Clarke Johnstone has given the sport of eventing in New Zealand a huge boost by completing the Olympic Three-day Event with the best performance of the Kiwi team. The only rider to be based in New Zealand, in the Waikato, Johnstone outshone his British based team-mates in the drama-packed event at Rio.
The story starts when the Waikato based combination of Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation won the top title at the National Eventing Championships at Arran Station, Takapau, in October, then went on to place third in their first 4* event at Adelaide in November, behind Australian Olympian Shane Rose.
Having won the Eventer of the Year at the Farmlands Horse of the Year in March, Johnstone then flew “Richie” to the UK and staked his claim for inclusion in the team by placing fifth at Badminton, ahead of Jock Paget and Clifton Lush. Sure enough, he was named along with British based riders Sir Mark Todd, Paget, and Jonelle Price, team mates from London, with Price’s husband Tim the travelling reserve.
The drama started before the event got under way, with Clifton Lush cutting his cheek on a pipe outside his stable, presumably having chewed the tap off it – one asks why it was close enough for a horse to be able to reach it. Apart from that, the stabling and other facilities at Deodoro military base were praised by all involved.
Although Lush passed the horse inspection, it was decided that he would be saved for another occasion, and Tim got his chance to make his Olympic debut alongside his wife. He was chosen to be the trailblazer, meaning he was first to ride in the dressage and across country.
Ringwood Sky Boy was looking good until having the misfortune to slip over on the flat taking the long option at the toughest combination on the course, under team orders. That meant elimination and the team no longer having a discard score.
The others turned wider to avoid the problem, each of them digging deep to ensure they completed fast and clear, and at the end of the day they had pulled up from sixth equal to hold second place in the team competition. Todd was lying fourth individually, Johnstone seventh, and Jonelle, who had a nightmare dressage performance, 13th.
Australia headed the leader-board, but it was very tight at the top, with less than a showjumping rail separating the four teams fighting for a place on the podium. Germany and France looked ominous in third and fourth, with France the only one of these four teams to have all combinations still in contention. The individual standings were equally close, so the showjumping would be crucial.
Price and Faerie Dianamo had two rails down, but Price was buoyed by the Aussie horse having four down. Johnstone then produced a perfect round on Richie to put the team in gold medal position, with the three other teams jockeying for position behind the Kiwis.
Last to ride for New Zealand, the legend that is Sir Mark Todd had a horror ride on Leonidas II, four rails down, which dropped the team off the podium. He described it as “the lowest ebb of my career,” but was rallied by his team mates to contest the second round for the individual placings.
Price repeated her first round tally of two rails down with “Maggie Mae”, then Leo was a totally different horse and jumped the kind of clear round we expect from Sir Mark – how bittersweet has that! They finished seventh overall.
Balmoral Sensation was lying fifth at this stage, but it was a phase too far for the horse after the enormous amount of travelling and high profile competitions he has had in the last ten months, and they had two rails down, but finished sixth on Olympic debut, the best of the Kiwis.
Richie will return home after being quarantined at Werribee in Australia, so Kiwis will see the stunning grey in action again on home turf in due course. Johnstone is unlikely to defend his title at Arran Station in late October, but is sure to be there to contest other titles with a team of horses.
The whole team impressed with their open attitude and cheerful demeanour with the media, despite the setbacks, led by the ever-humble Rider of the 20th Century. He was gracious in acknowledging Michael Jung’s achievement in joining him to hold the record of two consecutive gold medals on the same horse after winning gold with his super horse, Sam.