Olympics

The unique Prices ready to take the reins

As Sir Mark Todd bows out of the equestrian world, Jonelle and Tim Price are stepping up to become New Zealand's foremost riders for the 2020 Olympics. David Leggat speaks to Mrs Price before the Burghley Horse Trials. 

Jonelle and Tim Price don’t need to ask each other how their day went over dinner.

More than likely they’ll already know the answer.

Which is not to say they won’t have plenty to discuss while passing the potatoes across the table. And that’s why they are a unique pair in New Zealand sport.

The husband and wife are among the world’s elite eventing riders and, as theirs is not a sport divided into separate gender competitions, more often than not they spend their weekends competing against each other.

That must make for some cracking conversations once an event is over.

“Yes, sometimes good, sometimes less good,” Jonelle laughs of the unusual dynamic in their house in Marlborough, England.

“We don’t know any different. We’ve been together a long time now. Our whole time over here we’ve been living together. It’s normal for us. We are definitely arch rivals but if one of us is not going to win, then naturally we want the other person to win.

“The prizemoney comes to the same bank account at the end of the day.”

Jonelle and Tim, 38 and 40 respectively and in their sporting prime, have now won two of the premier 5* classes each.

Jonelle broke her duck last year with back-to-back victories at the famous Badminton event aboard Classic Moet, and then Luhmuhlen in Germany riding her other top-class horse, Faerie Dianimo.

Tim also won at Luhmuhlen in 2014 and drew level with Jonelle with his victory at Burghley aboard Ringwood Sky Boy last year.

This weekend are the Burghley Horse Trials once again, where both Prices will be riding, along with fellow New Zealanders Caroline Powell (the 2010 Burghley champion on Lenamore), Ginny Thompson, Sam Lissington and Dan Jocelyn.

Jonelle Price and Classic Moet on their way to victory at Badminton last year (they couldn't defend the title this year as the horse had foot problems). Photo: Libby Law/ESNZ

Jonelle was a member of the last New Zealand eventing team to make the Olympic podium, in London in 2012. There she was up on the bronze dais alongside Sir Mark Todd, Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget and Powell.

But now things have changed.

Todd, named the Eventing Rider of the 20th century by the International Equestrian Federation, has retired for the second, and final time, at 63 - by chance while standing alongside Jonelle on the dais celebrating New Zealand’s victory at the Nations Cup in Ireland in July.

Now, going to Tokyo, barring injury or mishap, the Prices will be most influential figures in the New Zealand team at the 2020 Olympics.

Jonelle Price is a five-star admirer of the remarkable Todd - a double Olympic individual champion in 1984-88 aboard Charisma, seven-time Olympian and winner of an outstanding nine four-star events.

“He’s really been a huge influence on our career, both Tim and I,” she says.

“He came to England first in 1978. I was born in 1980. I remember sitting up all night watching the Olympics recording on the VCR and he was really the start of dreaming of doing such things myself.

“He’s been the consummate professional. He taught us how to compete, how to prepare for a major competition. His intensity and focus leading into those majors was always incredible to watch.

“We will try to continue his legacy, the standard he set within Team New Zealand. Now it’s up to us to do the same for the younger generation coming through.”

Cue Tokyo, where a major change to the rules has New Zealand’s leading riders puzzling.

Teams have been reduced from four to three combinations. Previously the best three scores counted, so teams could afford one pair having a slip-up. You were still alive.

Now, if a combination has to be withdrawn through injury, they can be replaced, but the penalties are so severe it rubs that team completely out of medal contention.

“We’re definitely scratching our heads about it. Some of these decisions made by the Olympic committee are a little alarming. But, in a funny way, it might be positive for New Zealand because we don’t have a lot [of horses] to choose from,” Price says.

“It might be that come selection time we only have three absolute candidates, whereas the Brits might have eight. If you can only take three, then the other five are of no value to you.”

Fitness and durability of the horses will be paramount and here Jonelle may face a dilemma.

Both Classic Moet and Faerie Dianimo are getting on, and will be aged 17 and 15 respectively next year. Not completely knackered by any stretch, but coming towards the end of it.

Price has a “lovely horse” coming through - 11-year-old Grovine de Reve, which fellow Kiwi Jocelyn rode at last year’s World Games.

“We’re hoping he will be up and ready, so it’s nice to have a few options”.

Jonelle Price on Faerie Dianimo at the Rio Olympics. The Prices were the first husband and wife in the same NZ Olympic team. Photo: Getty Images. 

Jonelle is originally from Nelson, Tim from Canterbury. But the couple have lived in Marlborough, England, for 14 years, having made the most of their ambition to make it in the eventing game in one of the sports hotbeds.

“We’re nearly locals,” she quipped.

The arrival of their son, two-year-old Otis, has changed things on the home front. But not too much.

“I wouldn’t say professionally, but we have to be a little more organised and we certainly rely on a lot of help. We’ve been able to resume as normal,” Price says.

“That was pretty imperative to me. I wasn’t prepared to take a back seat, and neither was Tim. Otis travels a lot with us, he’s certainly one of the most travelled toddlers around and he’s really fun.”

The Prices are enjoying the fruits of their labours. It hasn’t always been straightforward. They’ve done the hard yards, scraping their way up the ladder. Now they occupy the rarefied air at the top of the tree.

Tim became the world’s No 1-ranked rider in June, joining only Todd, Nicholson and Blyth Tait among New Zealanders to scale the ultimate height, while Jonelle has been as high as No 2.

“Now I guess it is different because we know we can compete, know we have a very real chance of being amongst the top end, but that comes with added pressure and expectations,” Jonelle says.

“But I think that’s part and parcel of our sport.”

Tokyo is a dot in the distance, and Jonelle admits very much in the back of her mind right now. There’s much to happen between now and the Olympics.

“This year we don’t have a [world] championship, whereas the rest have the Europeans. It’s a chance for us to do our own thing,” she says.

“Obviously there’s a few [New Zealand] team commitments in the coming months, but it’s a bit less focused I guess and we’re just trying to ensure the horsepower is in good form and quietly ticking boxes.”

Although Jonelle enjoyed winning her first British championship win at Gatcombe Park, the country residence of Princess Anne, in early August, she feels her husband’s form is “annoyingly a little bit better than mine.

“That’s how it goes, two people under the same roof,” she says. “But we’ve been in the game long enough to know you don’t count your chickens until they hatch.”

But she’s happy with their life and their circumstances and how things have fallen nicely into place over time.

“We’ve had the experience, learnt how to be successful and we’re still as hungry as ever. It’s a nice position to be in, but certainly not to be taken for granted.”

So to Burghley starting on Thursday night, where Tim will defend his title and he and his wife will be among a clutch of New Zealand combinations riding in arguably the toughest of the six 5* events.

There’s the small matter of a £95,000 (NZ$182,000) first prize too.

Come Tokyo there won’t be the reassuring presence of Todd, nor his fellow nine-time four star master Nicholson.

But New Zealand should arrive in Tokyo next year, luck and health permitting, among the fancied medal contenders, and you can chalk that up to the husband-and-wife team at the top of their game.

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