November 12, 2015--A super-charged, sold-out house and brilliant course design teamed up last night at the Royal Winter Fair to make the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto 2015 qualifier memorable.
The Royal, all 1 million square feet of it, is a wonderland of farm animals, agricultural competitions (ever seen a butter sculpture?), Ontario products from maple sugar to wine and shopping, shopping, shopping. Oh yes, and eating.
At the fair's heart, in the atmospheric Ricoh Coliseum, is the horse show. It's not your ordinary hunter/jumper show, but rather a multi-breed extravaganza that includes magnificent draft horses (you can feel the vibrations as the six-horse hitches of heavyweights proudly make their way around the ring), elegant coaches and high-stepping hackneys.
Yet when the show jumpers take the stage, they add an even higher level to the Royal's mystique. The Longines FEI World Cup [TM] Jumping Toronto 2015, the last stop this year on the East Coast for the new Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League, drew a field of 22 that included stars of the North American Fall Indoor Circuit and a fresh face in the mix, Ireland's Dermott Lennon.
The former world champion shipped over directly from Europe for this show with the very particular Loughview Lou-Lou to make his mark. Those who know Dermott figured he wouldn't come away empty-handed, even with the likes of Beezie Madden, Canadian hero Ian Millar and Laura Kraut among the challengers.
Anyone who has attended the Royal a few times, however, realizes the one to beat here is McLain Ward. He loves this show, a family tradition where his father competed and where perhaps his daughter Lilly Kristine (only nine months old) will ride someday. At any rate, the personable baby was on hand to pick up some pointers as she watched McLain try for a seventh Royal grand prix win on the sensational HH Azur, who meets the fences on her own terms and sails over them with astounding ease. The Belgian-bred started this season as a budding talent and now is in full bloom.
Richard Jeffery enjoys a long history with the Royal, having first designed here more than 20 years ago. At one point, he would do the hunters at the Coliseum in the morning, then fly to New York to lay out the floor plan for the jumpers at the National Horse Show when it was at Madison Square Garden, then head north again.
He has cut back on his course designing now, particularly at the indoor shows, but he welcomed a chance to return to the Royal because of its special sparkle. The Longines FEI World Cup [TM] Jumping Toronto is an occasion here, with boxholders in formal dress, reminiscent of the National's heyday at the Garden. Many people will not go to another show during the season, but they never miss the Royal. As veterans, they understand the sport and many of its nuances, which is evident by the mass indrawn breaths and sympathetic groans as the horses tackle particularly difficult lines.
Yesterday, that would be fences two, three and four, where 10 entries--nearly half the starters--had problems. The Longines oxer was off a right-hand turn from the gentle vertical that opened the contest. It took four determined strides to meet the next oxer correctly, and then six controlled strides along a bending line to get to a vertical topped by a plank. That's always trouble, because it only takes a whisper of hooves for a plank to topple.
There was barely time to draw a breath before bending around the ring to fence number five, a vertical of plain white rails standing 1.6 meters that came down six times and demanded focus for a U-turn to an oxer 1.55 meters wide and high.
Beezie faulted at fence two with Breitling, Ian bowed out after four knockdowns later in the course with Teddy du Bosquetiau and Laura tipped rails at number 7, a liverpool leading to a double of verticals, as well as 8B.
In the end, only Dermott and McLain were fault-free. Richard would have liked to have one or two more--Colombia's Roberto Teran wound up with the fastest 4-fault round on Woklahoma after a knockdown at fence 10, a vertical. But as Richard put it, the route was a "genuine" World Cup qualifier, a test that reflected the importance of the class.
"It was big, make no mistake," said Richard.
"I was happy with two clean; three would have been super," but as he pointed out, one of the six 4-faulters easily could have been fault-free; they just weren't. Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium, a star during earlier stops on the circuit, seemingly was on his way to the jump-off with H&M Forever d’Arco ter Linden when he had a rail at the last fence to wind up fourth. And so it went.
McLain was in the enviable position of going last in the tie-breaker, but his job got a lot easier when the Irishbred Lou-Lou tipped poles at fences 11 and 12B, the latter part of what had been a triple combination in the first round.
"It was a difficult course for her. In the first round she gave a lot," observed Dermott.
"She's very competitive. She's not the easiest to ride; she's a bit temperamental."
Wisely, McLain proceeded carefully when it was his turn, having two rails in hand, as they say. He wound up with a single time penalty but no jumping faults to win the class.
Conceding the victory was emotional, "this is a second home for me," said McLain.
"I love it here, I love the atmosphere, I love the people we see."
He definitely is on a roll. The jumping only began on Tuesday, but he already has three wins to his credit.
Azur, his newest star, will be on track for the Olympics next year, and perhaps give McLain another individual medal to go with the gold he won on Rothchild last summer (also in Ontario) at the Pan American Games. She knows she's good and is achieving diva status, going up on her hind legs repeatedly during the prize-giving to show who is the queen.
McLain just smiled through her antics. He's enraptured by the mare and loving what she's done this season.
"It's a bit of a dream. I'd say it's the horse of a lifetime if I hadn't had Sapphire," he commented, referring to his two-time Olympic team gold medal mount.
"To get a second one like this is pretty incredible. I hope I do her justice and manage her well. Every time the horse goes in the ring, it's better, it's higher, it's faster. The only time the horse has a fence down is if I have a terrible error."
Interestingly, the top three finishers were all mares.
"Mares are just fighters," Roberto mused, "and when they trust you, they give everything, 110 percent every time. They are just fantastic."
He was quite pleased with his finish because it helped erase painful memories of last year's grand prix, when he was on a lickety-split road to victory before crashing into a fence to end his run red-faced.
Of the Dutchbred Woklahoma, he said, "She has a huge heart, she's super careful, she's fast, she has been with me for two years and she's just an amazing horse."
The advent of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League has heightened the excitement this season with a defined goal that is easy to understand. There are only seven qualifiers each in the East and West, which makes them more special than in previous years, when there were many more classes and it was hard to keep track of them.
Several riders, including McLain, are competing in both the East and West. He has Rothchild in the West, and credited the good team from his Castle Hill Farm for enabling him to be bi-coastal.
Roberto and I discussed his thoughts on the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League. Click on the video to hear what he had to say.
The top of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League standings at the moment belongs to Hardin Towell, who did not ride in Toronto. Beezie is second, five points behind him with 45, followed by Samuel Parot of Chile (40), Laura (39) and McLain (36).
It was a long night--there's always a full program at the Royal--and I caught up with Beezie after hours to get her thoughts about the league's cachet and her ride. She's eternally gracious, and I value her opinion because the two-time Olympic team gold medalist--who also has an Olympic individual bronze and a World Cup crown to her credit--knows the sport inside and out. Click on the video to listen.
I should mention that yesterday was Remembrance Day in Canada. Everyone on the street that I saw was wearing a red poppy to commemorate the contributions of veterans who gave so much for their country and the world. The first fence, the one Beezie is pictured jumping in this postcard, pays tribute to those who served in armed conflicts. It's quite moving to see the way the nation is observant of this special tradition.
Be sure to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman for more photos of the Royal today and as the week goes on. Look for my postcard wrapping up the show on Sunday afternoon.