Once upon a time, when Ian Millar was young and Big Ben was more than a timepiece in England, Canadian equestrians were the toast of the world. During the past decade, they've been mostly toast.
Yes, Canada has Spruce Meadows, the world-renowned Alberta equestrian park. One problem. Canadians hardly ever win, there -- or anywhere else.
"Everybody knew Big Ben, he was like Gretzky. He marketed the sport for us. Without Big Ben there's no way I'd have become as well known," Millar said. "Since then, nobody has stepped up to fill that gap."
Not man. Nor beast. Nor even Millar, himself.
The sport has been a victim of a Canadian culture that doesn't identify with equine athletes and the traditional Canadian lack of financing, Millar said. It costs a minimum of $50,000 to $75,000 to campaign a horse on the Grand Prix circuit. A good horse can cost upward of $1 million. Combine that with the fact most equestrians themselves are not rich, and Canadian Grand Prix jumpers haven't had enough horses to put together a competitive team in years.
The sport even had its own drug scandal when Eric Lamaze was banned for cocaine abuse. Then came the Athens Olympics. Another bust.
But, amidst this rather grim scenario, there is a shimmer of hope. This weekend is the $125,000 Canada Cup equestrian championship. It will be held at the new, upgraded Caledon Equestrian Park, the venue that would've been the site of equine events if Toronto had secured the Olympics. It overlooks some of the most scenic country in Canada; a kind of 278-acre horse spa. "For the horses, we've even got hot and cold running showers," owner Craig Collins said, "because how would you like to have to go out in the heat, jump over five-foot barriers and then have someone turn a cold hose on you?"
This may not be Spruce Meadows but, tournament general manager Mac McQuaker said, in Canada it is the next best thing. "They've been at it 27 years. They fly in horses in private jets from Europe ... what this place does is give us visibility and a profile. Competitors in our industry needed a place to have a big year-end event."
There are five competition rings and spectators can get so close that, when the horses sweat, you can hear it. It's all part of the Canadian equestrian marketing plan to make itself accessible to more than just those who carry their wallets with a forklift.
"It would be a lie to say that this sport can't be expensive," Collins said. "But there are all kinds of levels people can participate, right down to owning a $1,500 horse in your backyard. You can come to an event like this and for five bucks end up standing two feet away from a guy who competed in the Olympics. There are ways for everyone to participate. It doesn't cost much to be a fan of this sport."
Ah, yes. But fans need someone for whom to cheer, someone to identify with, to call their own. Canada has been a one-trick pony -- and Big Ben retired in 1994.
Millar has heard the cries from the horse fraternity that it gets no moral backing. He does not sympathize.
By his own count he has "about 153" Grand Prix and derby wins since 1967 and his experience with Big Ben taught him "that success has to come first and, then, people will get behind you.
"Without results, there is no momentum."
Millar, 57, sees what the sport could be -- when he goes to Europe. "A country like Germany has a sophisticated, finely tuned system to breed these horses.
"Then, so many of their children grow up riding like our kids here play hockey. If there's some 10-year-old rider who shows promise over there they'll know about it like our hockey coaches do here.
"Because there are so many more people interested and involved over there, the show-jumping federation is rich. Our federation is barely solvent.
"As a result, we don't have the training, we don't have the horses. So, then, we try to compete. But, if things don't turn out so well for us, well, S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E."
So, why is this man smiling?
As he peers across the Caledon ring, France's Yann Candele has just won a segment of the $25,000 Speed Classic, but Millar sees the facility and the Tournament of Champions as just one block in rebuilding Canada's equestrian industry. "More than in any other sport, our competition is our training. Here we have a world-class course designer (Leopoldo Palacios of Venezuela), great stabling facilities and the footing for the horses is superb, which is so important because it maintains the conditioning of our horses."
Two other things have to happen. "Long term we need to get our horse breeding system up and running." And, in the short term, Canadians must stop the penchant for cutting their own throats.
Historically, to cut costs, and because they don't have the syndicate backing of their European counterparts, Canadian riders have spent much of the past decade buying young, cheaper stock. They spend four to five years training the horse only to have someone from the U.S. or Europe come along just as it is about to blossom into a Grand Prix winner and buy it.
"A lot of our riders come from ordinary means and they just can't afford to turn down the money," McQuaker said. "We have the riders, we just don't have the depth in horses."
Millar is determined that will change. "We, as a group, are sick to death of that scenario," he said, referring to fellow owners and riders such as Chris Pratt, Lamaze, Sue Grange, Jill Henselwood and several syndicate people, who have vowed in future not to be part of the buy-and-sell deathtrap.
"For the first time in a long time we have a group of horses that are nine to 11 years old and maturing at the same time."
Pratts' Rivendell and Millar's In Style are both nine. Promise Me is a 10-year-old owned by The Bakers' Dozen syndicate, Lamaze's Tempete and Harold Chopping's Kathleen are both eight and Henselwood's Callisto, winner of three Grand Prix this year, is 11 years old. "We're not interested in having anyone along who's going to be in it for the money, for the business. Our horses are not for sale."
He recalls that around 1987 the ownership group of Big Ben was approached by a buyer. "They offered us $1.2 million and from a business point -- at the time not knowing how long he'd perform at such a top level -- selling made sense. We batted it around and finally they said it was up to me. It took me about two seconds to say: 'We keep him.' "
Today, both Millar and Big Ben are in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.
"People have to make that commitment and I think they will."
There are small signs of a Canadian international resurgence. In March, Millar and Co. won a Nations Cup event in Florida.
This year, at Spruce Meadows, the Canadian team of Lamaze, Henselwood, Chopping and Millar, won bronze -- still well behind the winning Germans -- but the best Canadian showing for a tournament there since placing second in 1992.
The stakes this weekend might not be as obvious but they are just as high as a sport endeavours to win back the attention of a nation one heart at a time.
TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS
WHERE: Caledon Equestrian Park
LOCATED: North of Bolton in the village of Palgrave, off Highway 50, south of Highway 9.
GATES OPEN: Today and tomorrow, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
CANADA CUP FINAL: Tomorrow, 2 p.m.
AUXILIARY EVENTS (BOTH DAYS): Petting zoo, craft and trade show, climbing wall, putting green, kids workshop, birds of prey show, trick dogs.
ADMISSION: $10 per car or $5 per person.
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