SANDY (Reuters) - A late-night challenge to a group of friends led Mark Todd to end his eight-year retirement and head for the Beijing Games aboard a horse famous for an appearance in a rap video.
Todd is considered to be one of the greatest riders in the history of three-day eventing and his Olympic return aged 52 has electrified the sport and his home country, New Zealand.
“I’ve really been amazed by the response,” Todd, an individual gold medalist at the 1984 and 1988 Games, said in an interview. “It’s been very humbling, actually.”
Todd retired after the 2000 Olympics, where he won a bronze, and set up a stud to breed and train racehorses.
After winding down the training operation, his family moved to the south island of New Zealand where the seed of another run at Olympic glory was sown.
“In October, we had some friends staying and over a few too many glasses of wine I said something like ‘find me a horse for the next Olympics’,” Todd told Reuters.
“I thought I was joking at the time and then around Christmas time I got a call saying ‘was I serious about it?’ because there was this horse that was available to be bought that had qualified for the Games.”
That horse was Gandalf and Todd is now schooling the grey at a stud in eastern England ahead of the Olympics in August.
“He arrived with us in the south island at the end of January and it’s been pretty much full-on since then,” Todd said.
Todd passed his first qualifying test in February and earned the right to ride in Hong Kong, which is hosting equestrian events for the Beijing Games, at a competition in France in May. He and Gandalf were picked for the New Zealand team in mid-June.
Todd may be on the way to creating a partnership with the grey similar to the one he had with the great Charisma, the horse on which he won his two Olympic golds.
”When I got on him (Gandalf), I liked him immediately and he had the bones of something good to start with.
”He is quite a lazy horse. To be competitive at the top level nowadays, the dressage has to be fairly smart so we’ve been working a lot on that.
”He likes to eat a lot so we’re having to get him slimmed down and teaching him to gallop a bit better too -- when we were at home I used to work him with the racehorses.
“One of the great things about him is he has got a very good temperament and not a lot bothers him.”
Gandalf demonstrated this composure when he featured in a video by Scribe, a New Zealand rap artist, last year (here).
“I’ve seen it...he was in a rap video with smoke going off and loud music and everything else and he was very relaxed about it,” said Todd.
Tall and wiry, Todd said he had not found it that hard to get back into the groove since his return, even if the sport had changed over the past eight years.
”I don’t really feel any different. In our sport, youth is not necessarily an advantage and age and experience count for a lot. My body’s probably not what it was in my 20s but hopefully I can make up for that with a bit of cunning.
”In the dressage, the horses...need to be more collected. The tests are slightly more difficult so the horses have to be trained to a higher level.
”For the cross country...there are a lot of narrow fences, there’s a lot of accuracy required whereas when I started 20 or 30 years ago you needed a big, bold sort of horse that could jump big, bold fences.
”If anything I would describe the cross country now as a little bit more circusy.
“The show jumping is a little bit bigger now and, as always, you need a horse that can showjump, especially in the Olympic Games where in the individual there is a second round of showjumping.”
Todd was voted the Rider of the 20th Century by the International Equestrian Federation and any hopes he had that he could work his way back quietly were quickly dispelled.
“The news of me buying this horse, the news of me having a go at the Olympics came out very quickly and then it was all on,” he said.
Jim Ellis, Equestrian Sports New Zealand chief executive, said the reaction to Todd’s return has been phenomenal.
“I have been really surprised at the scale of support for him and the degree of reverence in which he is held -- it’s not just within New Zealand, it’s all over the world.”
Editing by Clare Fallon