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2012 LONDON OLYMPICS :: 40 days to summer games

Through great fire

A horse carries his savior, from slaughter and burning stable, toward London

June 17, 2012|Kevin Baxter
  • Boyd Martin riding Neville Bardos at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. in April 2010.
Boyd Martin riding Neville Bardos at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington,… (Mike McNally / Associated…)

Boyd Martin wasn't so much interested in saving lives as he was in making money when he stepped between a breeder and a horse that was being loaded into a trailer outside the paddock of an Australian racetrack a decade ago.

The 3-year-old chestnut gelding had washed out as a racehorse, and the owner was about to sell him to a slaughterhouse. Martin offered $850 to take him away, figuring he could flip the horse for a neat profit after a few months of training.

"That was the plan originally, to turn him over like I had done with many before," Martin says. "But he ended up being a little bit more of a handful than I expected. So for a long time I thought I really was stuck with a lemon.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'If only you knew what I've done for you. This is how you repay me?' "

Yet that wouldn't be the last time Martin would save Neville Bardos' life. Thirteen months ago, Martin rushed into a burning stable, found the horse cowering amid the smoke and ashes, and led him to safety. Six other horses weren't as lucky.

And this time, Neville Bardos, named for an Australian gangster, wouldn't forget.

"When I rescued him from the fire, when I was with him in intensive care, I had the feeling that the horse, for the first time, appreciated what I did for him," Martin says.

This summer, he may get a chance to further show his appreciation by helping Martin achieve a lifelong goal of taking part in the Olympic Games, where he would represent his adopted country after making the U.S. Equestrian Federation's short list for the London Games. Final team selections must be made by July 2.

Competing in the Olympics is something of a tradition in Martin's family. His U.S.-born mother, Toy Dorgan, was a speedskater in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, where she met Australian cross-country skier Ross Martin, the man she would marry. But by the time Boyd turned 12, he had no use for winter sports, so he joined an Australian pony club.

He was soon infatuated with the sport and the animals. As a young adult he began buying what he called "reject" horses that failed at racing and could be had cheap. He would then teach them to jump and resell them, mostly to recreational riders.

"I was just starting out in the sport, and I hadn't quite made a name for myself," he remembers. "Part of my business was obviously trying to earn an income through horses in Australia, which was tough going."

On the recommendation of a friend, Martin found Neville Bardos, a lively thoroughbred, in the stables at an Australian track in 2002. His racing days were over, and his owner had lost patience with the horse, who had a thin streak of athleticism and a wide swath of stubbornness.

"He was a little bit of an excited, fiery horse. And they're hard horses to sell," remembers Martin, who liked the animal partly because he, too, was half American, half Australian. "So I just kept on working with him every day. And it took a long time for me to actually think that this might be something special.

"I had him for about 18 months before he started to really come around and we started to connect."

A year and a half after that connection, Neville had another breakthrough, winning an international three-day equestrian event on a tough, grueling course in Melbourne.

"At that point," Martin says. "I started changing my feelings with him, and we started getting along a lot better."

So when Martin, who has dual citizenship, relocated from Australia to eastern Pennsylvania's horse country in 2007, he spent several thousand dollars to bring the $850 horse with him. That proved a wise investment when rider and horse -- competing for the U.S. for the first time -- were the top American finishers in the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

"Boyd saw something in Neville that he thought was worth a chance. And the rest is history," says Phillip Dutton, a two-time gold medalist in team equestrian competition and something of a mentor to Martin. "Obviously, what he did for the horse in the fire was very brave. And it was very unselfish."

Martin boarded his horses at Dutton's stables, where, early on the morning after Memorial Day 2011, an electrical short set the wooden building on fire. Martin rushed to the scene and found the stables fully engulfed. Stable workers, some of whom had tried unsuccessfully to save the horses, stood on the gravel driveway shaking and crying. A fire chief, charged with protecting human life and not horses, blocked Martin from a rescue attempt.

So Martin punched him and rushed into the barn.

"It's not something I'm proud of, to be honest," Martin says of the punch. "I was standing around and felt quite helpless. I just had a feeling that there were horses still alive even through the barn complex was completely [engulfed]. If I didn't try to do something, I'd regret it for the rest of my life."

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