May 28, 2008

Mark Todd on the day he won his first Olympic medal, on Charisma in Los Angeles in 1984. © Kit Houghton

The huge international interest in the comeback of New Zealand's Mark Todd after eight years in retirement from three-day-eventing has been unprecedented. As he works his way toward Olympic selection his every leap over a fence and transition in the dressage arena is watched closely and analysed by spectators, media and selectors alike.

But the sport of eventing is currently in trouble. Many horses and riders have been killed or seriously injured in cross-country events in the past few months, and the safety of the sport is under investigation at the highest level. New Zealand's Olympic eventing team has not yet been named, but even if he does not make it, Todd's presence has brought some welcome positive publicity to the sport.

In this article from the world's governing body, the FEI, Louise Parkes profiles Todd's career so far and his future aspirations.

It had been in the back of his mind for some time, but it was while enjoying a few social drinks with friends over the Christmas period that former eventing super-star Mark Todd decided he would give it a go.

He had retired from the sport in 2000 after a glittering career, but was missing the excitement and kept thinking about making a comeback. Not just an ordinary comeback, however, that just wouldn't be his style. He set himself the challenge of qualifying for this summer's Olympic Games in Hong Kong and, in just a few short months, he has achieved his ambition and attracted massive publicity for both himself and the sport he so enjoys.

It wasn't without reason that he was hailed as the greatest rider of the 20th Century by the FEI. Mark Todd's results were astounding. The New Zealander burst onto the scene with victory at Badminton, arguably the toughest three-day-event in the world, riding Southern Comfort in 1980 and what followed was something very special indeed. He was five-time champion at the notoriously tough Burghley fixture, winner of the 1997 Open European title, and team gold medallist at both the 1990 and 1998 World Championships. At Olympic level he secured back-to-back individual gold at Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul four years later with his beloved Charisma, and he took team bronze at Seoul and team silver in Barcelona in 1992. In the year of his retirement he claimed individual bronze at the Sydney Olympic Games, but it wasn't only his medal collection that earned this man the highest of accolades - it was his exceptional horsemanship.

Todd and Charisma in Seoul in 1988, when the pair won their second Olympic gold medal. © Getty Images
Some people achieve great things through hard work, commitment and determination and riders are no different to other athletes when it comes to that. But in equestrian sport there is the added dimension of creating a special relationship with an animal and persuading them to also give their all. Todd could do this with just about every horse he rode. Team-mate Andrew Nicholson once said of him, "Mark can ride anything he could go cross-country on a dairy cow!" - although the talented Kiwi was usually mounted on something a little more appropriate.

His ability was second to none. One of the crowning moments of his career came with his cross-country ride with Horton's Point to win at Badminton in 1994. It's difficult enough to tackle fences of Badminton's magnitude with everything as it should be, but Todd cruised around most of the course with only one stirrup that afternoon in an incredible display of balance and brilliance.

By the time he visited Badminton as a spectator earlier this month, his 2008 Olympic challenge was well under way, but he was already joking that he sometimes wondered what he had started.

"It really did begin as a bit of fun but everything has just fallen into place," he said. First came the horse, in the shape of Gandalf, a 10-year old gelding who won Richfield CIC 3* last year.

"I heard about him in the New Year and went to Auckland to see him and really liked him but I thought - this is all too easy so it probably won't pass the vet." Of course, Gandalf, who had been competed by Angela Lloyd, passed with flying colours and arrived in Mark's yard at the end of January. It was a bit like calling his bluff.

The next step was for the new partnership to get to know each other and the first big target was set for the Puhinui three-day-event in March. Mark would need to satisfy all the usual qualifying criteria to be eligible for Hong Kong, so victory there saw the next piece of the jigsaw slip into place. Asked at Badminton if he was having any second thoughts about the journey on which he had embarked he said, "when I gave up Eventing I never thought I would do it again and I've hardly been involved at all in the sport, but now that I'm back I'm as enthusiastic as ever and really enjoying it - and Gandalf is a very good jumper, and very honest, so I'm really enjoying him too."

He said his comeback was not just about making it to the Olympic Games - "I've been to five," he pointed out. It is as much about challenging himself to be competitive again as anything else. "If it works out that's great, but I'm not putting myself under huge pressure," he insisted.

He had been training racehorses in recent years but 12 months ago decided to down-size and concentrate on breeding and training a few for himself. He never stopped riding, but at Badminton admitted that getting back into the groove for eventing was fairly gruelling. He was basing himself at this stage with British-based Netherlands Antilles rider Eddy Stibbe "and I've been riding four horses every morning doing dressage - it's hard work!" he said. He also expressed his amazement at the improvement in the level of dressage at the top end of the sport since his departure eight years ago.

The following week he went to Osberton where he finished 17th, and then at Saumur CCI 3* just over a week ago the crazy dream became a reality as he completed the Olympic qualification requirements with a double-clear performance which earned him sixth place.

In Sydney at the 2000 Games: bronze medalist Todd, and silver medal winner Andrew Hoy flank gold medalist, David O'Connor, now president of the US Equestrian Federation.
© Getty Images/Scott Barbour
"It's great to be back!" he said when interviewed for Equidia TV at the French fixture. It was just after his cross-country ride and he knew he was only a few coloured poles away from achieving what he had set out to achieve. And he made some interesting comments about the differences he has noticed since returning to the sport. The level of expertise in dressage and jumping is much-improved, he said, but he wasn't so sure that enough attention is given to cross-country skills. And he commented that the new style of cross-country design with narrower fences was different. "I'm all for control and accuracy - but nothing tricky," he pointed out.

Of course, he has one more hurdle to jump. New Zealand has secured a team slot for Hong Kong by virtue of individual rider positions on the FEI Olympic Rankings, but selection is not yet completed. Whether the star of the 20th century gets his chance to shine once again in the 21st century remains to be seen. One way or another his return to the sport on which he left such a huge impression has been a joy to watch and has created a wave of positive energy.

He is back in the game, not because he needs another Olympic medal but because, at 52 years of age, he still thrives on challenge - and the Olympic challenge is the greatest of them all. "I know it's a tall order," he said as he set out on his Olympic quest five months ago.

But then maybe he forgot he was Mark Todd.