November 10, 2013 -- Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is unique. Where else do the odors of cattle, swine and a wide range of other livestock waft out to embrace horse showgoers in full formal regalia--evening gowns that brush the floor; white tie and tails.
Picture a state fair without a midway, coupled with a brilliant equestrian competition, both filling a million square feet of exposition space. That's the 91-year-old Royal.
You can see the statuesque butter sculptures (including the prize winner depicting a king riding a frog--who dreamed up that one?); gigantic gourds, a brilliantly colorful array of produce and dozens of booths (many, not surprisingly, selling maple syrup products). There's the usual junk food, and then the unusual, especially poutine, the French-Canadian favorite of French fries with gravy and cheese curds.
Wander into the Ricoh arena, though, and it's an entirely different atmosphere. From the enormously impressive six-horse draft hitches to the high-stepping hackneys, gleaming coaches and international jumpers, the action is varied and brilliant. The final Saturday evening competition is always a sell-out, as people beg and bargain with ushers to get in, all to no avail. Ambience-wise, it reminds me of Devon on grand prix night, but along a far larger scale.
Everyone is well-served, from the horsemen and women grabbing a bite at the humble Bit and Bridle in the astonishing "Horse Palace," the two-level stable that seems to stretch for miles, to the Hitching Ring Cafe and Bar, with a view of the warm-up area. For the elite, there's the Tanbark Club (don't try to sneak in) where the light is flatteringly low and the chandeliers glitter like the jewels adorning the women sitting below them among the potted palms.
This is the backdrop for the final stop on the North American Fall Indoor Circuit, which begins with the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg, goes on to the Washington International and the National in Kentucky before coming here. There used to be teams from all over the globe competing in the Nations Cups on the circuit, but that is in the past. Still, there are a good number of international riders, whether they are based here or flew over for the occasion, like the Netherlands' Harrie Smolders and a contingent of Belgians (men, not horses).
The richest class of the show is the $100,000 World Cup qualifier, held in memory of Hickstead, Eric Lamaze's 2008 Olympic individual gold medal mount, who died two years ago. McLain Ward won that one on the feisty Rothchild, topping a jump-off in which the only way to win was to make more daring cuts and turns than the next guy.
The Royal is a time of wrapping up things for the season, and in the case of McLain, that's more than just a year-end deal. As Rothchild rests until the Florida circuit starts, McLain is striking out on a new path.
So he won't be riding his Olympic mount, Antares, any more, since he was part of the Grant Road Partnership with the Dinans. (Rothchild is still there for him; that horse belongs to the Sagamore Farm.)
When I asked Katie whether she would ride Antares, she replied that she doesn't know, since she's busy with school at the moment and focusing on that. Of course, she has some wonderful horses of her own, including Nougat du Vallet, who won the grand prix at the National last weekend, and Glory Days, the gutsy gray on which she won the $50,000 Weston Open here Friday night. That was very different; it was ostensibly a one-round speed class, but she and Laura Kraut (Woodstock) logged the same time in the first round (what are the odds?), so they jumped off and Laura had a rail down to leave Katie triumphant.
The time McLain and Katie spent working together over the last three years obviously was very fruitful.
As McLain noted, "Katie's an incredible student, a very smart girl, very determined, a very hard worker. I think she's going to go on and have a lot of success. I'm thrilled with what she's done, it's been a wonderful way to finish."
He added, however, "I'm also a firm believer that to go to the next level, she needs to get a different point of view. Within a realm of classic horsemanship and riding, there's a few different ways to do it, and if you only hear from one person, you can't really develop your knowledge."
For her part, said Katie (who commuted to the show from Boston, where she attends Harvard), "McLain's done a lot for me." She noted that when they started together, she was still doing junior jumpers and just getting involved with grands prix.
"McLain has not only taught me a lot about what it takes to do the sport at a very high level, but also what it takes to be a competitor. I've had a great experience training with him and so I'm very thankful for that."
I have to emphasize that Michel Vaillancourt has done an absolutely amazing job with the courses. Each one was a challenge that made the game so interesting. What an inventive mind he has. The course designer is the architect of the exciting evenings of show jumping, and he really outdid even himself here this year. I'll let you in on the conversation we had after the last class, the $75,000 Ricoh Big Ben Challenge.
Leslie Howard won the Big Ben on Utah. I have been covering her since she won the Maclay finals eons ago, and she's still the same effective rider with great determination that she always was. Age has taken nothing away from her. Here's what she had to say about her victory.
Speaking of someone who has triumphed over the calendar, 66-year-old Ian Millar, a 10-time Olympian best known as Captain Canada, had a shot at winning the class with Star Power. Wouldn't that have been something if he took the trophy for the Big Ben, named after his most famous horse?
It was not to be, as he finished fifth in the class, but he did earn the Leading Canadian Rider Award.
The Leading International Rider was Ireland's Conor Swail, despite suffering a freak accident on Friday night that kept him out of the Big Ben. I'll let him tell you about it.
Poor Conor had to hop down the steps to the ring for the trophy presentation. Despite the pain of his partially torn Achilles tendon injury (he's flying home to Ireland to get help from a sports doctor) he was thrilled to take the trophy at the Royal. He rides for a Canadian owner, Sue Grange, so you can see what the show means to him. Actually, it's important for more reasons than just that one.
"It was a bit of a surprise I ended up being leading rider here," commented Conor, who won the Jolera on Tuesday with Game Ready, finished fourth in the World Cup qualifier on the same horse, and took the top prizes in two other classes with Ariana and Arista.
"I thought McLain or Laura would have caught me tonight," he told me.
"It was nice to see that they didn't. It was such a fantastic show up until that (the injury); it was just unreal. This show has been very lucky for me because I brought Lansdowne here three years ago and he ended up getting sold and I thought that was the end of that. And then I ended up getting the ride back on him when I was here last year. We get shows that are lucky for us and everything works and we seem to do well at them and Toronto was one of the luckiest, I certainly enjoy a lot of success here. It's a great show for me. Apart from that, the crowds are very appreciative," he noted, adding he likes seeing everyone dressed up.
"There's a lovely bit of style about that," he mused.
As I said before, the show's variety is amazing and a big part of its allure. There's always a four-person Grand Prix/GP Freestyle dressage competition for Canadian riders. Ashley Holzer has been the winner every time I've been here, but this year she didn't have a horse to ride.
So it was an open question as to who would win. David Marcus took the Grand Prix on Chevri's Capital, while Diane Creech topped the freestyle with the very attractive Devon L, a horse I've been watching for several years.
She and I talked about her flashy chestnut Hanoverian, a definite up-and-comer.
Pure entertainment also is a part of every evening, and I must say I was very impressed by Liberte, the trick riding troupe overseen by Sylvia Zerbini, the Florida-based member of a circus family who formerly was with Cavalia. The best part of the act, in my view, was her sensuous interaction to music with a herd of snowy-coated Andalusians and Arabians. It was amazing to see the way they followed her around and obeyed her subtle commands.
I spoke with Sylvia's daughter, Ambra, who told me 70 percent of the horses in the act are adoptions or rescues. I asked Ambra about her mother's relationship with the horses. It's almost as if she's pulling them with strings, they are so compelled to do her bidding.
"She has an amazing bond with them," Ambra agreed.
"They don't have that kind of bond with me, and I've been around them my whole life. It's really important that she herself and no one else is around the horses. She's the one who takes care of them, washes them, feeds them. She has special verbal cues with them. We try to keep it very tight in the barn, especially between her and her horses."
I could go on and on about this show, but let me just advise that if you ever get the chance to go, take it. You'll have a ball. For more photos from the Royal, be sure to go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman and facebook.com/equisearch.
This is my last postcard from a competition for 2014. Considering it was supposed to be the quietest year in the Olympic quadrennium (no Olympics, Pan Am Games or World Equestrian Games) it turned out to be busy enough to give me writer's cramp as I scribbled to you about everything that was going on.
I'll be doing a story for Equisearch in early December on the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association annual meeting, so check back then. It may not be as exciting a topic as the Royal or the Hampton Classic, but we all live by the rules of our equestrian governing bodies, so it's good to know what's going on. It gets very complicated.