When Burghley Horse Trials, an event Sir Mark Todd won five times to add to his four Badminton victories, starts on Thursday the equestrian knight will be there in various roles but, for once, not as a rider.
However, having recently retired from competitive riding and the gipsy lifestyle of living in a lorry in the corner of a field most weekends, his mind might be elsewhere because New Zealand’s most famous horseman of all time, already a Classic winner at home, is back training racehorses, this time in Britain.
It was once said that Sir Mark, gold medallist three-day-eventer at Los Angeles and Seoul – two of the seven Olympics at which he rode – could “go cross-country on a dairy cow”.
“I’ll maybe miss it a tiny bit,” he said of the eventing. “I had to do the Burghley course walk last week with the Horse & Hound. But it’s a bit like giving up smoking; every now and again you’ll get a pang and then you think ‘don’t be ridiculous!’”
When Sir Mark grew up in New Zealand he dreamt of being a jockey.
“I was working in a racing stable and breaking horses but I was a late maturer,” he recalled. “My parents [farmers] were actively against the idea but at 16 I shot up [6ft 2½in] and any chance of being a jockey went out the window. I was doing a bit of show jumping and eventing at the same time and the eventing took over.”
Following the Sydney Olympic Games (2000) he retired from eventing (for the first time). “After that we decided we’d train a few for ourselves in New Zealand,” he said. “I’d had a couple of mares in partnership with Watership Down in Britain. I was quite keen on pedigrees.
“We went to the yearling sales in 2001, bought four or five and put them into syndicates of friends. Nearly all of them won and Bramble Rose won the New Zealand Oaks and was champion staying filly of Australasia.
“The Oaks came very early in my career. Do you ever go into your first Group One expecting to win it? I expected her to run well because she had good form leading up to it but her regular jockey smashed his knee in the race before so we went for a substitute who had been off a while himself.”
In 2008, however, he returned to eventing. “It was originally a bit of a dare. I said, ‘You find me a horse and I’ll have a go.’ I’d been a bit disillusioned with the eventing scene but I said it’s no good griping, see if you can beat them.
“I started enjoying it again and after Beijing we thought let’s go to London and do it properly and with the backing of New Zealand Bloodstock and Sir Peter Vela we bought Land Vision who went on to win Badminton in 2011. But 11 years on from that comeback I’ve well and truly done it. I won’t stop riding horses or jumping horses but I won’t compete again.”
He moved into his present yard, Badgerstown, near Swindon, a week after London 2012. It had been turned into an eventing centre but it is now a racing yard again and Sir Mark, who has already had three runners, has 11 horses in training with room for 40.
When he was eventing, much of his early success came on thoroughbreds – Bertie Blunt and Face The Music were while Charisma, the 15.3 hand horse on which he won two Olympic golds, was “near as damn it a thoroughbred and galloped like one”.
The shortening of the eventing format and the dropping of the long- distance roads and tracks phase, which used to precede the cross-country, means that warm bloods have taken over from the thoroughbred.
“The long format suited thoroughbreds,” he said. “People still love them but it is harder to compete in the dressage and show-jumping formats against warm bloods. I loved the thoroughbred brain, though. Generally they would work with you much more than a warm blood.”
Because of his equestrian background all his racehorses do basic Flat work while even the two-year-olds pop over logs and ditches.
Though many jump trainers employ eventers to help teach their horses to jump and training chasers would seem the perfect fit, popping two-year-olds over the odd log is as close as Sir Mark intends to come to training jumpers.
“I’ve always preferred the Flat,” said the man who once rode round Aintree in cold blood. “It’s partly commercial and I also understand the breeding better though I’m rapidly having to get back up to speed on that.”
Vela, the only man who has won a Caulfield Cup, Melbourne Cup and Badminton, sent him Eminent, the first flag-bearing son of Frankel, at the end of last year, initially to look after before shipping to New Zealand, then he suggested Sir Mark train him.
First time out he was second in a Group One at Rosehill in Australia and might have won but for a wet track. Second time out he ran into Winx. “Having a horse fit is having a horse fit,” he said. “But I’ve got to do things slightly different. I know how fit I need a horse for Burghley or Badminton. In New Zealand I was doing way too much with them in the early days. That is probably the biggest challenge.”
Sir Mark may be eventing’s loss but he is undoubtedly racing’s gain.