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Neville Bardos cheats death and jockeys for a position on U.S. Olympic team

By Jenny Dubin and Ronnie Polidoro
Rock Center

Neville Bardos, the U.S. Equestrian Federation International Horse of the Year, is gearing up for a potential spot on the U.S. Olympic team, a remarkable feat considering less than a year ago the champion horse was fighting for his life after surviving a deadly fire.

“Neville was the highest-placed American horse at the World Championships two years ago,” said Boyd Martin, the horse’s trainer.  But after a fire broke out in Neville’s stable, the 12-year-old chestnut thoroughbred horse with a white muzzle was unrecognizable when he turned black from the smoke and ash.  “The only thing you could see was Neville's two little eyes,” Martin said.

May 30, 2011

The fire happened at night last Memorial Day in a barn which housed 11 horses.  “I remember driving out there and there was just this massive yellow glow in the sky," Martin told Rock Center’s Harry Smith in an interview airing Wednesday, May 9.

“I thought to myself, ‘you know, this is real bad and my life's about to change,’” said Martin, who purchased Neville after he graduated from high school in Australia.

Neville was destined for the slaughterhouse but Martin sensed he was a champion-caliber horse.  The two placed 1st at the Melbourne CCI in 2006, 1st at the Fairhill CCI in 2009, and placed 4th at Kentucky CCI in 2010.

But disaster loomed at the True Prospect Farm in West Grove, PA.  Martin fought his way past the firefighters and raced into the barn.  Through a cloud of heavy smoke, Martin says he found a stable door and remembered hearing a gurgling noise.

Rock Center

Boyd Martin, Neville Bardos, and Harry Smith

“I had my shirt over my head and I remembered running in there and then I could feel, like, a horse cowering up in the corner,” Martin said.

Martin says he put his hands on the horse and felt his collar and dragged him out of the barn just moments before the blazing roof collapsed.

It helped that Neville was wearing a windsucking collar.  It’s a collar that is placed around a horse’s neck to deter him from flexing his neck muscles whenever he tries to suck in air, a habit discouraged in competitive horses.

Before Martin arrived, four horses were pulled from the barn but Neville was the only one Martin himself was able to pull out alive.  While the burns to his flesh were minimal, he had been in the fire for the better part of an hour and suffered severe smoke inhalation.  Neville was in critical condition gasping for his life.

Neville was rushed to the hospital and treated daily in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in effort to speed his recovery.  His condition improved so rapidly the results seemed miraculous. “You could see the horse every day getting fresher and stronger and more antsy,” said Martin.

After five weeks of recovery, Neville’s veterinarian suggested Martin take him for a walk.  So Martin hopped on and walked him, but the walk turned into a trot and then the trot turned into a canter.

It had always been a dream of Martin’s to compete in England at the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the toughest three-day equestrian competitions in the world, but by the time Neville was on the mend, Martin only had eight weeks to get the horse ready.

Martin says a lot of people said it was a dumb idea to compete with the recovering horse, “But what people didn't understand is how much I knew this horse and what I was feeling every day and what I was reading as the trainer. And I knew before I got to Burghley that this horse was ready to go.”

Martin and Neville finished 7th, an extraordinary performance just three months after the fire.

“It confirmed that me as a person and Neville as a horse can deal with anything now,” Martin said.

The two mates have now set their sights on what would be the ride of their lives competing at the Olympics this summer.  Their fate will be determined when the short list is announced June 17th and the Olympic team is announced July 2nd.

“All I can do is try my very hardest.  And all Neville can do is try his very hardest.  And if it's meant to be I think it's going to happen,” Martin said.

Click here to watch Harry Smith's full report, 'Horse Power,' from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.