Todd's emotional farewell tour

The master of three-day eventing will end his influential career at the Olympics
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As the nostalgia gathers momentum, Mark Todd's impending departure from three-day eventing is bound to receive much end-of-an-era hype.

It was given a predictable boost yesterday at Woburn Abbey, where the New Zealander won the international section of the Spillers Equestrian Awards, which are decided on votes cast by readers of Horse & Rider and Pony magazines. Many more accolades will surely follow before the dual Olympic champion retires from the sport and returns home to New Zealand after the Sydney Olympics.

Whereas other great event riders have faded quietly into the background, Todd - the greatest of them all - has made a positive decision to go while he is still winning. Last year, having been runner-up at Badminton and the winner at Burghley, he finished on top of the International Equestrian Federation world rankings. Nobody would therefore dare to suggest that he is now heading over the hill at the age of 44.

Todd has been part of the British eventing scene for so long that younger competitors will not have known a time without him. Though there was nothing momentous about his first three-day event here (he finished 35th at Burghley in 1979) he was quick to make his own indelible mark. Having nipped home for Christmas, he returned with a horse called Southern Comfort to win Badminton in 1980.

Two individual Olympic gold medals have followed as well as two more Badmintons, five Burghleys (including the European Open Championship there in 1997), three British Opens plus scores of other victories. And he has not finished yet.

Last year's Burghley success on Diamond Hall Red gives Todd the chance of a £160,000 bonus, a handy sum for someone about to set up home and a horse-breeding business on the 150-acre farm he has bought in Cambridge, New Zealand. To collect it, he would also, however, have to win with Just a Mission in Kentucky (27-30 April) and with either Word for Word or Eye Spy II at Badminton (4-7 May). It is a tall order, but he intends to have a go - "I might as well as it's my last chance."

Since Todd sold his herd of cows in 1984 and moved to England on a permanent basis, a whole host of overseas riders have followed his example and have made this country the hub of the eventing world. Inevitably, there are those who say that the visitors are lucky to be here instead of acknowledging their immense contribution to the sport in Britain.

Todd's contribution has been the greatest of all. Who will ever forget his last-minute rides at Badminton, notably on Horton Point, with whom he won in 1994? You could see horses gaining confidence under this extraordinarily gifted rider, who kept them so beautifully balanced across country.

There was also the memorable occasion in 1995, when Todd's stirrup leather broke at Badminton and he rode most of the cross-country course without it. "I ought to charge an entertainment fee," he said wryly, after that amazing feat.

Immediately after this year's Burghley, where he hopes to have his final ride in Britain, Todd will be travelling to Sydney for his swan-song at the Olympics and thence to New Zealand to start a new life with his wife, Carolyn, and their two children. He will miss his friends and the competitions here, but not the nervous tension that has been part of his life in England. "You're always under pressure because you want to do well, the more success you have the more you expect of yourself," he said.

Todd is looking forward to New Zealand's wide open spaces, the slower pace of life there and the weather. But he will not be lazing in the sun. He intends to breed and sell racehorses, bring on young horses to sell as potential eventers, possibly take a few pupils and maybe train one or two of his own horses for the race track.

He does not relish the idea of owning an eventer, as it would mean getting somebody else to compete on the horse. "I'd be terrible as an owner, I'd probably have to stay away from the events," he says. Could he be lured back into the sport if he had a good enough horse? "No, I am definitely retiring."

Two distinguished pensioners will be down on the farm to remind Todd of former glories: the dual Olympic gold medallist, Charisma V, who is "absolutely" his all-time favourite, and the European Open champion, Broadcast News.

But he still has a final round of competitions and farewells to make - and, given his reputation as a party-lover, there will be quite a few shindigs involved, even though he claims to be "a bit too old for all that".

There will certainly be one hell of a bash if he goes out in a blaze of glory by adding one or two more Olympic gold medals to his collection.

SPILLERS EQUESTRIAN AWARDS: International Personality of the Year: M Todd. National personality: C Hester. Horse of the Year: Jaybee. Spillers Diamond Award: N Brown (Chief Field Officer at International League for Protection of Horses). Scholarships: L Williams (show jumping), C Balfour (horse trials), A Gould (dressage).