Final Postcard: Royal Winter Fair 2015

With its variety, strong agricultural ties and fabulous competition, Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair horse show is an equestrian showcase like no other on the circuit in terms of non-stop excitement and entertainment.

November 15, 2015–It’s been a long show circuit for 2015, but I’m still sad it’s over because its finale in the East is the peerless Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which ends today.

If you have not attended, you must go. Let me see if I can convince you. The fair occupies 1 million square feet, showcasing everything from cows and crops to a multitude of maple sugar products, jellies and artwork.

There’s a food court offering the likes of braised roast Canadian bison and fried dough “beaver tails” topped with apples, chocolate and a lot of other calorific stuff; various animal acts (loved “Goats on the Go”) and loads of learning opportunities for kids. Think of an old-fashioned county or state fair, transplanted to an indoor location.

But for me, of course, it’s all about the Royal Horse Show in the Ricoh Coliseum, which was sold out for several nights. It’s no ordinary fixture. You can see draft horse hitches (check out our photo at, four-in-hands, hackneys, Arabians and of course, hunters and jumpers.

This year, McLain Ward dominated the big league outings in the latter category, taking the Leading International Rider title as he has in the past and winning the two biggest classes. The stunning HH Azur starred in both, Wednesday’s Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto 2015 qualifier and last night’s $75,000 Big Ben International Challenge.

A packed house at the Royal Winter Fair saw McLain Ward deliver an impressive victory in the $75,000 Big Ben International Challenge on the incredible HH Azur | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

“As a rider, doing this my whole life, you never think a horse like this exists,” said McLain of the 9-year-old mare by Thunder van de Zuuthoeve who is his number one prospect for the Rio Olympics next year.

“She’s everything I dream her to be, and believe her to be,” he said, noting the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto 2015 qualifier was the most difficult class of its kind in which he participated this year, adding that was good for Azur because “I wanted to challenge her.”

She got quite excited during the presentations, rearing repeatedly on Wednesday and less last night, though she was still antsy during the prizegiving. But as McLain mentioned, “I don’t think she’s so used to people so close. She has to learn. She’s electric…I ride her in a very tiny spur.”

Course designer Richard Jeffery had only two fault-free trips in the first round on Wednesday, McLain and Dermott Lennon of Ireland on Loughview Lou-Lou, who obviously wound up second.

Course map for the $75,000 Big Ben International Challenge

On Friday, there were just two fault-free trips in the one-round $50,000 Weston Canadian Open. Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium with H&M Harley VD Bisschop won, and Leslie Howard, 4.21 seconds slower was the runner-up on her partner of 10 years, Utah.

When I ran into Richard in the hotel yesterday afternoon (all the riders and some officials stay in the Fairmont Royal York, so it’s cool to see them in the lobby or restaurants) I teased him about the scant clear rounds that he had allowed during the week. He advised that there would be a lot more in last night’s jump-off, and he was right.

In fact, 40 percent of the field of 20 returned for the tiebreaker, which was edge-of-your seat stuff. A daring cut inside the Longines oxer, the final fence, going from a vertical/oxer double in the center of the arena to a vertical along the ring wall brought grief to Nicola, the first one who tried it and got a rail down at the vertical, 10B, for his trouble. Others, such as Reed Kessler, did it successfully. She was trying to match McLain’s time of 40.43 seconds for a fault-free effort that he logged without the big cut, but she was still more than a second behind him to take second place on Cylana with a clocking of 41.44.

While the cut didn’t work for McLain, he saved time with a flyer at the Longines oxer as Azur soared remarkably over it and toward the finish line to clinch the victory.

During the press conference, I asked McLain about that “long one,” and also about why he didn’t make the big cut.

Reed, just 21, was impressive with the mare who took her to the 2012 Olympics as a teenager. We don’t see much of Reed these days, since she lives in Europe, but it was nice to watch how “on” Cylana was. Click on the righthand arrow to hear what Reed had to say about that.

Reed Kessler and Cylana had some great turns, but still finished more than a second behind McLain Ward and HH Azur in the $75,000 Big Ben International Challenge | Photo copyright 2015 by Lawrence J. Nagy

When McLain had the late, great Sapphire, it seemed he was always on top, but in the years since her retirement, he has not found the perfect match to take her place in his string. Now, it seems, he has. We chatted about that after the show. Click on the video for his thoughts.

Dressage plays a small role at the Royal, but it’s still a presence. There is always a four-horse invitational of Canadian riders, so it gives the crowd a taste of what the discipline is about. Belinda Trussell was the winner with Anton, a horse who was out for 2 1/2 years with an injury. She had been told his showing days were over, and he was put out to pasture. But the massage therapist who still came to treat him suggested the horse was sad that he wasn’t getting more attention from Belinda, and advised that she should ride him.

Belinda Trussell and Anton won the Royal Invitational Dressage Cup | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

She did, of course and the success of that comeback story was evident at the show, where they earned 77 percent to top the class.

Click on the video to learn what Belinda had to say.

Second went to Dressage at Devon Grand Prix Special winner Leah Wilkins on Fabian JS, while crowd favorite Jacquie Brooks finished third on 73.208 with D-Niro. Fourth was Evi Strasser with Renaissance Tyme (70.667) the horse Charlotte Dujardin rode in her September Central Park master class.

Jacquie had her special moment in the spotlight last night, when she performed to live music in a terrific freestyle accompanied by singers Tamara Williamson and Glen Nowarsky, extending sympathy to the people of Paris for what they have been through in recent days.

The entertainment aspect of the horse show got a boost from the bouncing acrobats of Ma’Ceo, presented by Cavallo Equestrian Arts. We have several facebook pictures of what this troupe does on horseback, and it’s quite something.

Impressive acrobatics were the hallmark of the Royal’s featured act, Cavallo Equestrian Arts presents Ma’Ceo, in which a rider flew from one horse to another and eventually landed upright on the second mount | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

Click on the right-hand arrow to hear from Olissio Zoppe, the group’s owner/director.

The Royal Horse Show is such a production that it’s a wonder anyone can keep all the wheels in motion, but manager Peter Doubleday does–and he handles much of the announcing as well. I was able to talk to him for a minute or two between his non-stop duties. Nothing involved with the show is beneath him. After we talked, he went off to lend a hand moving the white fences for dressage prior to an awards presentation, for which $80,000 worth of lighting equipment helped create the right mood.

He had some interesting comments. Click on the video to hear them.

The character of the Royal reminds me of the lost and lamented days at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, when it was white tie and evening gowns for a touch of glamor that is missing at most shows today.

I talked with Jennifer Anstey, a lifetime Royal-goer and horse show committee member, about what makes the show so different.

“It’s the grand dame of show jumping,” she said, as we chatted on the red carpet near the Hitching Ring, where she was resplendent in a floor-length purple sequined gown.

“It’s something special. You get dressed up. It’s an event and an occasion. I think even the riders feel it’s a special event and an occasion and appreciate the extra electricity and enthusiasm,” she said.

Jennifer was planning on taking guests who are new to the show to see the dairy cattle quartered just off the main floor of the fair.

“There’s nothing quite as much fun as walking around the cow barn in your gown,” she pointed out with a smile.

“It’s a very special event because it’s not just the horses. The agriculture, all the different parts of farming are involved and that’s what makes it unique.”

So now it’s time for me to take a deep breath after a hectic late summer and fall, when I was at an equestrian competition nearly every weekend. Do check out the photos from the Royal at www.practicalhorseman/

My last postcard of the year won’t come from a show, but from the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting. Not really exciting, I know, at least in comparison to competition, but the work of this organization is key to regulating and improving competitions. So come back Dec. 11 to find out what happened there.

Until then,

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