Spruce Meadows season kicks off

PABLO FERNANDEZ -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

The road to the Olympics starts this week at Spruce Meadows for Canadian riders.

An eclectic collection of events, a music festival and intense international competition, the National tournament -- which was launched yesterday and runs through to Sunday -- is a welcoming of summer and the launch of the most intense professional jumping schedule in the continent, said Spruce Meadows spokesman Ian Allison.

But for Canadian equestrian athletes in search of Olympic glory, the National is also the beginning of their Olympic dreams.

Canada has yet to qualify its equestrian team for the Olympic Games in Beijing next year and that's why Canadians must perform to the highest level during this tournament.

Team Canada must medal in the Pan American Games -- set for Brazil next month -- in order to qualify for the Olympics, and the team representing the nation in that event will be selected according to their performance here throughout the week.

But as expectations grow within the Canadian ranks, a bit of sadness crept in as Spruce Meadows president Linda Heathcott announced that for the first time in the venue's history, the founders of the world-renowned equestrian venue -- Marg and Ron Southern -- were not at the grounds to officially welcome the athletes and media.

Ron spent the day in hospital undergoing hip surgery and Marg was there keeping him company, said Heathcott.

"It's a little bit of a sad day because it's the first time that we've started the tournament without the co-chairs," she said. "My mother and father built this facility with a dream ... although they're in hospital, I'm sure they'd be proud."

The Southerns have been at the launch of every tournament since the venue was founded 32 years ago, said Allison. But the foundation they've laid out is solid and will make this tournament a continuation to a stellar season last year, he said.

"Last year, we closed on such a high note, with record-breaking sport, prizes, fantastic weather So we're going into the weekend with a lot of enthusiasm."


Videos

Photos