November 11, 2012 -- I wonder how many miles I covered over the past few days as I was hoofing around the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair's 1-million-square-foot home at the Direct Energy Centre.
All I know is that I feel as if I've been on a 10-mile hike, criss-crossing this huge complex just a few minutes from Toronto's skyscrapers, where the fair creates a completely different world geared to showcasing animals and crops.
In the two-level "Horse Palace" alone, there are 1,020 stalls (with 114 portables for overflow), so traipsing around there already is a trip, not to mention peeking into several of the six restaurants on the grounds (you need a season ticket to actually sit in the exclusive Tanbark Club) and visiting a few dozen of the 250 commercial vendors at the fair.
They were selling everything from elk antler dog chews and bison sausage to hawberry jam, made from a plant that grows only on Manitoulin Island. It's the world's largest freshwater island, located on Lake Huron, at least a seven-hour drive from Toronto when the ferry stops running for the winter. So now you've learned something, eh?
And I had to get a look at the winning butter sculpture (a pig on a motorcycle) not to mention the tallest corn stalk (a little wilted; no, make that a lot wilted), propped up so it could stand its full 21-feet, 5.5 inches. Then there was the cow show, the sheep show, the goats and rabbits.
In truth, the great nine-day horse show is just one component of the 10-day fair, but it's key to the longevity, appeal and success of the 90-year-old Royal, where tradition is still honored and you'll see plenty of couples turning out in very formal dress for their time in the box seats.
Held in the 6,500-seat Ricoh Coliseum, the horse show includes a variety of divisions. There are the roadsters and harness ponies; the Green Meadows, which is coaching (named in honor of the stable once owned by a supporter of the section); Welsh ponies, hunters, dressage and best of all, the draft horses. Last night's competition for the champion six-horse hitch was incredible. At the end, when all the teams were in the ring together, there were 54 Percherons, Clydesdales and Belgians side by side. Talk about massive horsepower; it was an impressive display. If these horses ever stampeded, goodbye coliseum, but the drivers have to be experts even to take on the task of picking up the lines and venturing down the narrow pathway from the "hitching ring" into the arena.
While all the classes have their fans, the jumpers are the biggest deal at the Royal. A lot of the classes are fun speed competitions, such as the canine/equine relay, but the most important classes are the $100,000 "Hickstead" World Cup Qualifier and closing night's $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge, which always plays to a sold-out house. Michel Vaillancourt set the courses and did a great job, ratcheting up the excitement level.
Canadian Jill Henselwood was focused on winning the Cup qualifier (named after the great Canadian Olympic gold medal mount, who died suddenly last year), and was able to pull it off. She felt it was time that her talented mount, George, rise up to the next level in terms of recognition.
Jill admitted that when the class started with several riders having a hard time, it made her a little wary, but she was one of five from the field of 22 starters (who included the late Big Ben's rider, Ian Millar) able to make it into the tie-breaker.
"I thought it was a very difficult course. He (Michel) designed big test after big test after big test. In the jump-off that's where this horse was showing what he learned," she commented.
It was George's debut at the Royal, and the 10-year-old Hanoverian didn't disappoint, demonstrating his maneuverability as he took the class in 35.92 seconds, to 36.28 seconds for the USA's Christine McCrea on her Pan Am Games double gold medal mount, Romantovich Take One.
Although Jill didn't get her wish to become Canadian champion in a separate competition (Yann Candele clinched that for the third time) she did wind up wearing the sash for Leading Canadian Rider and George was Leading Canadian Horse. Not bad consolation prizes.
The end of the week belonged to American Kent Farrington. He has two dynamite grand prix horses who have filled the gap in his string left by Up Chiqui, once his top mount, who retired last week at the National Horse Show in Kentucky. You have to admire the way Kent keeps horses in the pipeline and brings them along to success.
On Friday night, he won the $50,000 Weston Canadian one-round jumper class with Voyeur, on whom he topped the grand prix at the Hampton Classic last summer. The next night, he was up on his American Invitational winner, the charismatic gray, Uceko, to take the final class, the Big Ben, and the Leading International Rider title.