On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, David Leggat talks with Vicky Latta, the only Kiwi woman to have won two Olympic medals in the challenging sport of three-day eventing.
Had life taken a little twist in her teens, Vicky Latta’s life may have been more about mastering the world of ballet than eventing.
At one point, the jeté, adagio and arabesque would have been front of her mind, rather than sitting in a saddle trying to master the equine skills needed for the world’s most demanding equestrian circuits.
“You know how kids decide what they want to be? Well, I wanted to be a dancer,” Latta says.
As life turned out, Latta won two Olympic eventing medals – more than any other New Zealand woman has – and has a place in the sport’s pantheon alongside the likes of Sir Mark Todd, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson.
Now 70, and retired from her careers with horses and law, Latta looks back at how she was good enough, at 15, to have the suggestion put to her to travel to the London Royal Ballet School.
But then she heard about a New Zealander a grade ahead of her, a leading pupil in London who’d suffered a fall which ended her budding career.
“She was stunning. The story wasn’t actually true, but she didn’t like the environment and decided she was out of it,” Latta says.
But the injury story stuck in the teenage Latta’s mind. There was the thought: “Your career could be over, then what?”
She’d always loved animals. Living with her parents at Titirangi, she had a pony at 10 and always had cats and dogs.
“Travelling to Newmarket for school, there were paddocks everywhere and I‘d count the horses. Horses always fascinated me,” she says.
In her early teens, life revolved around school, horses, ballet and piano, not necessarily in that order.
“I liked music, wish I’d kept it up, but we had a nun who whacked me over the knuckles if I played a bad note.” Latta didn’t appreciate that.
On finishing school, she settled on law as a “good all-round degree”, joined an Auckland practice and became a partner.
Business was the priority for a time. Equestrian – and she did plenty of showjumping as well as eventing in those days – was done when it could be fitted in.
That changed as her prowess caught national eyes.
Latta made a New Zealand team for a trans-Tasman test at Gawler, South Australia, in 1987 and for around the next decade she was there or thereabouts with the elite New Zealand eventers.
She had a very consistent horse, Match Point, but her real success came when she bought Chief off prominent New Zealand horse personality Merran Hain.
Chief, a New Zealand-bred bay thoroughbred gelding of British and French stock, became one of the world’s best eventers with Latta.
They made the World Games squad for Stockholm in 1990.
Back then travelling across the world with a horse was an expensive business. But, using a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ philosophy, Latta decided to “have a crack”. Her law partners were supportive, so she thought she’d give it six months and see how it went.
They won their first two events in England, and then were sixth at their first major three-day event at Saumur, France. Off they went to Stockholm and finished a creditable 11th.
They were ninth at the famous Badminton trial in 1991, despite Latta’s misgivings after she’d seen the course – “I wondered why on earth I thought that was a good idea”. Then they were on the Olympic team.
By the time of the Barcelona Games, Chief was ranked among the world’s leading horses and in 1992, the combination was never worse than fourth at any event (including third at Badminton).
Chief and Latta finished fourth in the individual event at the Barcelona Olympics – one place behind bronze medallist Tait – as well as winning silver in the team’s event. That remains New Zealand’s best team result.
Those Games are remembered for the disastrous final day’s showjumping leg when Nicholson’s horse, Spinning Rhombus, ploughed over or through several fences, dropping New Zealand out of the gold medal position.
But Latta is a fierce defender of Nicholson’s bad day. As she points out, had she not gone into an incorrectly marked penalty zone, costing 10 points, New Zealand would still have won the gold; ditto for Blyth Tait and Messiah’s lost time penalties.
“Anything slightly different and we’d still have been okay,” Latta says.
She enjoyed the “brillliant” Games in Spain, but that could not be said for Atlanta four years later.
It’s important to remember Latta was an amateur, riding and competing alongside professionals. She and Chief won a creditable six events on the circuit in their time in the United Kingdom.
Chief was then retired in 1995 but Latta had a decent, developing replacement in Broadcast News.
The horse didn’t have a lot of experience but showed encouraging signs and was named in the Olympic squad. “I thought, ‘oh well, we’ll have a crack at it,” she says.
Rule changes were brought in, among them the shortening of the cross country in anticipation of serious heat.
Latta and Broadcast News were the best of the New Zealand team on the dressage, but the cross country did them in.
“Andy [Broadcast News’ nickname] was a bit ‘ditchy’ – not a fan of ditches — and as we approached about the sixth fence it had a big ditch. I tapped him on the shoulder and he obviously felt ‘sod that’,” she recalls.
“At the next fence [a double] I checked him back to steady him and he launched. He jumped the first fence but landed at the foot of the second and hit his nose on a concrete pipe. I went sailing over his head as he stopped suddenly and that was that.”
Still, she received her team bronze medal, along with Tait, Nicholson and Vaughn Jefferis. Tait and Sally Clark won the individual quinella as New Zealand reinforced their status among the world’s best eventing nations.
The dreadful exchange rate at that time meant Latta either had to turn professional, which she didn’t fancy, or head home.
She’d had 10 years at the top and “it was quite hard going. I decided I probably wasn’t as keenly competitive [as others] and it was time to get out really,” she says.
Regrets? No, she’d had a terrific career and had been an integral part of New Zealand’s best period in the sport, even to this day.
Chief was going to come home too, but the fare to transport him went up, so he found a new job in England, babysitting yearlings. Latta reasoned if he was happy, it would give her a chance to visit.
He was put down at 28 in 2006, due to stomach growths which could not be controlled.
As for Latta, she did a stint as the New Zealand team manager, highlighted by winning a swag of medals in the teams and individual events at the World Games in Rome in 1998, including gold for the eventing team, and individual gold and silver for Tait and Todd respectively. Under Latta’s stewardship, that still stands among the greatest single World Games achievement by any nation.
She admits she felt a bit ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ in that role and no doubt her former team-mates probably thought she might be a pushover to getting their way on important decisions. Somehow you’d doubt that with this intelligent, determined woman at the helm.
Latta went back into practice, doing IT and sports law for another six years.
For the past 10 years, she’s been the secretary of the Carbine Club – which raises funds for the disabled sport – having been one of the first six women admitted; she’s also a life member.
Latta has little to do directly with the sport now, but she has much to reflect on with pride and satisfaction.
She would have been keen to stay involved and help school young horses and riders. However, as she points out ruefully, when you’re in the saddle “you don’t bounce so well as you get older”.
* Twelve New Zealanders have won Olympic eventing medals; six of them are women – Margaret Knighton, Tinks Pottinger, Latta, Sally Clark, Caroline Powell and Jonelle Price. Latta is the only one with two of them.