Postcard: 2011 Royal Winter Fair

Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands wins the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben challenge at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto which features a wide range of action, from mini-chuck wagon races to giant vegetable competition.
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Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands wins the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben challenge at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto which features a wide range of action, from mini-chuck wagon races to giant vegetable competition.

November 13th, 2011 -- The Royal Winter Fair harks back to the mid-20th Century days of North American Indoor Circuit glory.

If you remember, or have read about, the socialites in glamorous evening gowns and their escorts in top hats strolling down the red carpet as flashbulbs popped at Madison Square Garden for the National Horse Show, you can appreciate how that traditional feeling of elegance is preserved here.

Presentations at the Royal are full of pomp and circumstance, not to mention soldiers and Mounties | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

Presentations at the Royal are full of pomp and circumstance, not to mention soldiers and Mounties | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

The Royal's red carpet runs all around the Ricoh Coliseum. Standard apparel means white-tie and floor-length dresses for so many of the people who come to the show. Tuxedoes and cocktail frocks are casual wear for those folks.

But that's just the glitter dusted on top of the most fantastic event that is unlike anything else in the world in its scope and size. The whole Royal Agricultural Winter Fair covers 1 million square feet, inclusive of the Direct Energy Centre adjacent to the arena that is occupied by a variety of booths (selling everything from maple sugar products to vast swaths of equestrian clothing and equipment). By the way, I spotted what could be a trend, a $650 riding jacket with rhinestone edging on the lapels and pockets (to go with your boots that have the rhinestone tabs.)

The show is the pinnacle for farmers, who bring scores of cows, goats, llamas, sheep, pigs, chickens etc. I saw butter sculpture (it has to be kept chilled) and the world's tallest collard plant (17 feet, 9 and 1/2 inches, believed to be a new world record and the star of the Giant Vegetable Division.) You did notice the word "agricultural" in the title, right?

Oh, forgot to mention the food. There's always a line at the stand featuring rosti potatoes (Swiss-style shredded potatoes that are made into a pancake and browned). An intrepid baker was offering chocolate hockey pucks (hockey is it in Canada) for $3.50 each, and told me he had trademarked them. Ontario-produced cheeses, including a Brie style soaked in red wine, were everywhere, and there were tastings of Ontario wine (pretty good; I hadn't known what to expect, since who knew wine was made this far north.)

The vast Royal enterprise ran from Nov. 4 through today. It's always a must-see. That applies not only to Ontario residents, but also to you--this place is incredible! Be warned, though; you have to buy tickets early. Last night was a sell-out, packed to the rafters. Disappointed people who drifted over from the fair were unable to get in.

John Dunlap, president and CEO of the Royal | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

John Dunlap, president and CEO of the Royal | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with the very gracious John Dunlap, the show's president and CEO (if the name sounds familiar, his father was Moffat Dunlap, a mainstay of the Canadian Equestrian Team.) Listen to what he had to say:

While the jumpers play a key role in the show, it's so much more. Variety and entertainment are the watchwords. The six-horse hitches that display Belgians, Clydesdales, Shires and Percherons are an impressive array of horsepower (as you'll see when the gallery is posted this week.) Other divisions and attractions include coaches, hackney ponies, adorable mini-chuck wagon races featuring teams of four minis, hunters, Superdogs specializing in agility and a rodeo. The action moves fast and you'll never be bored, I guarantee it.

Manager Peter Doubleday (you know him from Devon, where he's co-manager, and the Pennsylvania National, where he's the head man) took time out of his crazy schedule to talk about how the show operates.

Hundreds of condolence notes filled posters memorializing Olympic gold medal show jumper Hickstead on the walls of a booth at the Royal | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

Hundreds of condolence notes filled posters memorializing Olympic gold medal show jumper Hickstead on the walls of a booth at the Royal | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

There sadly was a somber side to this year's show, because Canadian Olympic individual gold medal show jumper Hickstead collapsed and died under his rider, Eric Lamaze, last Sunday at a show in Italy. The Dutchbred stallion's aorta ruptured after he finished his round and he sank to the ground, seemingly taking care not to injure his rider. Hickstead had hero status in this country, and all his fans were in mourning. The Royal set up well-filled books in which people could offer their condolences to Eric. Greenhawk, a big equestrian supplier, put up three giant placards on the wall of their booth, topped by a picture of Hickstead in action, so fairgoers could sign them. Like the books, they will be sent to Eric.

Remembrance Day took place across Canada on Friday, which was Veteran's Day in the U.S. Ceremonies to honor those who served in war were everywhere, and well-attended. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was wearing the red poppy that was the symbol of the day. At the horse show, people added small black ribbons beneath the poppy with Hickstead's name on them, a supplement to the black mourning Hickstead armbands that so many displayed.

The constant action at the show was a good distraction for us. There are two featured events for jumpers; the $100,000 World Cup grand prix and the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge. The latter is named after Ian Millar's great horse; the former will be named after Hickstead.

They make a fuss over the jumpers here; there's a little fanfare that is played as each rider enters the ring.

The Big Ben had a lovely looking course. It featured a white wall topped with red blocks (the Canadian colors); a fence flanked by a small version of the CN Tower, the city's most famous landmark, and a dodgy double of verticals (there was no triple combination, just three doubles). A plank fence that kept several star riders out of the jump-off had a standard topped by a replica of the Goddess of Winged Victory statue who presides at Princes' Gates, the entrance to Exhibition Place where the show complex is located. (By the way, love the chandelier under the arch there that is lit for the show.)

Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands and Regina Z won the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge before a sold-out house at the Toronto's Royal Winter Fair | ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands and Regina Z won the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge before a sold-out house at the Toronto's Royal Winter Fair | ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Back to the class: The Netherlands' Harrie Smolders was the first rider to go clear in the initial round, and he had a plan to daunt the four who came after him.

"I put, I think, quite a bit of pressure on them to beat the time and that's why they made mistakes," he commented.

Indeed, their errors came as they tried to catch his lickety-split time of 35.20 seconds on Regina Z. Lauren Hough came closest with the aptly named Quick Star, but he dropped a pole to finish in 35.28 for second; obviously, no one else went clean.

I've chatted with British rider Scott Brash at both Washington and the National, waiting for this talented equestrian to have a big North American win. He got it here, taking the World Cup qualifier with Bon Ami, who could well have Olympic potential. He's very quick, taking the measure of a challenging course built by Alan Wade of Ireland, who will be the designer for the U.S. Olympic trials next year.

"That horse has been going fantastic for the last six months." In the Cup, "He answered every question. It was a big, hard technical track," said Scott in his lovely Scottish accent (to hear it, you can refer back to my Washington postcard.)

The Royal's leading international rider, McLain Ward, on Rothchild (note: in Canada, the red ribbon is first place) | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

The Royal's leading international rider, McLain Ward, on Rothchild (note: in Canada, the red ribbon is first place) | ? 2011 by Lawrence J. Nagy

The seven-horse jump-off featured a number of big names, but Bon Ami whipped around in 41.95 seconds to take their measure. He didn't have much margin over Lansdowne, however, ridden by Conor Swail of Ireland. His horse is a very promising and attractive chestnut 8-year-old, who finished in 42.4.

McLain Ward, who would go on to be the show's Leading International Jumper Rider, finished fifth with Rothchild, behind another Irishman, former world champion Dermott Lennon (Hallmark Elite), who was third, and Yann Candele on Game Ready. Yann won the Canadian national championship earlier in the show, and was Leading Canadian Rider.

McLain was disappointed not to make the jump-off last night for the Big Ben, as Pjotter van de Zonnehoeve knocked the top rail at the B part of the double of verticals.

Ashley Holzer gets congratulated on her way out of the ring after winning the dressage Grand Prix Freestyle on Breaking Dawn | ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Ashley Holzer gets congratulated on her way out of the ring after winning the dressage Grand Prix Freestyle on Breaking Dawn | ? 2011 by Nancy Jaffer

Did I mention the show also has dressage? It was an all-Canadian five-horse line-up, and as usual, Ashley Holzer won. She has lost count of how many times she's won it, though it's meant more recently because for the last two years, the trophy has been the Nicoll cup, named after her late father, Ian.

She wasn't riding her Olympic/World Equestrian Games stalwart, Pop Art. Instead she was aboard Breaking Dawn, who has become Poppy's back-up.

The last time I saw this horse, in May, he was competing in the Prix St. Georges and named Ultiem's Flemming. He's had a name change and a rapid rise, earning 73.475 percent in his first Grand Prix Freestyle competition to receive ringside congratulations from co-owner P.J. Rizvi. Ashley was a bit puzzled about her score, however.

About the name change: P.J.'s husband is involved with Summit Productions that owns the Twilight series. Breaking Dawn is one of the books in the series. The horse's barn name is Edward. Those of you who are familiar with the series will know the significance; those who aren't won't care.

This is my last postcard for the year. It's been a busy three weeks; fun to see so many good shows in succession. The Washington International was fun as always and the National is off to a great start in Kentucky. The Royal has been a great way to end the circuit because of its many facets--do make an effort to get here, you'll thank me.

Look for the gallery this week, and as the 2011 ends, my photo retrospective of the year.

In 2012, I'll start out with the U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting, and then the World Dressage Masters in Florida. Oh, remember my tease last week about the exciting horse coming to the Masters? Now it can be told--it's Totillas in his first U.S. appearance. Should be fun, especially when he faces off against Steffen Peters and Ravel.

All the best for the holidays and the new year (yes, it's coming up fast!)

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