January 23, 2008

by Jane Hunt

Eight years after retiring as the most successful individual eventer in equestrian history, New Zealand's Mark Todd is poised for a return to the three-day international arena.

Todd's short-term aim is to compete at the Manakau City Puhinui Three Day Event on March 13-16 to help with qualifying points towards his goal of this year's Beijing Olympics where the equestrian events will be held in Hong Kong.

If successful at Puhinui, the next step would be to chase some of the top competitions in the Northern Hemisphere to obtain the rest of the qualifying criteria.

"From there it would totally depend on our performance, how well we are going and everything else," Todd said.

Mulling over a comeback to the sport for the past year, the situation quickly went into overdrive recently when he found a suitable horse in 10-year-old grey gelding Gandalf.

"He was available to be bought, so I flew up to Auckland, tried him out, had him vetted and it all happened very quickly. There wasn't a lot of planning involved, it all just happened," Todd said. "I'm looking at this as a challenge, as a bit of fun and I'm putting absolutely no pressure on myself. If it happens, it happens and that's how I'm approaching it."

Todd competed at the Wakatipu Pony Club's one-day-event recently, riding Clarke Johnstone's advanced horse 45 South. The combination finished second despite a fall in the showjumping phase.

In a glittering career, Todd won back-to-back gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics on the outstanding Charisma as well as gold medals as a member of the New Zealand team at the world championships in 1990 and 1998. He also won the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials on three occasions and the Burghley three-day trials five times.

Todd's prowess wasn't confined to eventing, he also competed in showjumping at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

While he has never been far from the saddle since winning a bronze medal in his last major competitive outing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it has been mostly on racehorses as part of his business ventures.

Voted rider of the 20th Century by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), Todd was considered by his peers to be the consummate three-day event horseman.

"I've got to get my eye back in, I've got to get back into the swing of it. I've been riding every day since (retirement) but that's been racehorses. I'm fit but I'm going to have to get particularly fit for eventing," he said.

"I feel that I'm going to be able to just slot back in but until you actually get out there and do it, you don't really know. In my mind, I can still do it all. Whether the body will operate, I don't know. Also, because I've been out of it so long, all my qualifications have run out so I have to re-qualify to ride at that level."

The esteem in which his horsemanship is held has already paid dividends with New Zealand Bloodstock providing the sponsorship for his competitive return.

"It's brilliant that they have the faith to back me in this venture," he said.

Todd, 51, is aware of the need to produce a string of compelling performances in the coming months to sway the selectors after Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) recently released an Olympic Eventing shortlist of eight riders, on which he did not feature. Five will be selected for the Olympics although the selectors have the discretion to choose from outside the shortlist.

"Some people might see it that I'm on free ticket to get to the Olympics but that's just not going to happen," he said.

"My performance is going to have to be as good as or better than the other team members and at this stage I'm not even qualified to go so it's a long journey in a short time.

"I'm not blindly going at this in a mad-cap attempt just to get to the Olympics. If it happens that's a bonus. Obviously, it's very last minute - whether I can get qualified, whether my performances are good enough to get selected, whether I feel I'm going well enough to justify even going to the Olympics, that's all to be decided yet."

Todd and Gandalf have yet to compete as a combination but this week the horse has been at his Rangiora property, Todd has "liked him more and more each day and that's a positive."

The partnership will test the waters at some lower level eventing, showjumping and dressage shows in the South Island before embarking on their first major outing at Arran Station in Hawke's Bay on February 24.

"Gandalf has got a good record," Todd said. "He's a very good jumper and he looks after himself so that sounds good to me. I might need a little looking after."