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Martin, saved horse have special tie
It was just past midnight when Boyd Martin answered his ringing phone. The screams on the other end of the line were loud enough to wake his wife.
There’s a fire, said the voice, one of Martin’s employees who lived near the stables where Martin kept his horses. The stables are in flames and horses are trapped inside.
Martin bolted from his bed, threw on a T-shirt and flip-flops, and sprinted out of the home where he and his wife had moved two months before. It was Memorial Day 2011, a year before Martin hoped to ride his favorite horse, a frenetic Australian thoroughbred named Neville Bardos, in the equestrian events of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
As he sped down his gravel driveway and turned toward the stables six miles away, Martin thought: This could be bad. This was his livelihood, this was his Olympic dream, this was the horse he’d poured nearly a decade of training into — all going up in flames.
There was no one on the road in this area of rolling hills and fertile farmland an hour east of Philadelphia. Martin came around a bend near True Prospect Farm. Then he saw it: A massive mountain of flame in the distance, coating the huge oak trees in an eerie orange glow.
Firefighters surrounded the barn. On hand was Phillip Dutton, Martin’s mentor and an Olympic gold medalist, who owned the farm and rented stables to Martin. A few of Martin’s employees, who’d tried to rescue some of the dozen horses inside, were crying and shaking. The horses had been inside the straw- and wood-fueled fire for nearly an hour. The metal was so hot that some of the stable doors had welded shut. Surely, most of the horses were dead.
“I’m real sorry,” the fire chief told Martin. “Everything’s gone. It’s all gone.”
But Neville Bardos, the horse Martin had saved from slaughter and turned into one of the top eventing horses in the world, was inside. Firefighters told him it was dangerous, that the building was close to collapsing, that he couldn’t go in.
The firefighters’ charge was to protect human life first. But to Martin, Neville was as good as family. Martin felt clear-headed, as sober as a judge, and he knew what he had to do.
So Martin punched the fire chief who was blocking his way, covered his face with a T-shirt and ran into the thick, black smoke.
Eventing is the triathlon of equestrian events and the discipline in which Martin hopes to win gold in London. It began as a military exercise to assess the merits of a cavalry horse and its rider.
There’s dressage, a precise balletic exercise inside an enclosed arena that tests a horse’s obedience as well as its rapport with the rider. There’s cross-country, where the rider gallops the horse over natural terrain filled with jumps and obstacles, a test of a horse’s athletic ability as well as of the shared trust between horse and rider. And there’s show jumping in an enclosed stadium, where obstacles are set up in a ring to test the horse’s fitness and stamina as well as that of its rider.
But more than any one skill, a successful eventing horse needs guts.
Unlike a racehorse, whose talents are God-given and whose sprinting days are typically over by age 4, an eventing horse takes years of training to open up a kernel of ability inside. Eventing horses are typically bought from tracks as too-slow racehorses and need upwards of seven years of training to develop, perhaps, into a world-class equine.
“The biggest part of our sport is the trust the horse has to have in the rider,” said Dutton, a four-time Olympian. “With a baby horse, you start off by walking it through water. Then you walk it over little logs, little jumps.
"Ultimately, if the trust works out and the horse has enough ability, four or six years later, the horse can be the best in the world, even in the Olympic Games. Every day you work hard to keep (the) horse’s trust, to not do anything to the horse that would not keep that trust going.”
Why such a high level of trust?
“You have these animals,” Dutton explained, “these horses that eventually will jump off the side of something (that) looks like mountains, and they do it for you because they trust you.”
And if something goes wrong, it could spell catastrophe for the rider or the horse.
It was clear when Martin was a teenager in Australia that school wasn’t for him. He was the son of two Olympians who met at the 1968 Winter Olympics in France, his father an Australian cross-country skier and his mother an American speed skater.
Martin was an Aussie country boy, and he hated being stuck inside. So after graduating from high school, he moved into a bunkhouse at an Australian three-day eventing academy, and he began to compete in the equestrian circuit in Australia and New Zealand.
In his first event, Martin fell three times, chased his horse back to the trailer, remounted and then finished the course. He is, above all else, a fighter.
In 2003, a friend told Martin about a horse at an Australian racetrack that could have that kernel of athleticism in him. Just as importantly, this horse could be had for cheap. The horse was half American, half Australian, just like Martin.
But at 3 years old, the chestnut gelding was already retired, too slow for the racing game. The owner was trying to sell him. If that didn’t work, the horse would end up at the slaughterhouse, bound for a dog food can. Martin offered the owner about $850, a bit more than the slaughterhouse would have offered. The horse’s name was Neville Bardos.
The plan: Get him cheap, put in six months of training, sell him for a tidy profit.
“But he was a little bit more of a handful, more of a wild horse, than I expected,” Martin said. “He was a bit of a hothead and a bit of a handful in the barn.
"To be honest, I really thought I’d bought a lemon, and I thought, ‘Oh geez, what will I do with this horse?’ He was overenthusiastic with his work. He tried too hard, a real handful. I really questioned the decision in buying him: ‘What am I going to do with this raging lunatic?’ ”
There was no chance of selling this skittish horse to the average Joe, to a casual rider looking for a nice, quiet horse. But Martin quickly realized something: Neville was pure athlete, fast enough for eventing and an excellent jumper.
Martin’s wife, a German dressage rider named Silva who also had Olympic aspirations, noticed something funny. Her husband and Neville thrived off each other. The two were so similar, both high energy and acting like they have ADD.
“Neville’s not a cuddly horse at all,” Silva Martin said. “He doesn’t like to be around people that much. In cross-country, he draws so much confidence from Boyd, and vice versa. You can see it, if you know horses.”
As the years passed, Neville started to chill out, showing a trust in his patient trainer. The two started advancing up the levels in eventing, drawing confidence off each other. They eventually moved to the United States together.
The Martins settled in eastern Pennsylvania, and in the 2010 World Equestrian Games, Martin’s first as an American citizen, he rode Neville to 10th place, the top finish for an American horse.
“He’s not the flashiest or the fanciest one there,” Martin said. “What he is is a very, very tough horse. When you’re faced with a very difficult course, tough conditions and all the show ponies are withdrawing and retiring halfway around, without fail Neville champs at the bit, digs deep and does the business.”
So when Martin had to decide whether he would rush into a burning building last spring, it wasn’t as if he was risking his life just to save some animal. This was an animal he’d spent years training. Martin had saved this horse from slaughter, and Neville had protected Martin on so many dangerous cross-country courses.
Really, there was no choice.
Inside the barn, a wall of smoke, so dark it seemed as if pumped from a factory, flooded all but the area nearest the floor. Dutton, Martin’s mentor and the owner of the stables, followed Martin in, crawling through the 12-foot-wide alleyway between the stables.
It was spooky, how quiet it was inside as the fire raged. Martin ran past the corpses of horses. He choked and sputtered with every breath. The only sounds he heard were of a few horses, coughing and gurgling.
He didn’t have a flashlight, but Martin knew where Neville was stabled, and there he was, standing in a corner, his eyes wide open and his chestnut body turned black, covered in soot and burns. But the horse seemed oddly calm.
“We’re lucky we both found each other.” Martin said.Calina Ritchie
The roof was starting to fall in. “I’m going to die here,” Martin thought.
But Martin couldn’t budge Neville. Then like a ghost Dutton appeared from the cloud of smoke. He went behind the horse and started to shove him, and Martin grabbed the horse by his cribbing collar. The two emerged from the flaming barn with Neville in tow. They fell to the ground, coughing up smoke.
“If we were 20 or 30 seconds later,” Martin said, “he was dead.”
The two tried to go in again to save other horses, but the smoke was too thick.
The fire burned through the pitch-dark night. As the horses were taken to a nearby veterinary intensive-care unit, Martin and Dutton stayed at the barn, waiting for it to burn out.
By 5:30 a.m., the sun was starting to rise, and the barn was a smoldering heap. His wife picked him up and drove him to the clinic to see Neville. As the clinic door opened, Martin broke down, the first time his wife had ever seen him cry.
Inside, Neville was hooked up to an IV to give him fluids and antibiotics. A breathing tube in his nose fed him oxygen. His throat was burned all the way down to his lungs. When he saw his old riding partner, Martin assumed there was no chance they’d compete together again. He just wanted the horse to survive and live out his life in a field.
Don’t get your hopes up, the veterinarians told the Martins. Of the six horses who survived, Neville was by far in the worst shape.
Then veterinarians tested Neville’s blood. They were flummoxed. They tested it again, with the same results. According to Neville’s carbon monoxide levels, he should have been dead. But he just stood there, calm and sturdy.
“Right then I knew: This is one horse who will prove all the experts wrong,” Martin said.
It’s a gray, windswept April day on the 70 hilly Pennsylvania acres Boyd Martin is shaping into a world-class cross-country training facility. Two dogs, an Irish setter and a Jack Russell, greet visitors. A groomer zips around on a moped. Lining the gravel driveway are six sapling pear trees just starting to bloom. At the foot of each tree is a plaque, one for each horse who died.
Standing near some temporary stables, Martin’s black riding boots are spackled with mud. It’s only four months before the London Olympics, and Martin lifts his leg over Neville Bardos and takes the horse on a light gallop around the arena, stretching out his muscles after a competition the weekend before.
“Doesn’t look like much, does he?” Martin says.
But today Neville is sitting pretty, one of only four American horses short-listed for the eventing competition in the 2012 Olympics.
The past year has been a trying one for Martin. Days after the fire, they buried the horses in a paddock near the remains of the barn. Fire officials told him it was an electrical fire. Martin had lost some $100,000 in equipment as well as a big source of his income. Plus, within two months of the fire, two more tragedies stuck: Martin’s father died in a bicycle accident in Australia, and then his wife’s father died of cancer back in Germany.
But with the bad news came good. The first was how the community of eastern Pennsylvania embraced the Martins after the fire, giving them a sense of home in their new land.
The second was the amazing recovery of Neville Bardos, the one thing that helped Martin get out of bed in the morning during the depressing time.
Right after the fire Neville started eating hay, surprising everyone. A hyperbaric oxygen chamber helped heal his lungs. Neville seemed healthy, so Martin kept training him for competition and flew him to England three months after the fire for the Burghley Horse Trials, a four-star international event and one of the premier events in the sport.
Neville and Martin finished in seventh place, the top Americans, better than anyone imagined. In the dressage portion of the eventing competition, the precision discipline where the lively Neville had always struggled, the horse seemed to take a deep breath and calm down as soon as he entered the arena.
“I’d never seen him do that before,” Silva Martin said. “I think Neville knows. He changed after the fire.”
In the months before London, Neville Bardos will be among the most pampered horses in the world. He has his own masseuse and chiropractor. A horse psychic works with him. He gets five meals a day plus fancy horseshoes to help him jump better.
The failed racehorse Boyd Martin bought for less than $1,000 is now owned by a syndicate of 10 owners and is worth in the neighborhood of $1 million.
“I often look at him and he’s half-grinning, and I just think, ‘How did you pull that off, cheating death twice?’ ” Martin says with a laugh. “We’re lucky we both found each other.”
Neville Bardos has become the horse that’s defined Martin’s career. Anything can happen in eventing – a fall, a slip, a bad day in the arena – but Martin knows he and his horse have a great shot at medaling in London. A triumph in the world’s greatest sporting event would be the achievement of Martin’s lifetime -- and accomplished on the back of the horse whose life he saved twice.
“In a weird kind of way,” Martin says, “we both needed each other.”
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