Report from the 2018 Royal Winter Fair in Toronto

McLain Ward, a regular at the Royal for more than two decades, won the grand prix there for the ninth time before a sold-out crowd that got its money’s worth of excitement.

Another gray mare; another pressure situation.

If anyone knows how to handle a high-stakes challenge, it’s McLain Ward. The man who delivered the decisive clean round on Clinta to clinch U.S. show jumping team gold at the FEI World Equestrian Games came through again last night in the featured class at the Royal Winter Fair.

This time he was going for it in the $205,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto with HH Gigi’s Girl, a 10-year-old Dutchbred who was less experienced than he thought originally when she came to him in 2017.

McLain has brought her along carefully, in the way that he has done with so many mares. She displayed the progress she has made with a daring turn from a double along the rail to the Royal Horse Show vertical in the center of the arena, a move that brought gasps of amazement from the 7,000 spectators who were riding with McLain. Last to go in a five-horse jump-off, he was trying to beat the mark of 33.88 seconds set by his WEG teammate, Devin Ryan on the long-striding Eddie Blue.

Devin Ryan finished second on Eddie Blue in the Royal’s finale Photo © 2018 by Lawrence J. Nagy

After watching how Devin handled the turn to the vertical, McLain thought he could do one less stride by going more to the left.

“It was a little far away, and I actually went to the back of the tack for a second, but she left, and the last line was a good line for her off the right lead; I knew I could keep coming,” he said.

McLain Ward and HH Gigi’s Girl won the Royal Winter Fair’s grand prix for the ninth time in the sold-out Coca-Cola Coliseum. Photo © 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

When he crossed the finish line, the clock said 32.42 seconds. He had done it again.

Watch this video to find out McLain’s thoughts on the mare and his performance.

The route for 21 contenders was set by Alan Wade, McLain’s favorite course designer, who also did the layout for the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals that he won with HH Azur. Alan really redesigned the floor plan for the tiebreaker, with key moves involving narrowing an oxer at the end of the ring to encourage a sweeping turn, and morphing the Royal liverpool oxer into that crucial vertical–though he raised its height from 1.55 meters to 1.60.

Explaining his revisions and why he transformed the Royal fence, Alan noted it “was going to be very difficult… two liverpools in the jump-off was one too many, I felt. (The second fence also was a liverpool.) I just gave them a chance to show their jumping ability and their ability to turn left and right and their ability to go fast. It was really good show jumping.”

Devin’s first appearance at the Royal was memorable, and even though he didn’t win, he looked at the big picture.

“To have a horse like this, to be able to compete in these events, it’s also been neat for people to see that I’m not just a young horse trainer; to come out and compete with these big shots like McLain over here. I’ve worked my way up, so it’s been pretty fun,” said Devin.

The Royal is a favorite stop for riders, but it has a special place in the hearts of Canadian competitors.

Ali Ramsay on Hermelien vd Hooghoeve was the only Canadian to make the jump-off, finishing third. Photo © 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

“I love this show. It’s the one we look forward to at the end of every year,” said Ali Ramsay, the only Canadian in the tiebreaker. She set the pace at the top of the jump-off order with Hermelien vd Hooghoeve, finishing third in 34.62 seconds.

McLain wound up as Leading International Rider, based not only on his grand prix performance for the coveted Hickstead Trophy, but also for his victory in the Friday night speed class, the $50,000 Weston Canadian Open, on the impressive Tradition de la Roque. He is riding that sale horse for his 2012 Olympic teammate, Reed Kessler, who has gone back to school.

A victory on Tradition de la Roque on Friday and another in the grand prix two days later with HH Gigi’s Girl put McLain Ward over the top as the Royal Winter Fair’s Leading International Rider. Photo © 2018 by Nancy Jaffer

The difference between the Royal and so many other shows from a spectator vantagepoint is that it goes all-out to entertain ticketholders with great variety in its offerings. The six-horse hitches of giant draft horses, the spectacularly preserved coaches pulled by four-in-hands, the variety of breeds offered means an evening in the Coca-Cola Coliseum never lags.

Guy McLean delivers extraordinary performances with his equine partners. Photo © 2018 by Lawrence J. Nagy

There’s always entertainment. This year, it was Guy McLean and his amazing mini-herd of horses who move to his command, free of tack and putting their all into a partnership that is both exciting and moving. Click on this video to find out what Guy’s animals mean to him.

The horse show, which ends the North American Fall Indoor Circuit, is part of what in the U.S. would amount to a giant county fair, with competition for cows, sheep, goats and a variety of other animals, as well as prizes for the best honey, vegetables and various agricultural products. Then there’s the usual fair food, in this case heavy on maple syrup products, and a dazzling line-up of vendors. Add that to the attractions of a lovely city, and you have something very special.

“I love it here. I think this is one of the great events in our sport throughout the world,” said McLain, who has been coming for 23 or 24 years; he’s not exactly sure, but it’s always on his calendar.

In the days when the show hosted a Nations’ Cup, he remembered coming up for the first time as a 17-year-old with the late team rider, Tim Grubb “and learned `how to do the Royal week properly,’ as he would say,” McLain recalled.

“We ate a lot more then…I would normally go home about 10 pounds heavier. He and Mark Leone were bad influences,” McLain added with a chuckle.

He compared the Royal to the spring Devon Horse Show in many aspects, including a knowledgeable crowd

“The atmosphere, the way they’ve been able to hold onto so many traditional aspects of the event, I just think it’s a phenomenal evening,” he commented. “It’s one of the few places I come to watch something other than what I do.”

Visit this link for results from the Royal.

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