Win or lose, if Sir Mark Todd gets to the World Equestrian Games in Tryon in September, he really ought to hold a party there.
It will mark 40 years since he first made a mark on the eventing scene by competing at the 1978 World Championships – which was also in the USA, but a couple of states over, in Kentucky. With the exception of his 7 1/2-year ‘retirement’ between the Sydney and Beijing Olympics, he has spent virtually the whole of that 40-year period at the top of the sport. Remember, he won Badminton in 1980, aged 24, and had racked up two individual Olympic gold medals by the time he was 32.
Now he’s 62. If he had a normal job in an office, he’d be thinking about retiring. To be a professional sportsman at his age is virtually unheard of. He is a clever, articulate man to whom lots of paths will be open, inside and outside of eventing.
“If it takes 10,000 repetitions to make a habit, then everything is habitual to him.”
Why does he still want to do it? How can he do it? Why hasn’t age caught up with him?
His physique must play a part. Naturally lean and athletic, he doesn’t carry any spare flesh. He eats healthily and does yoga. He has left the excesses of his youth behind, even though he is quite capable of partying as hard as a 21-year-old if he is in the mood.
But I think it is really all about two things – balance and brain. Mark has retained that extraordinary natural balance aboard a horse that meant he could go clear round the Badminton cross-country course on Bertie Blunt in 1995 despite his left stirrup breaking early on. Not a lot shifts him in the plate, and he is never a burden to a horse.
And four decades of experience with every single type of scenario that can occur with a horse are embedded in his brain. If it takes 10,000 repetitions to make a habit, then everything is habitual to him, and therefore nothing cannot be dealt with.
Mark remains sharply competitive, even if a veneer of laconic charm means that the acuteness of the blade is not quite so apparent as it is in some of his younger peers. That Badminton win with Land Vision in 2011 meant a lot – he’d had to work hard, perhaps harder than he himself had imagined – to get back to the top, and it proved his comeback was both serious and justified.
“I didn’t know whether he had the fire in his belly to keep going.”
The Rio Olympics in 2016 was a real low point. He was devastated to lose New Zealand the team gold medal – and potentially an individual honour for himself – with that disastrous 16-fault showjumping round on Leonidas II. I remember interviewing him in his lorry at a British horse trials about two weeks after he returned from Brazil, and he was still knocked for six. He didn’t know whether he was going to give up or keep going. He is always a pragmatist and was able to rationalise his performance, but he was as flat as I have seen him. Surely if he had won gold for New Zealand, the Olympic team medal the country (and his career) lacked, he would have gone out on a high, but I didn’t know whether he had the fire in his belly to keep going.
However, by Boekelo that autumn his thoughts had already turned to WEG two years later. After all, Leonidas II – a horse whom I find utterly frustrating as I think he lets Toddy down too often on the biggest stage – would be only 14 when WEG came around. In the way that all top-class sportspeople can, he had moved on.
He has certainly cut back in horse numbers in the past year or so – ready, you would have thought, for a change of direction after WEG. But then, at the beginning of 2017, along came the naughty, pony-sized McClaren. He whizzed through the grades from novice to CCI3* in less than a season, and although he has a very big jump to make to be a serious 4* or championship contender, his guts and toughness are reminiscent of the horses of the early part of Mark’s career, rather than the flashy but perhaps slightly soft warmbloods he has ridden recently. McClaren is a Tokyo horse – and I doubt Toddy will want to let anyone else take him there.