Todd was a pioneer of three-day eventing in New Zealand. Those who followed him included Olympic medallists and world champions like Tinks Pottinger, Blyth Tait, Vaughn Jefferis, Vicky Latta, Sally Clark and Andrew Nicholson. Jefferis once said: “We all owe a huge debt to Mark Todd. He was the first, and he paved the way for the rest of us.”
Growing up in the Waikato area, Todd had an incredible passion for horses.
In 1978 he was part of New Zealand’s first three-day eventing team to a world championship, at Lexington, Kentucky. On a brutal course Todd was doing well – 10th after the dressage and second in the steeplechase – until his horse, Tophunter, broke down during the cross-country stage.
The championships opened Todd’s eyes to international three-day eventing. He juggled his finances, sometimes having to sell his horses, and had a crack at Badminton in 1980.
Badminton is the Wimbledon of eventing and Todd was a virtual unknown when he arrived, his mate Nicholson as his groom.
Riding Southern Comfort, Todd was 45th after the dressage, but was one of only three inside the time limit on the cross-country. Going into the final day he was third. When Lucinda Prior-Palmer and Helen Butler came unstuck during the show jumping, Todd was Badminton champion, the first foreigner to win the crown in years. It was his first major victory in a glittering career that was to stretch more than three decades.
The highest peaks, certainly in the New Zealand public’s estimation, were his two Olympic gold medals on Charisma, in 1984 and 1988.
But Todd had four victories at Badminton – he won again in 1994, 1996 and 2011– and triumphs at Burghley and in many other European events. He twice helped New Zealand teams to win world titles.
He gained a reputation for being able to hop on to an unfamiliar horse and turn in a champion performance. Briton Karen Dixon, a strong rival, said: “He could make a donkey jump 10 feet.”
Todd was named Rider of the Century by the International Equestrian Federation. As one of his great rivals, Lucinda Green, once famously said: “Todd could win Badminton on a skateboard.”
His Olympic victory at Los Angeles in 1984 was his most dramatic. Entering the show jumping he was lying second behind American Karen Stives. Charisma, not always the safest of jumpers, went clear and then Todd waited while Stives entered the show jumping arena. Puffing away on a cigarette, Todd twitched nervously until Stives hit the second-last fence and Todd was the Olympic champion.
Todd and 16-year-old Charisma, or Podge, as Todd called him, defended the title magnificently at Seoul in 1988, outclassing the field in searchingly hot conditions. When the gold was Todd’s, Television commentator Brian O’Flaherty injected famously: “That’s two for Todd and Todd for two.” Besides winning the gold medal at Seoul, Todd was part of the bronze medal-winning New Zealand three-day eventing team, and competed in the show jumping, finishing 26th on Bago.
He had forgettable moments at the Olympics, too, besides the 1980 boycott. In 1992, the year he was the New Zealand team flag-bearer, his horse, Welton Greylag, broke down during the competition. He rode Double Take to 37th in the show jumping that year. At Atlanta four years later Kayem was ruled out on medical grounds.
Todd was looking to close his career on a high at the 2000 Sydney and brought some cheer to a tough Olympics for New Zealand when he rode Eyespy II to a bronze medal in the three-day eventing, giving him an Olympic collection of two golds and two bronzes.
Shortly after the Sydney Olympics, Todd returned to New Zealand, to breed horses and concentrate on other business ventures, including the manufacture/retail of harness and other tack. However, he remained closely involved with three-day eventing and was one of the New Zealand Olympic team coaches at Athens in 2004.
His return to the competitive side of his sport went well, and not just at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he finished 17th on Gandalf, and helped New Zealand to a fifth placing in the team event.
In 2010 Todd was part of a New Zealand team that won the bronze medal at the world equestrian championships. Then in 2011, Todd, aged 55, completed a fourth Badminton victory, riding NZB Land Vision, and becoming the oldest winner of the event.