Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Fighter Who Faced Death Is Olympic Contender

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Fighter Who Faced Death Is Olympic Contender

Article excerpt

Just after 1 a.m. May 31, the rolling hills of True Prospect Farm in Chester County lit up as a fast-moving fire raced through a barn housing 11 show horses.

Stable workers pulled four to safety, but Neville Bardos, a big chestnut contender for the 2012 Olympics, was trapped in his stall.

With hay and straw ablaze, firefighters thought it too risky to try to save him. Neville's Australian-born trainer Boyd Martin had different ideas. He briefly argued with the fire crew, then broke past them and ran into the burning barn.

"I held my breath as deeply as I could -- I couldn't see anything but I remember hearing a gurgling," Mr. Martin said. "[Neville] was cooped up in a corner and I reached out and found his shoulder and then I found his neck. I got my hand around his neck collar, but couldn't move him. He was panicked."

At that moment, Mr. Martin's friend and the barn's owner, Phillip Dutton, emerged through the smoke. With Mr. Dutton pushing hard from behind, they managed to drag Neville down the aisle and into the crisp May air.

"If I had left it another 30 seconds," Mr. Martin said, "it would have all been all over."

With his lungs and airway heavily damaged by smoke, there was no thought that night of whether the horse that Mr. Martin had named for an Australian gangster would ever compete again -- only whether the vets could keep him alive.

Remarkably, the 13-year-old with two white socks and a big white blaze on his face not only resumed competing but was recently awarded the sport's highest honor: Horse of the Year by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

Another horse, Sjoerd, shared the award.

Mr. Martin, who rode Neville to seventh place in one of the world's toughest cross-country races, the Burghley Horse Trials in England, just three months after the fire, wasn't surprised.

"What that horse did on and off the competition stage last year, I couldn't see a horse in the world that could beat him," he said.

A spokeswoman for the equestrian federation agreed.

"If he'd gone to live in Boyd's backyard for the rest of his life the story would have had a happy ending," said Joanie Morris, "but to jump around one of the toughest competitions in the world, that's remarkable."

And now the "miracle" horse, as Mr. Martin calls him, is in contention for another honor, as a member of the U.S. equestrian team at the Olympics in London this summer.

Six top show horses died in the Memorial weekend blaze, which Chester County fire officials say accidentally started near a hay steamer in the center of the barn.

Of the five that were rescued, Neville was among the worst off.

Caitlin Silliman, who works for Mr. Martin as an assistant rider, was asleep in an apartment above the barn when she and her two roommates heard the horses whinnying and shimmying in panic.

They raced downstairs to open as many stall doors as they could, but the horses were too scared to move so they dragged out four before Mr. …

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