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
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