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.
The jump-off drew eight horses, but no one could come close to Uceko, who produced a flawless trip in a jaw-dropping 34.13 seconds, by making daredevil turns and slashing strides from everyone else's roadmap. Ireland's Conor Swail was next-best with Lansdowne, but his all-out effort went through the timers just a shade slower, in 35.34 seconds. Kent went third, but his pace was such that no one came near him.
I asked Michel what he thought about the class, both while he was designing and as he watched it unfold.
Kent explained in detail how he proceeded with Uceko, an 11-year-old Dutchbred gelding.
Jessica Springsteen, in her third grand prix with her new mount Vindicat (the horse Peter Charles rode in the final jump-off round at the Olympics to bring gold to the British team) went from the heights to the depths in just a few minutes during the class. She qualified for the tiebreaker and was doing a good job of going for it until she hit a turn at the end of the ring. Vindicat slipped there and fell, causing a heart stopping moment for the crowd, which included her father, Bruce Springsteen, a musician of some note, and her mother, Patti Scialfa. Jessie got up quickly and Vindicat did her one better, galloping around the ring on his own and leaping the first fence backward. Both were unhurt and Jessie is heading off to new excitement in Europe next weekend with two of her other horses.
I can't leave you without mentioning the dressage. As usual, the freestyle (limited to four Canadian entries) was won by Ashley Holzer, but it was her last performance with the stalwart Pop Art, who has been her faithful companion for years. It was nostalgic seeing him dance again to the dramatic fireworks music from Epcot. I will always associate it with him.
He was marked well, at 76.708 percent to 72.750 for Dressage at Devon freestyle winner D-Niro and Jackie Brooks (who retired her longtime partner, Gran Gesto, in ceremonies at the show. He is now a school master, but Jackie emphasized, only doing the movements he likes best!)
Poppy will be ridden in the future by someone from Ashley's stable. She felt as he neared 16 that there was no reason to keep on pushing him. As she noted, "That horse owes me nothing. He is happy and fit and feeling good." In fact, he felt so good that she wondered whether she should reconsider and continue riding him.
Then she thought, "It's so great to go out on a high note. I had an incredible feeling on that horse tonight. He wanted to do his job, he was thrilled to be in front of the crowd, he was easy for me to ride, he wanted to be good and I think that's the best way to say 'enough'."
The world of dressage has changed radically, and the Games in London last summer demonstrated the fact.
"For me to go out there and push him to where I need him to be...you saw the numbers at the Olympics, they're crazy numbers. You can't do that all the time on certain horses. There's a responsibility to ask a horse what it's truly able to do and to know when it shouldn't have to do more."
Judge Lorraine McDonald said of Poppy: "Tonight, he did the best he's ever gone. She rode an extremely technically difficult test and the horse was so fluid and obedient, it was fabulous." D-Niro, she noted, had some tension, (understandable since it was the first time the bouncy gray had been shown indoors) but on another day he could easily win."
Take a look at more pictures from the Royal on facebook.com/equisearch. The really funny ones are a 1-2 sequence showing the way Poppy kept nosing the blue ribbons (second place in Canada, where first place is red) hanging on the bridle of Gran Gesto, who was standing in for D-Niro in the awards ceremonies. Poppy worked at that until he got the ribbon off and it flopped to the ground. He was very proud of his dexterity.
This was my last competition postcard for 2012, and a great way to end the season. I hope I've convinced you to consider coming to the Royal; it's so much fun. You'll never be bored. There are entertaining exhibitions (including Denim and Diamonds, a western reiner and a dressage rider doing a routine together) and during the breaks, you'll always find another vendor to visit. Toronto, by the way, is a fantastic city and the people are so nice.
I'll be covering the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association convention in early December, so look for that story Dec. 7.