Some of show jumping’s most famous names found themselves taking a back seat to the younger set in the last 2019 Eastern qualifier for April’s Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final. We’re talking Beezie Madden (a two-time final winner), McLain Ward (another final winner), Kent Farrington and Laura Kraut, as well as Canadian favorite and Olympic multi-medalist Eric Lamaze.
The only other contender in the four-horse jump-off who was not in the Young Rider ranks, Great Britain’s Ben Maher, wound up fourth on Tic Tac, the winner of Thursday’s grand prix qualifier.
It took a tap of the stick from Ireland’s 24-year-old Bertram Allen to get GK Casper paying attention during the first round of the grand prix in the packed Coca-Cola Stadium, which had been sold out for three days. But by the time he got to the tiebreaker, the Holsteiner gelding was on his game. Last to go, Casper did the bidding of his determined rider to finish on a time of 34.70 seconds.
That edged the mark of Bertram’s traveling buddy, Jos Verlooy, 23, of Belgium, who had convinced the Irish rider to come to North America for the circuit. Jos’ Belgian warmblood, Igor, set an impressive target of 35.41 seconds for Bertram to beat.
The winner readily admitted that until last night, “I didn’t have my best week … but it all came together. It’s one of the biggest classes that GK Casper has jumped and his first World Cup [qualifier]. It was hard, but I knew if I got the first round behind me, I didn’t have to worry about the jumps as much in the second round. I could really give it a lash.”
Bertram established himself as a precocious international star in the 2015 FEI World Cup™ Final in Las Vegas, where he finished third, and he hopes to return to that city for the 2020 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final.
Third-place Brian Moggre of the U.S. proved that last weekend’s victory on MTM Vivre le Reve in the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Lexington at the National Horse Show was no fluke. He set an impressive pace of 35.83 seconds, enough to put keep him ahead of Ben, a two-time Global Champions Tour titlest. Oh, and Brian isn’t even officially a Young Rider yet. The 18-year-old Texan finished his junior career here in a stellar way. His placing made him the leading rider in the North American Eastern Sub-League for a spot in the final, ahead of the veterans, Beezie, Australia’s Rowan Willis and Margie Engle, the Royal’s Leading Lady Rider.
See full results here
The showing by the crop of young contenders pleased course designer Michel Vaillancourt. “What it tells me is that the sport is healthy,” he said, noting that having only established stars continue to dominate the standings is not a good thing. “If there’s not young riders coming to challenge them, the sport is not healthy.” What happened in Toronto “is fantastic, because it means there is a future. When a Beezie Madden (or other key players) decide to retire, it tells me that is not a big deal, because we will have someone behind them. “When I look at these three fine young men, they are already taking the show jumping world by storm. They are the present and the future. We need to keep pushing to have youngsters like that come up the ranks and be willing to challenge the good old guys,” he commented.
In the Big Ben International Challenge, Thursday night’s qualifying class, an astounding 15 competitors—more than half the roster of 23 starters—made it through to the jump-off. This time, Michel had two less in the tiebreaker than he had predicted, because the route required tact to leave the poles in place.
“I set a track that is modern,” he observed, citing, “the carefulness of the jumps. We use a lot of 10-foot rails. A 10-foot rail vs. a 12-foot rail … take off two feet, the rail is lighter automatically, so the rails come down a little bit easier. The questions are a little bit more technical. It’s not about just running down and jumping big jumps and finding a good distance. It’s about manipulating your horse through a total pattern, being forced to open the stride and shorten the stride but still maintain the proper balance and proper impulsion in order to jump the big jumps without having to make a strong move at them, because they fall down too easily. So you’ve got to give every fence the respect that it deserves, and that’s modern show jumping.”
Bertram will have his name engraved on the Hickstead trophy, named in memory of Eric Lamaze’s late, great Olympic mount. The perfect ending for the Canadian crowd, and Eric, would have been the one in which he claimed the trophy, but a rail in the first round with Chacco Kid dashed that dream. Even so, he took the International Leading Rider and Leading Canadian Rider titles to end a show where his emotions ran high.
On Friday, Eric answered questions during a conversation with announcer Adam Cromarty, meeting more than 60 fans who lined up afterwards for an autograph session. This likely will be the final Royal for Eric, who has a brain tumor and envisions next year’s Tokyo Olympics as his international swan song.
“Tokyo means the world to me. It’s a personal victory for me to even be there, and I want to make it a personal victory to bring back a medal for Canada, and I hope we do it as a team. My heart is set on this,” said Eric. “Hopefully, this does get accomplished. If it does … I think it will be time I take care of my health a little bit more seriously and give back to the sport.”
The day before, Eric spoke during a moving tribute to Ian Millar, who has retired from international jumping and made one last ride around the arena so fans could salute him. I had a chance to chat with Ian about his incredible career. Click here to see the video of our conversation.
Show jumping is far from the only attraction at the Royal. In addition to the massive fair featuring livestock shows and vendors galore (maple syrup, anyone?) an eclectic blend of equestrian competitions make the fixture one of a kind. Four-in-hand driving, harness ponies, arena eventing and hunters are among the offerings that keep the show lively.
A feature on closing night is always the six-horse hitch championship for draft horses, but there was a scary moment during that class when the Hitchmark-Messenger Memorial’s Percheron team got tangled after one of the leader’s lines caught on a back pad.
People rushed out to help driver Brian Coleman deal with the situation, and they carted away the damaged swing pole. Not to be fazed, Brian—who finished second—decided that rather than having the horses led out of the ring, he would drive them through the outgate, with only the lines connecting the two leaders to the rest of the horses. When I asked him why he made the tougher (but impressive) choice, Brian replied, “Might as well, I knew they could do it.”
Exhibitions are always a part of the show. This year they included the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Sylvia Zerbini with her six liberty horses, whose white coats shone in the spotlight as they went through their paces.
It can take three months to a year to train them, “depending on their character,” Sylvia said.
The Royal is a challenge for the Florida-based performer, who explained the issue is “trying to get the horses’ attention in such a big arena. It’s not really focused lighting, so there are lots of distractions. They get to see the audience, they see the arena and normally we kind of work in a blackout and have centered lights, so the focus is more on me and the other horses.” At the same time, she notes, “The horses are free to go where they want but they choose to listen and create an equestrian dance.”
The Royal is such a unique experience, harking back to a more elegant era. Women in sparkling floor-length gowns and men in white tie or tuxedoes sit in the ringside boxes decorated with black, red and gold bunting, when they’re not in a nightclub that’s a short walk from the arena. Presentations at the 10-day show are formal, often featuring colorfully uniformed soldiers, but there is a place for everyone at the Royal, even if they favor jeans and sweaters.
Pat Cerri of Montreal was with seven friends who try to make the Royal an annual group excursion.“It’s a special event. We get to see the best international riders, and there’s shopping, so what else can you ask for?” she said, explaining those in her group ride a variety of disciplines, from dressage to western.
“Horses bring everybody together,” she said. “The love of the horse, that’s what it is.”