The Kiwi contenders for Rio

Jane Thompson looks at the likely contenders for the NZ eventing team at Rio

With less than six months to go before the Olympics, we are keeping a close eye on our New Zealand eventers. We have some fabulous riders and horses, but as we all know, things don’t always go according to plan in the equestrian world. There were high hopes for a good result at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, but it was a bit of a disaster for our team, who then had to gain Olympic qualification at Boekelo last year.

The competition for the four spots on the team is very intense. The current squad was announced in December 2015 and there will be another review prior to the final team being named. The squad is without Andrew Nicholson, who has been a consistent title-winner and member of New Zealand teams for decades. He had a significant injury in a fall last year, and it is yet to be seen whether he can come back to his brilliant best, but we know that Andrew is working hard with his team of horses in the pre-season build-up. There also needs to be an improvement in the relationship between ESNZ and Andrew, after a very public fall-out after the World Equestrian Games in 2014. There appears to have been little or no progress in repairing this relationship recently, so our prediction is that we won’t see Andrew at this year’s Olympics.

The New Zealand squad is:

NZL-Jonathan Paget (CLIFTON LUSH) INTERIM-5TH: CROSS COUNTRY: 2015 GBR-Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trial CCI4* (Saturday 9 May) CREDIT: Libby Law COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY
Jock on Clifton Lush at Badminton (Image: Libby Law)

Jonathan Paget (Jock) with two horses, Clifton Signature and Clifton Lush. Interestingly, Clifton Promise, winner of Badminton in 2013 and 2nd at Burghley 2014, is not named, despite being his best performed horse to date. Aged 17, Promise will be aimed at Badminton this year and Jock, together with owners Frances Stead and Russell Hall, will reassess their plans for him after that.

Jock is one of the few in the squad who hasn’t come up through the Pony Club system. He didn’t start eventing until his late teens and his first attempt was a disaster. Not only was he eliminated when he jumped the wrong fence in the cross-country, but then his horse refused to go over the first fence in the show jumping. Obviously he has improved dramatically since then, riding in his first 3* class just two years after taking up the sport.

On Clifton Promise, Jock won Badminton on his first attempt, joining Sir Mark Todd as the only New Zealander to have won the prestigious class. He was a member of the bronze-medal-winning New Zealand team at the 2012 London Olympics and finished 10th individually. He was individually 7th at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010.

Clifton Lush was originally ridden by fellow New Zealand rider Joe Meyer before Joe moved to Florida. With Jock, Lush finished fifth at Badminton in 2012 and 14th in 2013 as well as winning the British Open the same year.

Jock was born in Wellsford, Northland, in November 1983 but spent most of his childhood in Australia. He trained and worked as a bricklayer. He recently married Tegan and the couple live in Wiltshire, UK.

NZL-Sir Mark Todd (LEONIDAS II) INTERIM-9TH: CROSS COUNTRY: 2015 GBR-Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trial CCI4* (Saturday 9 May) CREDIT: Libby Law COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY
Sir Mark on Leonidas II at Badminton (Image: Libby Law)

Sir Mark Todd hardly needs a write-up here, he is a household name in New Zealand and any self-respecting equestrian fan knows who he is and what he has done. Voted Rider of the Century, multiple Burghley and Badminton winner, plus a couple of Olympic Gold medals and a few bronzes, Sir Mark has won just about every major eventing title possible. He’s also won some significant racing trophies during his time as a thoroughbred racehorse trainer.

Sir Mark was the oldest member of the New Zealand Olympic team at London, and so will break his own record if he is successful in getting to the Rio Olympics. Rio would be his seventh Olympics. If not for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Rio would have been his eighth.

He has been named on the squad with two very good horses: NZB Campino and Leonidas. NZB Campino won a 3* class at Tattersalls in 2015 before finishing fifth at the 4* Luhmuhlen. In 2015 Leonidas finished fourth at Badminton and sixth at Burghley.

Jonelle on Faerie Dianimo at Luhmühlen (Image: Libby Law)

Jonelle Price was a member of the eventing team which won bronze at London 2012. She was also the highest placed New Zealander at the World Equestrian Games in 2014. She was the travelling reserve at the 2004 Athens Olympics and is one of the most dedicated and determined women in eventing. Jonelle is also an accomplished chef, and can often be found cooking up a storm for her teammates in the truck park.

Jonelle doesn’t come from a family with any equestrian experience, and was given lots of “My Little Pony” dolls before she finally got a real one. She worked very hard to rise up through the ranks, moving to the UK permanently in 2005 after being based in Canterbury for many years. Jonelle was originally from Motueka and travels back there, teaching at the local pony club, when she is in New Zealand. Together with her husband Tim, she now lives Wiltshire, UK with a great team of horses.

The horses Jonelle is targeting for Rio are Classic Moet (Molly) and Faerie Dianimo (Maggie). Classic Moet was her horse at WEG, plus they finished fifth at Burghley in 2015. On Maggie, Jonelle was second at Luhmühlen.

NZL-Tim Price (WESKO) INTRIM-1ST: CROSS COUNTRY: 2015 USA-Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI4* (Saturday 25 April) CREDIT: Libby Law COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY
Tim on Wesko at Rolex Kentucky 3DE (Image: Libby Law)

Tim Price originates from Canterbury and comes from a very horsey background, with mum Raewyn having competed at Pony Club Eventing Championship level. Like many of our eventing squad, Tim spent a lot of time at Pony Club, and show jumped to Grand Prix level before specialising in eventing.

Tim is very much your typical kiwi bloke. Rugby is of great interest (in fact any sport is of interest), he loves a good steak, and can often be found on either the ski-field or the golf course. Tim can ride the most difficult of horses, and indeed earlier in his career took on the buckers and the rearers and got them sorted out.

Tim was in the New Zealand team at the World Equestrian Games on his lovely horse Wesko (Dash). At four-star level, he has won Luhmühlen, been second at Kentucky and third at Pau on Dash. He has two other horses who are also in the lineup to compete at Rio. Ringwood Sky Boy was second at Burghley in 2015 and Bango has had some very good placings at 3* level.

New Zealand rider Clarke Johnstone rode Rob, Jean and Shona Johnstone's, Balmoral Sensation to hold third place going into the showjumping phase. Pic Julie Wilson
Clarke Johnstone on Balmoral Sensation at Adelaide 4* in 2015 (Image: Julie Wilson)

Clarke Johnstone is the youngest member of the squad by nearly seven years but has had some impressive results to his name already including winning an eventing world cup qualifier aged 19. He was also a member of the bronze-medal-winning team at the 2010 World Championships in Kentucky. Originally from Otago, Clarke has a Bachelor of Commerce and now rides professionally, and is a sought after coach.

Clarke had a stint in the UK but things didn’t go his way and he returned to New Zealand in 2013. He has won every major eventing title New Zealand has on offer. He is the only member of the squad who has been selected while based in New Zealand.

With the beautiful Balmoral Sensation, he has found the horse that could potentially take him to Rio. Produced by Donna Smith, ‘Richie’ is a very careful jumper and is also producing some excellent dressage, having scored under 40 at 3* level. The pair were third at the Adelaide 4* event behind Shane Rose.

Clarke and Richie are heading to the UK after the Horse of the Year Show in early March, to put the final touches to their Rio campaign. Clarke may compete Richie at Badminton, or possibly just go for some good 3* events, and hopes that this will be enough to get the pair into the Rio team. He has some very good young horses here in New Zealand, but is the only member of the squad with no backup horse.

NZL-Blyth Tait (XANTHUS III) FINAL-3RD: CIC3* CROSS COUNTRY: 2015 IRL-Tattersalls International Horse Trial (Sunday 31 May) CREDIT: Libby Law COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY
Blyth on Xanthus III at Tattersalls (Image: Libby Law)

Blyth Tait is another of New Zealand’s eventing legends and one of the most popular riders on the international circuit. He too came through the Pony Club system, attending the Maunu Pony Club from a very early age and competing in everything from games to show jumping. His first pony, Flash, was a cute little white mare who gave Blyth and his parents a big surprise one day. Blyth had tied Flash up to come in for lunch, and on returning with the intention of doing some more riding, found that she had produced a foal!

Blyth had some excellent results as a young show jumper, and the first horse he took the UK was a show jumper. But it was when he took up eventing that he hit the big time, winning team and individual gold medals at the 1990 World Equestrian Games on Messiah. He followed that up with another individual world championship gold in Rome in 1998 and won four Olympic medals, including the individual gold in 1996 in Atlanta on Ready Teddy.

Blyth retired from the competition scene after the Athens Olympics and came back to New Zealand where he bred and sold racehorses from his South Auckland base. But like others, the retirement wasn’t permanent and he returned to the UK and eventing competitions in 2011. The challenge of getting back to the top of the sport hasn’t been easy, especially as the new regulations meant that Blyth’s incredible earlier results were no longer recognised and he had to start from the bottom in order to qualify to ride at the highest level again.

Blyth’s two in line for Rio are Xanthus III and Bear Necessity V, both young horses with a lot of promise, who had consistent placings at 3* level in 2015.