Cross-coun­try gal­lop with 340 horses un­der the bon­net

SUN­DAY DRIVER Eques­trian star Sir Mark Todd, who says he prefers four legs to four wheels, joins Jeremy Tay­lor for the ride to Burgh­ley House in a Range Rover

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Walks & Drives -

Sir Mark Todd knows the back end of a horse­box bet­ter than any su­per­car. The in­ter­na­tional event­ing star is now 62 and much prefers rid­ing in com­fort to eques­trian com­pe­ti­tions – his cur­rent trans­port of choice, for him­self, his team and his mounts, cost more than a Rolls-royce.

The enor­mous Sca­nia truck sta­bles six horses and dou­bles as liv­ing quar­ters for Sir Mark and his team at events in Eu­rope. It cost £320,000 nine years ago but still looks im­mac­u­late while parked in the sun­shine as he com­petes at the fa­mous Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als, in Lin­colnshire.

“For­tu­nately, I pre­fer horses to cars,” says Sir Mark, who as a teenager in New Zealand gave up the idea of be­com­ing a race jockey when he sprouted to 6ft 2in.

“A fancy con­vert­ible would be wasted on me – I need a prac­ti­cal ve­hi­cle that suits my life­style.”

His first car was pur­chased out of ne­ces­sity rather than choice. “I owned a Hill­man Hunter in the Seven­ties and used it to tow a horse­box to lo­cal shows. It was woe­fully un­der­pow­ered! Some­times I would [in­ad­ver­tently] pull the gear stick out of the floor as we drove along.”

Sir Mark is one of New Zealand’s most cel­e­brated sports­men. Apart from his Olympic achieve­ments, he has won the Bad­minton Horse Tri­als four times, is a five-time cham­pion at Burgh­ley and was named Rider of the 20th cen­tury by the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion for Eques­trian Sports.

To­day we’ve ar­rived at Burgh­ley in a Range Rover Sport. Com­fort­able and fast, the tur­bod­iesel has 340 horses un­der the bon­net. With Land Rover’s leg­endary four-wheel drive as stan­dard, it’s just as ca­pa­ble of tear­ing across the grass as Sir Mark’s cur­rent steed, NZB Campino.

Ear­lier, we drove up from his Wilt­shire sta­bles, where he is hope­ful New Zealand se­lec­tors might choose him for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It would be a re­mark­able tenth se­lec­tion (he was picked for the 1980 games in Mos­cow but his par­tic­i­pa­tion was thwarted by an in­ter­na­tional boy­cott).

Pulling out from his farm near Lam­bourn, we turn left and head across the nar­row back roads of north Wilt­shire to­wards Shriven­ham. His feisty ter­ri­ers Min­nie and Win­nie are lord­ing it on the back seat and don’t take kindly to strangers.

Sir Mark and his wife Carolyn usu­ally head south to Marl­bor­ough if they have time to dine out. Their favourite restau­rant is Dan’s on the Lon­don Road, al­though they might stop at the nearby Silks on the Downs pub, a pop­u­lar wa­ter­ing hole for the lo­cal posse of race­horse own­ers.

“I’m quite used to driv­ing the horse lorry around here but you still have to be pre­pared to give way to trac­tors and horse riders,” ex­plains Sir Mark. “I also pre­fer a pa­per map to satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion. You just know where you are with a map.”

He was taught to drive in New Zealand by his fa­ther Norm, han­dling the big steer­ing wheel of the fam­ily Wolse­ley with great aplomb. “Teenagers could ap­ply for a li­cence at 15, so trav­el­ling to horse shows was much eas­ier from then on,” he says.

“I made my in­ter­na­tional rid­ing de­but at the 1978 World Cham­pi­onships, but even af­ter win­ning at Bad­minton two years later I still thought I would go back to New Zealand and be­come a farmer. Event­ing was just a bit of fun – we weren’t pro­fes­sion­als back then.”

From Shriven­ham, we fol­low the A420 to­wards Ox­ford, by­pass­ing the city of dream­ing spires on the ring road and head­ing south-east to one of Sir Mark’s favourite ho­tels. Le Manoir aux

Sir Mark gave up the idea of be­com­ing a race jockey when, as a teenager, he sprouted to 6ft 2in

Quat’ Saisons is a de­li­ciously British coun­try es­cape, with acres of glo­ri­ous gar­dens and a fa­mous chef in the kitchen.

Like Sir Mark, Ray­mond Blanc has reached the dizzy heights of suc­cess, pre­par­ing the most ex­quis­ite dishes for very well-heeled din­ers. The hon­ey­coloured manor house at Great Mil­ton doesn’t have room to ac­com­mo­date a horse lorry but no mat­ter, be­cause the bed­rooms are mag­nif­i­cent.

It was the lo­ca­tion for Ray­mond Blanc’s Kitchen Se­crets, the BBC cook­ery se­ries, and has so far trained al­most three dozen Miche­lin-starred chefs. Le Manoir is one of only 19 two-star restau­rants in the en­tire coun­try. Sad­dle up here for a very ex­clu­sive nose­bag in the most lux­u­ri­ous of sur­round­ings.

Sir Mark first drove to Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als in 1979, al­though it was an­other eight years be­fore he won the event. As we drive, he ex­plains the recipe for suc­cess: “You need an in­tel­li­gent horse and you have to be a very good horseper­son to win a three-day event. Dres­sage, cross-coun­try and showjump­ing are three very dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines that need to be mas­tered.”

Af­ter cross­ing the M40, we fol­low the A43 around the out­skirts of Northamp­ton, on past Ket­ter­ing and fi­nally to Stam­ford. Re­garded as one of the pret­ti­est mar­ket towns in the coun­try, the fine build­ings and façades have ap­peared in films as di­verse as Pride & Prej­u­dice and The Da Vinci Code.

The horse tri­als have been held here since 1961 and are one of the three events in the Grand Slam of Event­ing (the oth­ers are Ken­tucky and Bad­minton). Pippa Fun­nell was the first to win all three in suc­ces­sion in 2003 and earn £300,000 of ad­di­tional prize money.

The grand slam is one of the few tro­phies Sir Mark hasn’t lifted, but upon ar­rival at 16th-cen­tury Burgh­ley House he is still treated like eques­trian roy­alty.

We’ve man­aged to drive the 110 miles with­out any men­tion of the “R-word” too – he is in his sev­enth decade of rid­ing, af­ter all.

“Well, I did re­tire af­ter Syd­ney in 2000 but then came back for the Bei­jing Games in 2008,” he ex­plains. “Event­ing is one of those sports where you can keep go­ing longer than most but, re­al­is­ti­cally, I’ve only got one more chance at an­other Olympics.”

Might he then con­sider swap­ping his lux­ury horse­box for some­thing a lit­tle gid­dier? “I doubt it. At least I’ve come a long way since that old Hill­man Hunter with the bro­ken gear­stick.”

bel­mond.com (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons); burgh­ley-horse.co.uk

SHEER CLASS Sir Mark Todd and the lux­u­ri­ous Range Rover, left; Burgh­ley House, be­low left; and Ray­mond Blanc’s Miche­lin­starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons

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