Fans of equestrian Boyd Martin might notice a new strength at this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. In the past year, Martin has been tested by fire and sorrow and come out winning.
"I feel like I can deal with anything now," he said. "The challenges I've been faced with and overcome are now behind me. Any problem I'm facing now seems minute compared to some of the things I've had to deal with lately. So I suppose you could say I'm a stronger person."
A daring rider, Australian-born Martin has always been known for taking even the biggest hurdles with insouciance.
But on May 31, a barn fire nearly brought him down.
After midnight, his phone rang with the news that a barn he rented at fellow equestrian Phillip Dutton's True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Penn., was ablaze. By the time Martin reached the barn, it was engulfed in flames and firefighters had determined it was too unsafe to go inside.
"I felt a bit helpless. Everyone was just standing around. The firefighters had given up hope," Martin said.
Three grooms, living in an apartment above the stable, had already rescued four horses but seven were still trapped inside, stall doors open, too afraid to move.
They included Neville Bardos, whom Martin had ridden to fourth place at the 2010 Rolex Kentucky and 10th place at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park, finishing as the top American pair.
"I made a bid to go in," Martin said. And he was grabbed by a couple of firefighters. He tried to get the oxygen mask from one but it was attached to the tank.
Normally mild Martin came to blows with a fire chief. "I got into a scuffle with him, ... and I managed to overpower him," Martin said.
"Deep down, I had a sense that something was still alive in there."
Desperate, Martin raced into the smoke. In the blackness, he heard a horse gurgling and coughing. Searching, Martin found him in the corner of a stall; he could reach the horse's halter but couldn't get him to move.
Suddenly, Dutton appeared beside him and together they pushed and dragged the horse out.
It was Neville Bardos, the failed racehorse-turned-eventing star who had been the crowd favorite at WEG.
"Once I got him out of the fire, I knew he was in bad shape. You couldn't really make out how bad he was because he was completely covered in black soot," Martin said.
He was the last horse pulled out alive, his airway and lungs heavily damaged by the searing smoke. Five of Martin's other horses and one owned by his student groom died.
Neville was taken to nearby University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, the same top-notch veterinary facility that nearly saved Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
"I knew once those docs and vets got hold of him, he was in the best place possible," Martin said.
The fire was not the only tragedy that hit: In July, Martin's father, Ross, a former Olympic cross-country skier, died after a cycling accident. Eighteen days later, Martin's wife, Silva, a dressage rider, lost her father to cancer.
"It was a very tough time in my life," Martin admitted. "People ask: How did you go on? I didn't really have a choice. I had a number of horses still in training and an unbelievable amount of debt hanging over my head. ... I felt this was time I'd either sink or swim."
Friends and fellow riders came to his aid with equipment, fund-raisers, even a new horse.
"I had to soldier on, be resolute," he said. "I had young horses like Neville and Otis Barbotiere to go on with."
Amazingly, after a few weeks of treatment, Neville had not only responded but begun to thrive. In June, Martin took Neville home with every expectation that he would be retired. But the horse had other ideas and soon was back in training.
Eventing is an arduous sport modeled on cavalry maneuvers. Often compared to a triathlon, the discipline tests a horse's control in dressage and show-jumping.
Cross-country jumping demands stamina and courage and the kind of trust in a rider that allows a 1,000-pound animal to fly blindly over a 6-foot wall into a gully and then take a skinny brush fence that would be much easier to just avoid.
Martin set his sights on taking Neville to the Burghley Horse Trials in England, arguably the world's toughest cross-country course.
"I'd always dreamed of going," he said. "Certainly there was every reason not to go, and I had some experts saying I should do it another year. But it kept me going. I had the feeling the horse wanted to go."
With only eight weeks of preparation, Neville pulled off an amazing comeback, jumping the grueling cross-country course flawlessly in a performance of 11 minutes, 40 seconds that fans deemed a miracle.
"He cheated death, and it really is remarkable that he is here at all," Boyd said at the time. An emotional Martin and Neville Bardos finished in seventh place, one downed rail in show-jumping shy of fourth place.
"Just my way of dealing with it," he said now. "It was a very dark time in my life. That was the one bright star ... keeping me going."
New level of toughness
Now Martin and Neville are becoming bright stars on the world stage. They are short-listed for the Olympics in London this summer and have been profiled by the likes of The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio and NBC.
While "Nev" rests up for the Olympics, Martin has two mounts entered for the Rolex Kentucky, an Olympic-selection event that begins Thursday with two days of dressage, followed by cross-country on Saturday and show-jumping finals on Sunday.
One of Martin's entries is Otis Barbotiere, who was one of the four horses rescued from the fire by the grooms. He will be competing in his first four-star, or Olympic-level, competition. His other mount, Remington XXV, is an experienced four-star horse.
"It's a big step up for Otis Barbotiere," said Joanie Morris, spokeswoman for U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance. "Everyone's really excited."
That Burghley ride last fall, a mental and physical victory for horse and rider, showed a new level of toughness that won the 13-year-old gelding the U.S. Equestrian Federation's honor of Horse of the Year, shared with a champion Friesian named Sjoerd, the first time the USEF has crowned co-winners.
Martin will need that toughness to take on this Rolex Kentucky field. A record 73 horses were entered, with a top-level lineup of international riders, all trying to impress their own Olympic selectors, including:
■ William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, 2010 Rolex Kentucky winner and 2011 Burghley champion, going for the second leg of the Grand Slam of Eventing (Rolex Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley, won consecutively).
■ Andrew Hoy of Australia, 2006 Rolex Kentucky winner and six-time Olympic veteran with an individual silver (2000) and three team gold (1992, 1996, 2000) medals.
■ Andrew Nicholson of New Zealand, six-time Olympic veteran, with team silver (1992) and team bronze (1996) medals, individual and team bronze medals at 2010 WEG.
■ Karen O'Connor of the U.S., 1999 Rolex Kentucky champ and three-time Olympian with team silver (1992) and team bronze (1996) medals.
And then there's Martin's coach and Neville Bardos' co-savior, Dutton, who was the 2008 Rolex Kentucky winner and a three-time Olympian with two team gold medals (1996 and 2000).
Dutton also has been on a roll, with two previous wins already at lower-level competitions this spring.
"It's a red-hot field — the most competitive field in my time competing in Kentucky," Martin said.
Despite that, he likes his chances.
"Eventing's a funny game. You can have the best horse and the best rider in the world, and one slip around a turn, one miscalculation of a take-off spot on a show jump, whatever ... anyone can get in there and win it."
Especially if they are made of steel.