Sir Mark Todd announced his retirement from eventing in an emotional prize-giving ceremony at Ireland’s Camphire International Horse Trials. The announcement came as the crack Kiwi team of Mark, Tim Price, and Jonelle Price took top honours in the event’s leg of the FEI Nations Cup series. Mark rode his long-time five-star partner, Pete and Di Brunsden’s Leonidas II, with whom he finished fifth individually in the class.
Where do you even begin when trying to catalogue all the accomplishments that make Toddy one of the greats, not just in eventing, but in all of sporting history? It’s not just all those five-star wins – though they certainly play their part – nor is it the many team appearances and medals that he’s notched up through the years. Perhaps it’s the slight intangibles: the fact that he casually competed in showjumping at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the unforgettable moment that his stirrup leather broke on course at Badminton in 1995, but he completed nonetheless. Maybe it’s that he remains one of the only riders ever to take back-to-back Olympic golds riding the same horse – the ineffable Charisma – or maybe it’s something to do with the fact that no matter how many medals he wins or trophies he lifts, one thing never changes: he remains enormously generous with his knowledge, his time, and his incomparable wry humour.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Mark retire from the sport: in 2000, following his bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics, he stepped back from competition to move back to his native New Zealand and focus on his interests in racing. In 2004, he acted as coach for the Kiwi eventing team at the Athens Olympics, and in 2008, he announced that he was making a long-awaited return to international competition with an aim to compete at that summer’s Games.
“I never thought I’d come back full time,” he said, “It was just a bit of a dare to see if I could make it back to the Olympics in six months.”
He did just that, riding NZB Gandalf to a top twenty finish. Two more Olympics followed, making him the second-oldest Kiwi to ever compete at a Games, and the most-medalled New Zealand athlete – an honour he shares with canoeists Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald. He was also the first Kiwi to compete at seven Olympics, and the 28-year margin between his first and last Olympic medals equals the record for the longest gap recorded.
In 2011, Mark lifted the Badminton trophy for the fourth time, making him the oldest-ever winner of the event. You might think us rather rude for continually referencing his age, but it’s an essential point to make – at 63, the evergreen eventer just keeps giving. Even now, when most normal people are opting to cash in their pensions and getting really into early-evening radio dramas, he’s diving head-first back into the busy world of flat racing.
“I’m not so much retiring as changing careers,” says Mark. “We decided about two weeks ago that we were going to do it. But it’s all still very surreal – it’s been very emotional. I’m just lucky that I got to go out riding one of my old favourites in Leonidas, and on the podium with my old friends Tim and Jonelle, who I’ve ridden with many times.”
Fortunately for us, Mark isn’t planning an exodus back to New Zealand – instead, he’s working on converting Badgerstown, his Wiltshire base, back into a training facility. And he won’t be entirely separate from the eventing world, either – his involvement with the Bridging the Gap Scholarship, a training and bursary scheme designed to help talented riders transition from the young rider rankings to senior competition, will continue, and he hasn’t ruled out further opportunities as a coach, either. But will we see a second comeback to international sport?
“I can bet you any odds that you won’t,” he laughs. Despite that, he counts his 2011 Badminton victory as one of his fondest memories across an almost ludicrously storied career: “to win there after an eight-year break – a long time by anyone’s standards! – was really special,” he says.
And what of his horses? Well, that’s a work in progress, as he tells us – but the small string of top-notch talent will be rerouted to other riders or, alternately, sold. Among them is Kiltubrid Rhapsody, the gorgeous grey with whom he came infuriatingly close to winning Burghley last year – “he’ll make a great team horse for someone next year,” says Mark.
So what has been the secret to a career spanning over forty years at the top?
“I’ve been so lucky to have great horses, and great owners, and a great team working with me,” he explains. “I’m naturally very competitive, and I’ve been lucky not to have had any major injuries, and I’ve had the drive to keep going. But I think a mid-career break certainly helped!”
Our dreaming hearts won’t rule out another charge to the top in a few years, but for now, ten racehorses – “and probably more to come!” – will be enough to keep Sir Mark busy enough in his next wave of youth. In the meantime, join us in raising a glass to Sir Mark Todd, the harbinger of pony-mad daydreams, the poster-boy for generations, and the Kiwi who, as Vaughn Jefferis once said, “…was the first, and he paved the way for us.” He has paved the way for all of us in some way – as the indefatigable face of New Zealand’s formidable eventing front, as the person who made us all realise what we can do if we set our minds to it, and as the endlessly generous bastion of knowledge that has kept us media louts’ trains forever pulling into Inspiration Station. Here’s to Toddy, and here’s to eventing – a funny little world, the terrain of which has forever been shaped by his contribution.