November 13, 2016—The variety and entertainment value of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has always made it special. How many places can you see everything from six-horse draft hitches to roadsters, Arabians, dressage and top show jumpers—right after you’ve enjoyed a funnel cake and bought a jug of fresh maple syrup?
This year, they upped the ante with appearances by two of the three Rio individual Olympic gold medalists, Great Britain’s Nick Skelton competing in the jumpers with his awesome stallion, Big Star, and eventer Michael Jung of Germany on a borrowed horse. Can the queen of dressage, Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain and Valegro be far behind? Probably not.
The Royal, the world’s largest combined indoor agricultural and equestrian show in a 1-million-square-foot facility, already is wildly popular. Last night’s finale, featuring the $75,000 Big Ben International Challenge, was sold out. The Ricoh Coliseum rocked with enthusiastic fans enjoying every minute of what they were seeing, whether it was the elegance of the coaching classes, with antique vehicles pulled by four horses, or the Canadian Cowgirls drill team in their sparkling red and white outfits making an equestrian statement of national pride.
Rather than resting on its very deserved laurels, however, the show is looking ahead to doing more. Show Committee Chairman Iain Gilmour revealed to me that in 2017, they hope to have Michael come back and ride not only in indoor eventing, but also in the show jumping and dressage (the latter would have exhibition status.) And yes, they’ve been in talks with Charlotte, who will be center stage at Olympia in London next month as Valegro is retired from competition (but not from exhibitions. Remember how he was swarmed by fans in Central Park six weeks ago?)
“We are actively working on her and Carl Hester (her mentor and Olympic teammate),” Iain noted.
Since March, he had been trying to arrange Michael’s appearance through the rider’s brother, Phillip, who lives in Canada. While Michael originally was going to bring an event horse and jumper, that fell through.
“Can he catch ride?” Phillip asked. You may imagine what the answer was. The Royal flew Michael’s family and girlfriend over. They saw Michael produce his usual stellar performance to win the $20,000 Horseware Indoor Eventing competition aboard Cruising Guy, a horse he had met only the day before.
“He laid down an equitation round,” Iain said of Michael’s performance in the two-round event. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The feature of the show was the $100,000 (USD) Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto, won by McLain Ward, who wound up as leading rider, aboard his Olympic mount, HH Azur.
“The jumper field here is stronger than we’ve had in two decades,” said Iain, noting there was quite a waiting list.
“We’re turning away riders.”
The fact that McLain’s Olympic silver medal teammate Kent Farrington was second on Creedance and Nick third with his stallion showed the genius of course designer Bernardo Costa Cabral. It was an example of the over-used but true phrase about the cream rising to the top. The routes he set were just enough to show off the riders’ skill and the horses’ ability without resorting to tricks or taxing tests.
I had never met Bernardo, who is charming and modest, before interviewing him last night. Watch the video and listen in by pressing the right-pointing arrow.
The Big Ben, named after the famous horse of “Captain Canada” Ian Millar, was as exciting as last weekend’s Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Lexington at the National Horse Show. That’s because Kent Farrington won both, and no one can produce a speed round the way he does.
At the National, he was on his old partner, Voyeur. At the Royal, it was the flashy Creedance. Both were winners under the guidance of Kent, who zipped through last night’s jump-off course in 31.86 seconds, only steadying before the final oxer to bring it home.
I liked Creedance from the first time I saw him (it’s more than just my affinity for chestnuts trimmed in white) and believe he will be Kent’s horse for next year’s Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals in Omaha, even if Kent won’t commit quite yet.
“He’s getting better, better each show, better each round,” was all Kent told me on that subject.
“I’m kind of playing with different things. I changed the tack a little bit today. I put one rein on the bridle instead of two; a little more direct contact. I think he’s making very good progress. More than the win, I’m really happy with how the horse is coming along and showing his potential for the future.”
Nick didn’t even try to attack Kent’s time, finishing second in 33.55 seconds.
“There was no way I could beat Kent, so I went for second, and I ended up second and that was good,” said Nick.
You would expect McLain to challenge Kent, but surprisingly, he didn’t even make it through the first round, eliminated for running past one fence after a knockdown and stopping in front of another.
Ian Millar was such a popular competitor. When he produced his third-place round on Dixson in 33.79 seconds, the crowd went crazy. Don’t forget, at 69 years old, Ian is still a big-time contender who won his 12th national championship at the show last week.
After the show, we chatted a bit. For a little insight into Ian, click on the right pointing arrow to see the video.
I always like to see a new face in show jumping and find out a little of what they’re about. I had a chance to talk to Germany’s David Will, competing on this continent for the first time this year. He won two speed classes in a row, first on Cento du Rouet and then the next night aboard Georgina Bloomberg’s Calisto, a mare he rode as a young horse and then borrowed to show. Hear what he had to say by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.
You can see photos of him in Thursday night’s class here and on Friday night here on www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman
Dressage has a niche at the Royal with a four-person invitational, but this year, I was most impressed by an exhibition, a pas de deux from the husband and wife team of Tina and Jaimey Irwin on Laurencio and Donegal V. It was fun talking with them (I had watched them at Dressage at Devon, where Tina dominated the Small Tour) so you can hear what they had to say while watching a slide show of their performance by clicking on the right-pointing arrow.
The Royal is the final stop on the North American Indoor Circuit and while I hate to leave, I’m awfully tired after a long tour. I can’t believe Kent and McLain are going on to Paris and Geneva next month after all they’ve done this year. But they are.
This show went by too fast. I barely had a chance to check out the row after row of cows as they were being milked, meet the rabbits and sheep, watch a border collie herding exhibition and see the butter sculptures. They are a fun oddity, one of many unusual things at the fair. Winners were a depiction of Julia Child holding a fish (I’m not kidding) and a very artful one called “Counting Sheep” of sheep on an arc over a sleeping child and sheep.
The agricultural products are so interesting, from the giant gourds to unusual edibles such as the spruce tip vinegar and hawberry jam. If you ever have a chance to attend the Royal, I have one word of advice for you: Go!
Be sure to check out more photos at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman.
I’m through with competitions for the year, but I’ll be sending you a postcard next month from the U.S. Eventing annual meeting in December.