Neville Bardos was honored at Plantation Field International Three Day Event for surviving the Memorial Day weekend fire that killed six of his stablemates and for going on to place seventh at possibly the world's most grueling three day event just seventeen weeks later. Thanks to his cribbing strap, Neville was the last horse to be pulled from the burning barn by owner Boyd Martin (above) and True Prospect Farm owner Phillip Dutton, and suffered the most serious smoke inhalation wounds.
Many phrases have been used to describe Boyd Martin and Neville Bardos's trip to the Burghley 4* event in England, which culminated in a seventh-place finish, last month – Cinderella story, ultimate comeback, fairy-tale ending.
But the story is far from over. With Neville coming away sound from his successful trip to Burghley, the Olympic rings in London are not far from sight. Martin is feeling cautiously optimistic about his Olympics chances after Burghley, which was held just two months after Neville's brush with death during a fatal barn fire at True Prospect Farm.
Six horses lost their lives in the Memorial Day weekend fire. Neville was the last horse to make it out alive, pulled to safety by Martin and eventing great Phillip Dutton by the horse's cribbing collar.
After the fire left Neville with severe burns in his throat, Martin knew it would be a longshot for the horse to ever compete again, much less at one of the most grueling events in the world.
“Initially, at the time of the fire, I thought there was no way he would compete, which was devastating,” Martin said. “But as time went on we noticed the horse improving in his health. The plan was always to do Burghley, so I started thinking that maybe we could.”
Achieving the Impossible
Neville had been on stall rest at the time of the fire due to straining a shoulder muscle at the Red Hills Horse Trials in March. The lay-up period before and after the fire meant Martin had to scramble to get Neville fit enough to compete.
After a successful outing at the Millbrook Horse trials at the beginning of August, where Neville placed fourth in the Advanced division, Martin knew Burghley, held September 1-4, was in his reach. He began what he called an “un-ideal preparation” for the event, given he had less than a month left until Burghley.
“We really didn't have much time to work on dressage and show jumping because we were just spending so much time on his fitness,” Martin said. “We basically were just getting him fit for the event with galloping and long trot sets.”
The hard work paid off. Martin and Neville landed in England a week before Burghley ready to tackle the biggest challenge of their eventing career.
“It was very surreal and emotional being there, looking around at one of the world's greatest events with a horse you'd had such a history with,” Martin said.
Feeling the Love
From the very start of the event, it seemed like the world was watching Martin and Neville, cheering them on after what had been a horrific summer. Many competitors personally told Martin “good luck” and came out to watch his dressage test on the first day.
“It was great to see all the riders, owners, spectators and supporters, who also have a connection with horses and understand the hardship and pain we went through losing the horses in the fire, come out to cheer him on,” Martin said.
Neville and Boyd scored 49.7 in their dressage test, which left them in 11th place after day one of dressage and 24th after the end of the second day. Martin felt the test was “relatively good” considering how little dressage training Neville had before Burghley.
“Dressage is always a nerve-wracking process,” Martin said. “Obviously when you've flown to another country and are in front of the eyes of thousands of people, you always want to do well.”
Even sitting in 24th place, Martin was only 10.4 points off the lead. And while he knew Neville's dressage test could have been better, he also knew the horse was fit enough to jump clear around cross country.
“I was actually pretty confident about the course,” Martin said. “I knew he was fit enough and knew he could jump around it. The bigger it walks and the scarier it looks, the better Neville goes.”
The course, designed by Captain Mark Phillips, featured 33 jumping efforts and was designed to be dramatic and even more challenging than usual in honor of the 50th anniversary year of Burghley.
Against the Odds
“He was very keen early on. About three-fourths of the way around after Cottesmore Leap I felt like he had plenty left in the tank and really it was just a matter of trying to get him home without an ugly mistake at a fence from being too over enthusiastic,” Martin said.
Only 10 horse and rider teams went double clear on cross country, and Neville and Martin were among them.
“To finish inside the time around the toughest course he'd ever jumped was something that I knew he could do and it was just a relief,” Martin said. “It wasn't a perfect round, but we stuck together and made it through.”
After Martin's fantastic cross-country trip, people began to take notice that a Cinderella story was brewing. Competitors and spectators alike mused that the story would make a perfect Disney movie.
“Everyone was happy for me and happy for the horse,” Martin said. “It was a nice feeling, having everyone pat you on the back. Everyone knew how much it meant to me doing the event on that particular horse. Even my competitors were congratulating me.”
Neville pulled up sound after cross country and felt very fresh before show jumping the next morning. The duo pulled a rail on course to finish seventh overall.
“Going into show jumping, we hadn't really been training and really trying to improve his jump,” Martin said. “The rail he had was a little bit my mistake and also he could have tried a bit harder.”
Had they not pulled the rail, Martin and Neville would have finished fourth.
“When you event at that level and you put your heart and soul in it, you always want the best dressage test, an under time cross country and a clear show jumping round," Martin said. “I know Neville was capable of a top-three finish had everything gone perfectly.”
While Neville and Martin didn't win Burghley, one would have thought they had, based on the praise and congratulations the pair received from around the world. The experience went a long way to lift Martin's spirits, he said.
“After a big event like that, your confidence is back and your passion to keep going is back,” Martin said. “To be honest, I was down and out for a little bit after the fire, but I never stopped enjoying riding and training horses. Training for Burghley was something I could focus on and work toward instead of getting depressed.”
Now Neville is getting some much-deserved time off in his pasture back home in Cochranville. He came back from Burghley totally sound and ready for what will hopefully be his next challenge: the London Olympics.
“My feeling is the Olympic selectors won't want him to do a spring event,” Martin said. “He'll go around a few horse trials in America, and if we're lucky enough to be selected to go we'll hope to contribute to a good team score.”
Martin plans to focus on Neville's dressage and jumping through the rest of the year, hoping to “get that dressage score down a few points.”
While the future is bright for Neville and Martin, he said he's “not too worried or fired up about the Olympics yet.” There will be plenty of time for that later. For now, Martin can relish in a fantastic Burghley trip and focus on writing the next chapter in his Cinderella story.
“One thing I've learned over the last decade in this sport is to concentrate on the day-to-day aspect and everything else will work itself out,” Martin said.