Back to the future
As the former World Champ rejoins the Kiwi squad after a 12-year absence, ELLIE HUGHES catches up with the eternally youthful Blyth Tait
As the former Olympic and World champ rejoins the Kiwi elite squad, we catch up with the eternally youthful Blyth Tait
It is nearly 20 years since Blyth Tait stood on the podium at the Atlanta Olympics with a shiny gold medal hanging around his neck. In some ways it seems like it was a lifetime ago; in others it feels like yesterday.
It’s a cold morning in March, and we are sitting in Blyth’s cosy farmhouse kitchen, cups of coffee in hand. While other eventers sport shades of pasty white skin at this time of year, Blyth is looking healthy and tanned, having recently returned from a couple of months having a well-earned break in his homeland.
“It was 30 degrees all summer at home, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system being back,” grins the two-time World Champion, who nevertheless has a good incentive to return to England’s dismal climate.
At the end of last season he rejoined the Kiwi elite eventing squad after an absence of 12 years.
Working up the ladder
Blyth’s return to eventing – like that of fellow comeback king Sir Mark Todd – attracted a lot of media attention when he announced in 2011 that he was coming out of retirement for a tilt at the following year’s London Games.
Those Olympics didn’t happen for Blyth. In fact, it took until the Luhmühlen last year to get a four-star finish under his belt. A lack of horsepower was part of it, but there was a bigger handbrake for which he hadn’t accounted.
“I had to work my way back up the qualification ladder from zilch,” explains the two-time Burghley winner in a way that suggests this is a subject that still rankles. “The FEI was unwavering. It meant that I had to put in 15 performances at one- two- and three-star level before I was allowed out at four-star.”
But, for the first time since returning to the UK, the jigsaw pieces are falling into place. Blyth’s world ranking has rocketed and he is well settled in to Folly Barn, a property just off the A40 motorway near Cheltenham, belonging to his long-term friend, Suzanne van Heyningen.
It has all the facilities to make life easy – a large American barn to house his six eventers, a good-sized arena, excellent hacking and a gallops on the doorstep.
A fresh outlook
“Last year was a very definite acceleration and everything started to come together,” Blyth muses.
“It’s a big thrill to be back on the squad; the support, training and assistance that comes with the package is a big opportunity.”
Despite this, Blyth insists he is not out to conquer the world or make a complete career of eventing again.
“I wanted to come back to enjoy myself. Ten years ago I would have been analysing my chances against the other competitors, whereas now my outlook is different.
“I’ve yet to deliver a performance that’s equal to what Tim [Price], Jonelle [Price] and Mark [Todd] have got going on, so I can’t worry about them; my aim is to deliver the best possible performances for the stage my horses are at.”
He’s got stiff competition for that fourth team spot in Rio; both Jock Paget and Clarke Johnstone will be hoping to shine over coming months and make up the Olympic quartet.
Rio hopes for Blyth rest on two very different mounts. His own and Jane Lovell-smith’s Xanthus III, a flashy 14-year-old by Quidam de Revel who finished a good second at Boekelo last autumn, is probably first in line.
“He’s a small horse, but a very good jumper and quite capable on the flat. I’ve just got to work on his consistency; he’s a bit volatile and full of himself,” explains Blyth.
Xanthus will be aimed at Kentucky, while his stablemate, Bear Necessity V, who finished 28th at Blenheim and 15th at Pau last year, heads for Badminton.
“He began life as his owner Ronnie Bartlett’s hunter, so we had an idea he could jump even though he doesn’t look like a classic eventer,” says Blyth, who used to be associated with tough, wiry little New Zealand thoroughbreds such as Delta, Messiah, Chesterfield and Ready Teddy, rather than warmbloods or hunters of unknown breeding.
“Ideally I would have sourced all
I wanted to come back to enjoy myself.”
I wanted to be back walking the walk, not talking the talk.”
my horses from New Zealand, but I didn’t have time and that’s just the way it’s worked out,” he says.
Joining Xanthus and Bear at four-star level later in the season will be Cassett Courage, who has had some time off through injury, but will probably be aimed for Luhmühlen.
A new respect
During his sabbatical, as well as immersing himself in racing and conducting eventing clinics, Blyth spent four years as High Performance manager for the New Zealand team. He was involved in strategic planning, controlling the calendar and planning championships; a role that he found, by his own admission, challenging.
“I’ve developed a new respect for chefs d’equipe and selectors – and it made me realise that I wasn’t really cut out for dealing with the technical side of things, all the paperwork…” he trails off.
But this foray into management made Blyth realise that he was far more comfortable in the saddle than out of it. In his words, he wanted to be back “walking the walk, not talking the talk.”
Even though he was away for only six years, the way the sport had changed in that time has not escaped him.
“The standard of dressage is much higher for starters, and the cross-country is not the same test of scope as it used to be, due to the different construction of the fences,” he says. “And although horses still have to be very fit, there is not as much emphasis on stamina and endurance; you have to prepare them in a different way.
“It took me a while to learn about the techniques for training over skinny fences.”
How does Blyth think his Atlanta gold medallist Ready Teddy would have shaped up against today’s champions?
“I think you can make any horse successful in any era. Ted was a horse who would have evolved over time. He’s still the best jumper I’ve ever had and he was balanced, supple and easy to educate, so I think he would have been right up there,” he says.
Another noticeable change, muses Blyth, is the ever-expanding pool of talented riders at the top.
“Twenty years ago, a betting man would have looked down at the start list of a CCI4* and been able to pick out the winner from a bunch of, probably, five riders. Now, any one of about 25 could be in the running.”
But with his results on the up, a team place in the offing and the bit between his teeth, it would take a brave man to wager against this Kiwi.
MAIN AND ABOVE Bear Necessity V, one of Blyth’s main hopes for Rio, started life as a hunter LEFT Xanthus III, a flashy warmblood, is a great jumper but can be volatile
ABOVE Gold at Atlanta; Blyth is still one of just two event riders to hold World and Olympic titles simultaneously (the other is Michal Jung) BELOW With his famous partner Ready Teddy
RIGHT At home in Cheltenham