FOR the first time, the United States Equestrian Federation has crowned an Australian-bred horse its horse of the year.
The horse, chestnut Thoroughbred Neville Bardos, was honoured at the annual Horse of the Year celebration in Ohio last week.
A former racehorse who escaped slaughter in Australia after Aussie Boyd Martin bought him for $850, the little white-faced gelding was converted to an eventer in Australia before being moved to the US with his owner in 2007.
He started making a name for himself, then won the Fair Hill three-star in 2009. Martin became an American citizen and Neville became the top-placed US horse at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where he was 10th in individual placings.
In May last year fate turned nasty when a fire started at Neville's stable in Pennsylvania, killing seven of the 11 horses inside.
Boyd rushed over after midnight from his nearby home as the fire burned out of control, and with his mentor, Australian Phillip Dutton, who owned the barn, rushed in against the orders of fire officials and grabbed Neville by his wind-sucking collar and saved him.
Burns and smoke inhalation made it unlikely that Neville would be anything more than a pasture ornament, but the horse beat the odds with the help of fans who donated tens of thousands of dollars to pay his veterinary bills.
He shouldn't have lived. But he did. He shouldn't have returned to his life as an event horse. But he returned better than ever.
Boyd Martin, the brave chestnut's rider and best friend, accepted the award backed by a standing ovation and the votes of an adoring public that put the thoroughbred over the top in the polling.
"To me, he's always been horse of the year," Martin said.
"It's a wonderful honour to be patted on the back by so many other great equestrian enthusiasts here. It's very moving for me, because it's been a ruthless year."
Neville, miraculously, went back into training, became his old self, then headed overseas to finish seventh at the Burghley Four Star Three Day Event in England last September.
Now, Hollywood is calling. Boyd has heard from a production company interested in making a movie of Neville's story.
For the perfect ending, producers will have to wait for the London Olympics where Martin and the little Australian thoroughbred will go for gold.