Equestrianism: Todd has ace in the Kiwi pack: A natural horseman will spearhead New Zealand's challenge at the World Games this week. Genevieve Murphy reports

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER any of us might write or say about the wizardry of Mark Todd on a horse, we have no need to fear that it will go to his head.

Captain Mark Phillips described him as 'the most gifted three-day event rider of all time'. Others have penned similarly glowing phrases about the wiry 6 ft 4 in New Zealander, but he takes it all 'with a grain of salt'. Experience has taught him that horses have a habit of bringing people down to earth.

Immediately after being given the hype treatment at a celebrity polo match in New Zealand, the pony he was riding bucked him off. Having remounted, he was promptly bucked off a second time. Todd still enjoys the joke. 'Everybody thought it was hilarious, I think they're still laughing about it at home.'

Todd's laconic humour will again be in evidence this week, when the Kiwi team set about the serious business of attempting to retain their three-day event title at the World Equestrian Games in The Hague.

An individual win with the 12- year-old bay gelding, Just An Ace, would be a marvellous bonus and a perfect beginning to his new five- year sponsorship with Bond International. To achieve that he would need a good start during the two days of dressage, which begin tomorrow in The Hague's Zuiderpark.

Just An Ace finished fifth at Badminton, having been 22nd after the dressage. There were extraordinary inconsistencies in his marks: fourth place from Jack Le Goff (US), 19th from Richard Meade (GB) and 37th from Bernd Springorum (Germany). Le Goff will be judging again in The Hague, but so will Springorum.

'The horse is a bit of a worrier, he can get up-tight in the dressage,' Todd said. 'But we've been doing plenty of work on it. He's done some 'pure' dressage and won a couple of classes so, hopefully, Mr Springorum may see some improvement.'

Whatever place he holds, we can expect Todd, who is based at Adlestrop in Gloucestershire, to give us a thrilling exhibition of his talent over Saturday's cross-country course at the military base of De Vlasakkers, near Amersfoort. Just An Ace loves jumping a cross country - especially, it seems, with Todd on board. He gives horses tremendous confidence, keeping them in wonderful balance and rhythm while appearing to leave them to their own devices. He is equally effective in the show jumping.

Todd's grandfather, who owned a farm near Cambridge, New Zealand, was responsible for starting the then seven-year-old Mark on his way. He borrowed a pony and taught the lad to ride. From then on the young Todd always wanted to work with horses, but he never expected to make a living.

He did the sensible thing first and bought a herd of cows. He then sold them to pay for a trip to England with a horse called Southern Comfort. He came in 1980 and he conquered Frank Weldon's formidable course at Badminton to win the annual classic.

Andrew Nicholson (still a good friend and now a regular team- mate) was his groom. Virginia Elliot (then Miss Holgate) was inspired to send him a poem about the unknown Kiwi's victory. He had to sell the horse to keep solvent, but he had made a significant entry into the record books.

Todd's greatest partnership was with his all-time favourite, Charisma. Getting on this little horse, he said, was like returning to a favourite armchair. They were Olympic champions together in 1984 and 1988.

Charisma, now a 21-year-old, gave a dressage display with Todd when the rider went home to New Zealand last winter. 'He looks no different from the day he won his last Olympics,' Todd said, 'and his dressage was still better than any of the horses I have in England could have done.'

Todd has never attempted to analyse why horses respond to him. Most people would say that he has no need to; he is a natural horseman. But his fellow New Zealander, the defending world champion, Blyth Tait, is less inclined to go along with the theory that all his gifts were given at birth.

'Mark certainly rides in a very natural way, whereas others ride in a schooled way,' Tait said. 'But don't imagine that it just happens, he puts a lot of work into it.'

And what of Todd's famous last- minute rides at Badminton: The Irishman (third in 1989), Just an Ace (fifth in 1991) and Horton Point (the wonderfully convincing winner this year)? 'He's not stupid, he wouldn't want to sit on anything unless it had a chance of winning,' Tait said, blowing the myth without a hint of animosity.

Todd acknowledges that the New Zealand team look to have an outstanding chance this week. 'But anything can go wrong with horses and I certainly wouldn't write off the British, they have four very capable riders.' He believes that Tait will start as individual favourite, but he sees the competition as intriguingly open.

'Karen Dixon must have a very good chance, so must Mary Thomson if she can get the wretched horse to show jump,' Todd said of the British women. King William, Thomson's mount, showed his Achilles' heel again this year at Badminton, where he clobbered five show jumps but still finished 11th.

If the marks are close, Sunday's final test in the Zuiderpark's main stadium will be one of toe-curling tension. But the laid-back Todd and his horse, who is normally a reliable show jumper, can cope with that. It remains to be seen whether anyone can succeed in trumping Todd's Ace.

(Photograph omitted)