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

NZ Horse & Pony - - In This Issue -

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

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