Tributes are flowing from around the world after Sir Mark Todd’s shock announcement that he is stepping back from the competitive world of eventing to focus more on racing. The news came after he and his “old friend” Leonidas II helped New Zealand win the Nations’ Cup in Ireland.
It’s hardly unsurprising so many have taken to all sorts of channels to wish him well, reminisce and thank him. During his four decade international career, he has touched so many people – from budding young riders, to those who grew up following his journey as well as a nation who rode with him and Charisma to two Olympic gold medals.
Among those paying tribute to Sir Mark is New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive Kereyn Smith. “’Two for Todd and Todd for Two’ has gone down as one of our greatest Olympic moments and we thank Sir Mark for the incredible contribution he has made to New Zealand’s history,” she said. “Two gold medals, three bronze, eight Games and an Olympic career spanning 32 years is outstanding. Moreover, Sir Mark epitomised the New Zealand sporting spirit with his generosity, commitment and humble approach to his international success. We pay tribute to his legacy.”
Sir Mark has actually been selected for nine Olympic Games (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016) but the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 and an injured horse means his tally sits at seven. He was also the coach of the eventing team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
He holds the honour of being New Zealand’s oldest medallist with a team bronze at the 2012 London Games, was the flag bearer at Barcelona in 1992 and is one of the nation’s most successful athletes ever, having won five medals – two golds and three bronzes. He was just 28 when rode at his first Olympic Games, winning an individual gold, and just over 60 at his last in Rio. He shares the Olympic record of 28 years for the longest gap between winning first and last medals.
He first rode at championship level for New Zealand in 1978 at the Worlds in Lexington, Kentucky when he teamed up with Carol Harrison, Nicoli Fife, Joanne Bridgeman and Mary Hamilton. It was Lockie Richards who suggested the five should head to the US and try their luck, and while Sir Mark had only ever done one three day event at that stage, he thought it sounded like a brilliant idea.
In 1980 he pulled off what was to become quite the feat – winning the Badminton Horse Trials on debut. In 1984 and 1985 he and Charisma were second in the iconic event. In 1984 Sir Mark claimed his first Olympic cap and won individual gold aboard Charisma while the team – Andrew Bennie, Mary Hamilton, Andrew Nicholson and Sir Mark, finished sixth.
His next World Championships were in Gawler (AUS) in 1986. Sir Mark rode Charisma and with team mates Tinks Pottinger, Trudy Boyce, Merran Hain and Andrew Scott finished fourth overall.
1987 was the first of five Burghley Horse Trial wins, with the others following in 1990, 1991, 1997 and 1999.
In 1988 Sir Mark represented New Zealand in both showjumping and eventing at the Seoul Olympic Games. He backed up his Los Angeles individual gold with another and the iconic ‘two for Todd and Todd for two’ became part of New Zealand Olympic history. The eventing team – Andrew Bennie, Marges Knighton, Tinks Pottinger and Sir Mark – won bronze.
His showjumping horse was Bago, owned by Merran Hain. “Mark has contributed a huge amount to New Zealand equestrian and the great thing is that he has gone out having won the Nations’ Cup with two of the best eventers we have at the moment – the Prices.”
In 1990 the new World Equestrian Games came into play and he along with Andrew Nicholson, Andrew Scott and Blyth Tait stormed to the top of the world with their team gold with Blyth also winning the individual.
Blyth said he had thoroughly enjoyed being on teams with Sir Mark and had lent heavily on him throughout his career for advice and support – which he was always ready to offer. “I want to thank him for being a pioneer for us, for paving the way and showing us what was possible from down in little old New Zealand,” he said.
“He brought a great team attitude to the table even though eventing is very much an individual sport. He was all about supporting the team as well. He will be missed going forwards but you can’t go forever – the time is right for him now.”
Sir Mark was the New Zealand flag bearer at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where the team of Vicky Latta, Andrew Nicholson and Blyth Tait won a silver medal but because he retired, under the rules of the day, he didn’t get a medal. He also showjumped for the nation.
WEG 1994 was his next pinnacle event where the team of Sir Mark, Vaughn Jefferis, Andrew Nicholson and Blyth Tait placed sixth with Vaughn stepping to the top of the individual podium. He notched his next Badminton win the same year with Horton Point.
In 1996 he won Badminton aboard Bertie Blunt. He was selected for the Atlanta Olympic Games but his horse Kayem pulled up lame and Blyth Tait stepped in to take his place with Ready Teddy and won individual gold with the team of Blyth, Andrew Nicholson, Vicki Latta and Vaughn Jefferis winning bronze.
The 1998 WEG would be Sir Mark’s last for more than a decade but he went out on a high with the team of himself, Blyth Tait, Vaughn Jefferis and Sally Clark winning team bronze and Blyth taking individual gold.
Vaughn Jefferis describes Sir Mark as the foundation of the New Zealand eventing team. “It was a real honour to be part of that era alongside him and the rest of them . . . those really were the golden days. He has been an amazing ambassador for New Zealand and was always the one to beat – he really did make us really lift our games. He was the star player we had to catch.”
Sydney 2000 was meant to be his swansong Olympic Games and saw Sir Mark win an individual bronze aboard Eye Spy. He retired not long after – ironically to focus more on racing. The horsey world is a rather addicting environment and in 2004 he was with the New Zealand as a coach at the Athens Olympics and in 2008 he was in back in the running for the team for the Beijing Olympic Games where he joined Andrew Nicholson, Heelan Tompkins, Joe Meyer and Caroline Powell to finish fifth in the teams.
It was his old teammate Tinks Pottinger who was instrumental in ‘encouraging’ Sir Mark back into the elite echelons of the sport. “He is such a legend and it was a very successful comeback,” she said. “I don’t think New Zealand sometimes appreciates what he has done for the country and the sport. He is one of those unique people who has the ability to say what needs to be said and back that up with the actions. As a team member he was always there to help every other member – that really stood him out.”
Tinks says she continues to be grateful for his support over the two years she was based with him. “That was probably the best I rode in my entire life really and culminated with a team bronze at Seoul. I attribute a lot of that success to him. It is a sad piece of news to hear (of his retirement) but at the end of the day I am delighted Mark is going out on a great note and I look forward to seeing what challenge he will present to us all in the future.”
The 2010 WEG in Kentucky saw the Kiwis back on the podium with a team bronze for Sir Mark, Andrew Nicholson, Caroline Powell and Clarke Johnstone.
In 2011 Sir Mark won his fourth Badminton title and became the oldest rider to hoist the trophy.
The London Olympic Games in 2012 produced the same for the team of Sir Mark, Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget, Jonelle Price and Caroline Powell. WEG in Normandie in 2014 didn’t go the way of the Kiwis and the Rio Olympics in 2016 saw them finish tantalising close in fourth place.
Clarke Johnstone is another who has a massive amount of respect for Sir Mark. As a child, Clarke wore out his video of Mark Todd’s 20 Years of Cross Country and later a signed t-shirt followed a similar route. “He has been involved with my career right from the very, very beginning – not that he would have known at the time,” said Clarke. “To go on and ride in teams with him was amazing – he has been a great mentor.”
Clarke spent some time based with him in the UK during one of the most difficult years of his eventing career. “It was nice to be around those who had weathered the highs and lows of eventing, to be able to go and ask him for advice – it was pretty awesome.”
Jock Paget is another team mate of Sir Mark’s from recent years and says his retirement is a chance to celebrate a true legend. “I think it is a great way to see what you can do in sport,” says Jock. “He has retired for the second time happy and healthy and it is great to see him step out at the top like that. To me he was the ultimate competitor and I feel really privileged to have ridden in the same era.”
Early in his career, when Jock first moved back to New Zealand to pursue eventing he had thought how amazing it would be to track Sir mark down and get some lessons from him. Not only did he later get lessons but he rode in Olympic and World Championship teams. “It was just amazing.”
So as the curtain closes on Sir Mark’s eventing career, the world watches on to see what the next chapter of this equestrian maestro is going to bring.
By Diana Dobson – ESNZ HP Media Liaison