It’s at this time of year when grey skies descend on Gloucestershire, England – as they have for The Weekly’s exclusive photo shoot with Zara and Mike Tindall – that the couple start to get that familiar tingle of delight.
They know that in a few weeks’ time they will be swapping Aston Farm, their home on Zara’s mother Princess Anne’s Gatcombe Park estate, for days basking in the Gold Coast sunshine, hanging out with friends and revelling in the passion and fun of The Star Gold Coast Magic Millions Carnival.
“It’s such an easy thing to be involved with,” says Zara, grinning.
In 2024 she celebrates her 12th year as the horse carnival’s ambassador and she can’t wait. This uniquely Australian festival holds a very special place in her heart. It’s not just because she gets to enjoy an Aussie summer every year and play polo against her very dashing best friend, Nacho Figueras, but because as the event grows, it is opening up the world of horses that has been her life’s passion to a whole new audience.
“It’s expanded hugely,” explains Zara. “We’ve got more ambassadors on board now – including Elsa Pataky [model/ actress wife of Chris Hemsworth] – and [Magic Millions Racing Women founder] Katie Page-Harvey’s got lots of things going on with the Pacific Fair Magic Millions Polo & Showjumping and all those equestrian disciplines running alongside the thoroughbred auctions and race meet.
“I think the numbers of women who have got involved and have been coming back to the sales since the beginning has been incredible. It’s an amazing journey from where it started. And for us it’s been a really fun ride.”
Katie is CEO of retail giant Harvey Norman and co-owns and runs Magic Millions along with husband Gerry. Both are now ‘bffs’ with the Tindalls, with Gerry and Mike golf buddies and Katie and Zara working hand in glove as they grow a special women’s network in the horse-racing world.
This initiative is very much Katie’s baby, with the aim of encouraging women into racehorse ownership. And in 2024 the event kicks off with its inaugural Magic Millions Racing Women Achievement Awards dinner on the Saturday night. Naturally, Zara is Patron.
But this festival isn’t just about women. Mike, whose working-class Yorkshire roots are a long way from his wife’s Windsor dynasty, says he loves coming to Magic Millions because of its egalitarian approach to racing. He hopes some of that might rub off on the snooty British horse cliques.
“It’s completely different from what we experience over here, which is really upper-class racing. We don’t have loads of syndication [with people clubbing together to buy shares in a horse] whereas in Australia they’ve been doing it for years. And that makes it more fun. When you can be in something with 40 of your mates it’s affordable. Then somehow they end up in the winners’ enclosure and it’s an underdog story.
“I think sport craves those sorts of stories. You always like David beating Goliath, don’t you? I think what they do in Australia brings that energy and that level of normality: Racing is for the masses over there and hopefully it’s infectious and spreads everywhere.”
Home from home
Zara and Mike famously met in Australia 20 years ago when he was on a rugby tour and she was on a gap year. It’s become something of a second home to the couple.
“We’ve said numerous times if we weren’t living in England, we’d love living there,” says Mike.
“Living there isn’t realistic because it’s so far away from our families, but we do love it.
“We’ve got a great friendship group in Australia and Zara has one in New Zealand as well. We just love that part of the world and love the pace of the life. Australians have a great sense of humour, they like a bit of banter, they don’t mind having a go at each other, they don’t take each other too seriously … and I’m all about that.”
Last year the couple made two trips Down Under. The first proved surprisingly emotional for the whole family when Mike competed in the UK version of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!
Reality TV series are, of course, built around moments of created emotion, heart-string twanging symphonies of fake highs and false tears. But when Mike was voted out of the show and emerged from the Aussie rainforest jungle to find his wife unexpectedly waiting for him at the end of the rope bridge red carpet, he was overcome. This, he admits, was totally genuine. Wrapping his arms around Zara, Mike was heard to whisper “I missed you so much!”
Even though he came fourth, Mike was a bit of a favourite on the show, with his laddish sense of humour, gentle, laid-back nature and sportsman’s resilience shining through. Naturally, he’d hoped to go all the way and win, and wished he’d had the chance to tackle tougher challenges – the more gruesome the better. But the one thing he didn’t enjoy was being separated from his family.
“Neither of us has been away for that period of time in one space,” he says. “The fact that you’ve got no communication – that’s the really difficult bit. You don’t speak to each other for a month. That’s never happened in our relationship. And not being able to speak to the kids was so hard. I think the lucky thing is, with social media, Zara could show clips to the kids of me getting the spider slapped on my head or having to drink some horrible stuff.
“That way they still get to see you, but it’s the interaction that you miss, being able to talk to them. It was lovely to get out of there and go and see them.” Back home, Zara says, their three children – nine-year-old Mia, five-year-old Lena and two-year-old Lucas – felt pretty bereft without Dad.
“It was emotional,” she admits.
“Nowadays you can speak to each other on the phone with FaceTime, whenever [you want]. So, if either of us is away you’ve still got that connection. Mike not being able to speak to them, or for him to say, ‘What’s going on, guys?’, or ‘Help your mother out!’ or stuff like that, really makes such a difference. It was really hard for them.
“They could watch him on the TV of course, but the way they edit it depends how much you actually do see of him. Some episodes you might not see that much and the kids would be saying, ‘Why can’t we see him?’. It’s hard for them to understand, so yes, they really missed him.”
As an Aussie aficionado Mike felt he knew the territory well. “I was better prepared than most, having spent a lot of time in that part of Australia and knowing things like the house was a massive huntsman [spider] and I knew I could pick that up, no problem. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would in terms of being a sportsman.
“You are on top of each other for 24 hours a day and fortunately we got on like a house on fire. So it turned out being a good three weeks. But obviously it’s hard being away from family and that’s always been the toughest thing – plus food. Being starved is not my favourite thing in the world.”
While Mike claims he’s never watched the final edit of the show, daughter Mia was glued to the TV each night, barracking for Dad.
“I remember Mia shouting at the TV,” says Zara, laughing. “All she wanted was for Mike to win the trials.”
But mostly Mike says he didn’t get that opportunity because UK politician Matt Hancock dominated the hot seat. “That was a frustration,” he sighs.
“I knew that Mia would want me to be wrestling an alligator or in some way in harm’s way. With Matt Hancock, he got to first base in the first seven trials in a row, so Mia was saying, ‘Why is Dad not doing that?’ And honestly I’d love to have done that!
“I don’t have any perceived fears or phobias, but you never know until you’re put in a house full of snakes whether you do or don’t. So, I was hoping to be put in that situation where I found, ‘okay, I’ve really got a phobia’, or ‘that was challenging’. I didn’t get that, which was a disappointment for me.”
When I suggest Mike could easily try such things at home he starts to giggle.
“Well, yes, we could build something in the house. ‘Mrs Tindall, why have you ordered 52 snakes?’ – She replies, ‘No reason!’.” With a broad grin Mike explains that Zara is really a mother of four – “She’s got a big kid, too – me!” His wife nods in firm agreement.
Since both Mike and Zara are elite sporting champions it’s hardly surprising competitiveness drives them, and as we chat they’re constantly joshing. When Mike hosted his in-laws, Prince William and Catherine, on his rugby podcast, The Good, The Bad & The Rugby, a few months back, he noted a similar competitive streak. Catherine revealed that she and William were fierce rivals on the tennis court, something Mike says is reflected in their marriage.
“Ultimately, we’re two sports people, so if we’re playing table tennis neither of us wants to lose. It’s the same with board games. I thought that was a great side to see of the Princess of Wales: They’re the same [as us].”
The Tindall and Wales families regularly hang out and there’s usually a game involved. “Our kids play with their kids in this competition we have,” says Mike.
“Competition done the right way is so healthy, I think. It drives people to get better; for sports people it drives you to train, it drives you to push as hard as you can. You need that.” Zara agrees. “I think our families are fairly competitive. We’re very much involved in sports. It’s definitely been handed down.”
“Mia doesn’t like losing at the moment,” laughs Mike. “Neither does Lena,” adds Zara. “Now Lena is getting old enough to start pushing Mia because there’s a bit of a gap. Then Lucas is going to be even worse because he’s going to be trying to catch them up all the time. It’s definitely in there.”
“The biggest learning is to be competitive but not throw your toys out of the pram when you lose,” says Mike.
“It’s about going away and thinking, ‘Why did I lose?’ That’s where the growth comes from. You should never like losing but it’s not the be all and end all if you can go away and figure it out and get better. For the kids at the moment, that’s a work in progress.” It was also in that podcast that Prince William admitted to crying when he watched cousin Zara win the European Championship on her beloved horse, Toytown, in 2005.
“I’ve never heard him say that before,” Zara says. “I was very surprised, but one of my absolute favourite occasions was riding at the Olympics and getting a team Silver.
“All of my cousins came and watched on the final day. Everyone’s usually so busy, it’s hard to come and watch, so it was amazing to have everyone there. It made it even more special than it already was. They were all very supportive and proud. It was great.”
Memories of Granny
Throughout her childhood Zara recalls receiving special support from her grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II – memories that she now holds close.
“I remember being around horses a lot when we used to go and see her. She rode; grandfather was also involved with the horses, whether it was polo or carriage driving. And if we did anything pony-wise she’d come and watch and be really supportive. She very much knew what was going on in my career as I was growing up. And it was very much her happy place being with the horses. You got to see her real passion and love for the horses and that side of her.”
It’s just over a year since the Queen died and Zara feels the loss deeply.
“When you’ve got someone who’s a huge influence in your life [it leaves a hole] … all of us are so lucky to have had her for so long. You always think when you’re little your grandparents are ancient when they’re not that old.
“When you get to be an adult, then they are old, so we were very lucky to have her that long, and to have our children, her great-grandchildren, have that influence as well was incredible. It was a very precious time and we’re hugely grateful for it.”
Do her children remember being with Her Majesty? “Oh yes. Lucas doesn’t, but the girls do very much,” says Zara.
“We’ve got the photo of Lucas with her, whereas the other two actually remember,” adds Mike. “She was a big part of our holidays and family time.”
A decade ago in my very first interview with Zara for The Weekly I recall her telling me how she didn’t anticipate life changing much when she had children, that they would fit in around her competitive riding. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t quite panned out that way.
“I’m very part-time now,” she says laughing. “I’ve only got four horses so hopefully I have enough time to care for my children and still compete. I hope I make better decisions. I definitely don’t go to everything now.
“When I had 15 horses I was everywhere and away every weekend but now I very much pick [events] around the kids and holidays and try to be around as much as I can be. I still love competing at the top level. That’s what everyone aims for in the sport. To ride at the top levels is an incredible feeling and to get a horse there is just as good.”
There have been other changes, too. Zara has been very candid about battling to get her body back into shape following childbirth. Today, she says, while it became easier with each child, she has learned a great deal about how mindful women need to be of their own biology.
“I’ve probably got a better system now, I’d hope. It’s a shock to your system and your body changes so much. That’s a huge thing for women going through life and through sport, having babies, and even just getting older.
“I think sometimes you don’t learn that until too late. It’s definitely a good thing that I’ll teach my girls: Always keep checking what’s going on in your body because it makes a huge difference in how you live your life. It’s probably something that’s not spoken about enough – all the changes we women have to go through. It’s a lot!”
As a young woman Zara says she didn’t think about her body – “eating-wise, exercise-wise … I can’t quite train like that and I can’t quite eat like that anymore. You have to change. Then with age you change again – your hormones, menopause, there’s always something for women. I think it’s definitely a harder road [than it is for men].”
In addition to her body shouting for attention, Zara says she has now fully accepted that mother-guilt will never go away, a reality she has to live with.
“They always keep throwing bombs at you. It’s hard leaving the kids and you always feel guilty that you’re not quite doing enough, even though you’re always trying to. I think that’s always going to be there.
“I don’t think I ever noticed growing up my mother not being around, even though she was really busy. So I don’t think the children pay any attention, but I think as mothers you feel like you should be doing more.”
“And kids make you feel bad,” adds Mike. “Yes, they’re very good at it,” smiles Zara.
This year the Tindall children won’t be coming to Australia. They have to go back to school and Mia especially is not happy about it. “Mia’s got a big association with Australia,” says Mike.
“She’ll always support Australia and if there’s any Australian sportsperson on TV, she’ll cheer for them. Whether we’ll keep her here [in the UK] when she’s 18 … we’ll see how that progresses.”
Mia will also miss out on watching her mum play polo. Six months ago the Tindalls’ eldest took up the sport and now Mike says he needs to get practising so he can join in.
“Hopefully I can do it with Mia, even though she’d be better than me,” he smiles.
I sense more family competition ahead!