Equestrian: Charisma still shines through

By Chris Barclay

In a sense, Mark Todd still has charisma.

Bathed in sweat and sporting a white knitted tie, New Zealand's equestrian legend still succeeded in looking the part yesterday when he made a grand entrance to the Olympic eventing arena, shortly after dawn amid the cloying heat at Sha Tin.

Venturing into the dressage ring at 6.30am, the double Olympic gold medallist then took a shade over five minutes to really announce his arrival - nine months after ending eight years of retirement.

Todd and Gandalf, the first of 73 combinations scrutinised by a three-member judging panel, accrued a respectable 49.4 penalties to leave him ninth from 25 riders at the end of the first session.

They were never going to be smooth enough to lead the competition - and will likely be midfield by the time Jean Renaud Adde of France completes the dressage tomorrow.

But it was still easily the fledgling combination's most precise performance, one which delighted Todd and New Zealand's team management.

"I really couldn't have hoped to have gone any better than that at this stage of his career," Todd said.

The 10-year-old grey gelding, in his first major competition, was only rarely out of alignment.

"He's improved a lot, and he will keep on improving. Maybe by London [the 2012 Olympics] he'll be a good horse," smiled Todd.

"It's been a little bit hard getting myself back in gear but, honestly, being here, it doesn't feel like I've been away at all. Those eight years have slipped by very quickly.

"The most difficult thing is I've only had one horse to ride. Until February I hardly jumped a fence in eight years. It's getting your eye in and getting your timing back... I'm not where I was eight years ago, but hopefully I'm good enough."

Although Todd and Gandalf have only been together since January, the 52-year-old's enduring ability saw him chosen to lead off New Zealand's five-rider team.

"I'm used as cannon fodder basically, send the old bugger out there and see what happens I guess," said Todd, who won at Los Angeles and Seoul with Charisma.

"But I'm happy with the mark, and we'll go on from here."

Fortunately Hong Kong's inclement weather cleared, though it was still an uncomfortable experience for both horse and rider. Globules of spit regularly fell from Gandalf's chin while Todd's sky blue shirt was saturated.

Lucinda Fredericks, English-born but riding for Australia, held the provisional lead on Headley Britannia after recording just 30.40 penalties.

Her husband Clayton (Ben Along Time) was second on 37, while American Gina Miles and McKinlaigh were provisionally third on 39.3.

New Zealand's other competitor Heelan Tompkins made a scratchy start and although Sugoi regained a measure of composure their score of 55.6 (19th) ensures they have ground to make up on Monday's cross country.

"My immediate reaction is I'm looking forward to the cross country," said Tompkins, who was the highest placed New Zealander at Athens four years ago when finishing seventh.

"After that test I'm looking forward to giving him a kick over the first fence."

Andrew Nicholson and Lord Killinghurst, considered New Zealand's leading medal hope, performed in the night session, while Joe Mayer (Snip) and Caroline Powell (Lenamore) have their tests in the final session today.

- Herald on Sunday

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