Double Olympic champion was 17th on his shock return to eventing at the Beijing Games but is in far better shape for London 2012
Great champions rarely make successful comebacks. But Mark Todd, who retired after the Sydney Olympics having been voted the event rider of the 20th century, can claim to be the exception. What is more, he wants the world to know.
“There are not many people who have left top-level sport of any kind, been away for eight years, and then come back and won at the top level again — not even Michael Schumacher,” Todd tells me. “So winning Badminton, the Mecca of three-day eventing, last year was a unique achievement and something I’m very proud of.
“There’s a lot to be said about the beauty of youth but age and experience counts for a lot, doesn’t it? The fact is that, at 56, I’m still competitive at the very top. There are not many riders of my age competing at the top level.”
Not that the Kiwi is boasting as he compares himself to Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One champion. He is aware of his limitations and, despite being a four-time champion at the Badminton Horse Trials, is realistic about his prospects at next month’s event. “I won’t win this year,” he says as we sit in the living room of his unassuming house near Newbury. “You know when your horses are good enough to win and my two, Grass Valley and Major Milestone, maybe top 10 but not winners.”
Having bowed out of the sport in 2000 following his bronze at the Sydney Games, his decision to return was down to chance.
“It was never in the plan to go back to eventing,” he says. “We were very happy living in [New Zealand’s] South Island breeding and training a few racehorses. I had a good filly that ended up as champion New Zealand filly. But it was more of a dare when I got offered the chance to go to the Beijing Olympics. New Zealand had gone a little bit into the doldrums in eventing at that time and, when I was training the team for Athens, I found it frustrating thinking that I could do better myself. The plan was to go to the Olympics, then sell the horse and go back to retirement in New Zealand.”
Todd — a double Olympic champion — quickly rewrote those plans even though he could only finish 17th in Beijing.
“I was really enjoying it again. I always felt that I could win another big event. This is what drives me. I’m extremely competitive. If I felt that I couldn’t be competitive at the top level, I wouldn’t be doing it. So, to be able to win Badminton 31 years after I had first won it, was proof to myself and to certain people who thought I was past it and that the sport had moved on.”
A similar competitive spirit drives his 2012 ambitions. In Los Angeles in 1984 Todd won New Zealand its first-ever eventing Olympic gold, followed it with another in Seoul and his London goals are clear. “I’d love both the team and the individual gold. I think the New Zealand team can win gold — if we can get there on our best horses.”
He says Land Vision, the horse he won with at Badminton last year, “is as good as any horse I’ve ever had. He’s a better show jumper than Charisma [which won Todd his two Olympic golds]. He’s maybe not as tough and cocky as Charisma but he is very talented and, at 11, he’s still relatively young.”
While Todd sees Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, who leads the world rankings, as a strong rival for the gold medal the biggest threat to his third Games title will come from Germany’s Michael Jung, the reigning world and European champion.
“The hardest one to beat will be Michael Jung,” he says. “The Germans have been traditionally strong in pure dressage and pure show jumping. But they’ve really come to the fore in three-day eventing as the new, shorter format for the cross country phase suits their horses better.”
The Greenwich course will also be a challenge. “It will be different in that you’re in a park in the middle of a city and slightly restricted on space. Greenwich Park is quite hilly so we’re going to be going up and down those hills quite a bit. It’ll be more hilly than any other Olympics I’ve been to. It’ll be quite twisty, a rider’s course. Because of the terrain, the cross country is going to pose a unique test.”
Todd would have preferred Windsor to Greenwich but has little sympathy for the locals who protest. After the test event last year, a well-dressed local woman came up to him and said: “Please go home. I like the horses and the sport but you are not welcome here.”
The words made Todd feel rejected but he is sure the antipathy will not diminish the very special nature of the London Games.
“England is certainly the home of eventing and the London Olympics are an Olympics where everybody wants to be. And it will be a more old fashioned Olympics. Everybody will be living in the Village and it’ll be a much closer knit sort of thing. Sometimes we riders are an hour or two away from the Olympic Village. And for Beijing we were in Hong Kong.”
What will add to London’s appeal for Todd is that he will not have to get on a cargo plane with his horses but will just motor down the M4 in his horsebox. “The Olympics always produce a wow feeling. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in. If you’ve been to the Olympics, it’s an immediate recognition of sporting performance. You just say ‘I won a gold,’ and they say ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ People don’t even care what sport it is.”
But such status does carry a risk. Todd may describe himself as “a very minor celebrity” but he knows all about the unwanted interest that goes with it. Just before the Sydney Games, the Sunday Mirror alleged that Todd had used cocaine with a homosexual partner.
This is one subject on which Todd will not be drawn. He dismisses the incident in his book as a newspaper sting, giving few details. He will not even tell me the name of the newspaper, insisting: “I’ve blanked that whole episode out of my mind.” And then, with a laugh, he adds: “I don’t remember. It was one of those garbage papers anyway. I don’t want to talk about it. I was probably naive.”
Talk of drug use in the sport has featured since Beijing. After a series of allegations about the German team’s use of illegal drugs and medical treatments on its horses at those Games the International Equestrian Federation called in former Met Police commissioner Lord Stevens to address the issue.
“Maybe I’m naive but I think our sport is pretty clean,” says Todd. “There have been instances in the past but nowadays there’s zero tolerance and strict regulations. I could take whatever and it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to how well I ride. I’m not the one that has to run fast and, with the horses, they’re so strict with the testing that it’s just not worth the risk of getting caught.”
Life since his comeback has changed for Todd. His divorced wife Carolyn — they split in 2010 — and his son and daughter live in Auckland. But he has no regrets. “Life without my family is hard but I’m doing what I enjoy.”
As we speak his son James, visiting his father in his gap year, walks in and Todd says: “I left New Zealand at the same age as James thinking I’d return home and have a proper job in farming. I never dreamt that eventing would end up being my livelihood. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in having the success that I’ve had. I’ve been to a lot of places, met a lot of amazing people and made a lot of friends, and so it can’t be bad, can it?”
It can only get better should he lead New Zealand to gold in London.
Second Chance by Mark Todd published by Orion, £20