Lamaze, Hickstead unlikely combination

Eric Lamaze rides Hickstead after winning the Spruce Meadows International Grand Prix in Calgary,...

Eric Lamaze rides Hickstead after winning the Spruce Meadows International Grand Prix in Calgary, Alta., Sep. 11, 2011. (TODD KOROL/Reuters)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:09 PM ET

TORONTO - Eric Lamaze and Hickstead were more than horse and horseman.

They were a million dollar combination earning more than $3.7 million and world acclaim. Wins, they had more than a few, from world championships to Grand Prix events and the ritzy do at Spruce Meadows.

They were an unlikely combination — a school dropout who had to overcome a stormy upbringing and the spectre of drug use, with a horse deemed too small and, like his rider, too flawed in character to succeed.

But together they fought to find an unlikely place in the elitist world of the mink and manure set; Hickstead becoming the greatest jumper of his era and Lamaze reaching the world No. 1 ranking as a rider.

When the gallant, little stallion that brought Canada an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, collapsed at an event Sunday in Verona, Italy, it would not be exaggerating to suggest that Lamaze lost a companion, a friend, and even, he believes, a protector.

In those final, traumatic moments, and as the horse stumbled after his round, “he collapsed,” said Lamaze, his voice quavering. “He made sure I was OK and just kind of fell beside me. That’s what I believe. It’s hard for me to remember second for second what happened. He collapsed and I fell far away from him. I think he collapsed in a way that he made sure he did not injure me in the process.”

Lamaze said Hickstead had jumped very well that Sunday and that there were no signs of distress, even as they cleared the final fence.

A necropsy released Tuesday showed Hickstead died the result of an acute aortic rupture, causing heart failure. The horse was cremated, Lamaze told a press conference Wednesday in Toronto, at times his voice trembling with emotion.

“What these horses do for us is incredible. They become part of our family,” he explained. “They really change our life. It’s a sport that we chose because we love it, but also because we love the animals.”

Lamaze paused. “It’s not like breaking a hockey stick or a tennis racquet. We become very close to these animals. We’re in the limelight with these horses and Hickstead for sure changed my career. For me, he meant everything.”

Hickstead built a legacy that will put him alongside Big Ben, Cam Fella and Northern Dancer as national treasures. And Lamaze realized his dream of winning Canadian gold at the Olympics. He has become a man of means, of direction, of purpose, a man who will be remembered for more than just being the sport’s bad boy.

And, much of it has to do because of the love between a man, a horse, and a sport. “If you were to see Hickstead in a stall or wherever, just alone and relatively calm, I can’t tell you how many times I saw where Eric suddenly comes on the scene and this horse goes crazy, just like (a) dog ... wagging its tail,” Lamaze’s lawyer, Tim Danson said. “He starts moving his head, he moves his feet. . . . When you see (Lamaze and Hickstead) behind the scenes and you see the relationship between the two of them, it’s really a golden moment to see.”

Lamaze grinned as he recalled the first, difficult weeks, when there was little indication there would be a lasting bond. “We’d just purchased him and weren’t so happy with him. He was a difficult horse and we had to work very hard to bring him to where he was. He did not like the water obstacle. He was very spooky. He was difficult. There were many times I gave up and thought this was never going to work.

“To say that I knew Hickstead was going to become Hickstead would not be the truth. We thought his character would stop him from being a great horse.”

Instead it was character that made him great. Lamaze was greeted by a crowd that rose as he entered the ring Tuesday at the Royal Winter Fair. “It’s pretty emotional for me. I knew why the people were clapping. It’s, ahhh, it’s hard.”

Lamaze’s aggressive riding style was perfect for the bold, reliable Hickstead. “He is,” and Lamaze halted, reality hitting in mid-thought, “ah was, the best horse in the world. And, maybe, there won’t be another one like him.”


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