cattell and Sir Mark Todd
NZB Campino – New Zealand Bloodstock and Sir Mark Todd
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
Photo by Libby Law/ESNZ