It’s a Tokyo focused line-up helping to kick off the southern hemisphere’s largest equestrian showpiece the 2020 Land Rover Horse of the Year Show, as shown at the event’s Official Launch in Auckland today.

The trio of Olympic greats Blyth Tait, Jock Paget and Clarke Johnstone have announced they’ll all be competing on the country’s biggest equestrian stage but only one is pushing for a seat on the Kiwi eventing team to Tokyo.

While Tait and Paget boast five Olympic medals between them, it’s New Zealand’s top Olympic eventing home-based hopeful Clarke Johnstone who will be gunning  to qualify his second mount Aces High, from the competition’s four-star eventing competition in Hastings in two weeks’ time.

After just missing out on a team medal at the Rio Olympics, Johnstone is leaving “no stone unturned” in his quest for Tokyo selection and success.

Johnstone has already qualified his in-form grey gelding Balmoral Sensation, fresh off the back of success in Australia and winning the Puhinui Three Day event in December on Aces High.

While confidence is high, Clarke’s not one to get ahead of himself.

“I am fairly confident I can qualify Aces High and it would be some peace of mind having two horses qualified, although I very much hope to be able to ride Balmoral Sensation at Tokyo.”

“My first goal is to get myself and my horses qualified for Tokyo 2020 and then I just want to be super focussed and leave no stone unturned as I work towards Tokyo. It feels like I have unfinished business at Olympic level.”

New Zealand’s three home-based Olympic hopefuls: Clarke Johnstone, Maddy Crowe and Amanda Pottinger will all be looking to impress visiting Olympic judge Christina Klingspor and Tokyo team selector Mitty Forsyth from Land Rover Horse of the Year from 10 – 15 March.

“Horse of the Year is the best opportunity in New Zealand to get the horses competing in an international style arena, alongside trade stalls and large crowds. 

The course was very good last year and Olympic level course designer Chris Ross  asked some curly questions – I’m looking forward to the challenge,“ says Clarke.

As an Olympic predecessor they don’t come any more qualified than Blyth Tait.  A   resume almost without peer globally and a list of accolades cementing his place in the top ten Greatest New Zealand Olympians of all time.

Amongst the 58 year old’s greatest achievements: winning individual gold in Atlanta to team silver, team bronze, individual bronze, double World Champion, and winner twice of the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials, Tait has some sage advice for UK bound Clarke, Amanda and Maddy.

“There is every opportunity for them to be ready, they just have to stay focused on the goal and not be distracted. New Zealand is so isolated geographically from the international competition, so they are doing the right thing by going overseas. They need the international exposure and performance to get to Olympic quality.”

No stranger himself to Olympic podium finishes, Tait rates New Zealand’s chances of a medal at Tokyo.

“I think we are in the hunt, it’s a three-man team instead of four this year which has its problems and we need three very fit and sound horses and riders. They all need to put in a great performance and then I think we are right in the hunt. We have the likes of Tim and Jonelle Price in Europe that are right up to the mark, if we can supplement with the likes of Clarke, Maddy and Amanda, then I don’t see why we won’t be competitive.”

Tokyo’s heat and humid conditions have seen the eventing cross country in August shortened from ten minutes duration to eight, and moved to an earlier start time of 7:30am.

New Zealand’s High Performance team have been put through their paces off the horse to prepare them, undergoing a series of heat chamber sessions in full riding attire.

Equestrian Sport New Zealand’s High Performance Director Simon Bennett believes preparation is key.

“Heat preparation teaches the riders how to lift their performance when their core body temperature rises. Some experience light headedness while others handle it no problem, reaction times slow down in extreme heat so by teaching riders how they react to it we’re giving them the best possible chance of performing well when it happens.”

Eventing Performance Leader and Olympic bronze medallist Jock Paget has been training the Kiwi combinations vying for Tokyo selection, from his National Equestrian Centre training base in Taupo.

“Fortunately our horses are used to working in hot conditions, they have natural conditioning from competing in Australia and the hot New Zealand summer so we are a lot luckier than some of the other nations where the conditions are cold.”

New Zealand’s Olympic eventing team will be named in June and Paget agrees those contending selection all have the right metal.

“They are experienced and accomplished riders who have all won at top level and know what it feels like, they’ve felt the pressure and are no stranger to this. Clarke has been in an Olympic arena before and is exceptional under pressure. It’s about working out what process works for you and living by that on the day.

“Our riders in New Zealand have targeted Horse of the Year because of the international level cross country course, and the atmosphere of riding in the main arena.  It’s the prefect prep before an Olympic ride. Chris Ross is a fantastic course designer bringing back international ideas to the Kiwi circuit which prepares our riders for the world stage.”

Land Rover Horse of the Year Show Chair Tim Aitken points out the event continues to prove a breeding ground for Olympians.  

“We’ve had Sir Mark Todd, Blyth Tait, Jock Paget and the Prices all perform here. This year’s eventing field is truly world class and perhaps one of the last times we’ll see Clarke, Amanda and Maddy battle it out on home soil. 

“It’ll be a great contest and a wonderful spectacle to showcase the sport.”

Jaguar Land Rover New Zealand General Manager Steve Kenchington agrees.

“We feel incredibly proud to be working with SMC Events and Horse of the Year Ltd to continually bring a first class event to the Hawkes Bay and investing in a sport that has a rich history in Olympic success over many years.

“Since signing on as principle sponsor of Horse of the Year we have learned that this sport is in very good heart with the level of participation evident at Land Rover Horse of the Year on an annual basis. The skills on display and the passion for the sport is incredibly high which requires an enormous amount of personal commitment and sacrifice.  Land Rover Horse of the Year brings the best riders of all ages and classes from around the country to compete on the national stage which is truly unique, challenging but a very rewarding partnership to be a part of.  If we can help inspire the next generation to proudly represent us on the international stage like Mark Todd and others before him have, then we have achieved our goal.”