It’s been 15 years since top hunters, jumpers and equitation riders performed at the National Horse Show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden during a season grand finale complete with box- holders resplendent in formal dress. But glitter still has a home at Canada’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. The 94-year-old fixture, only a short trip from the lively heart of downtown Toronto, is just a 90-minute flight from New York.
“The beauty of the Royal is that it offers so much to so many people,” says Show Chairman Andrew McKee. “We’re not just a horse show—we’re the biggest indoor agricultural show in the world. There are literally hundreds of different things going on every year during the 10 days of the fair.”
The Royal, rated the No.1 indoor show in North America for 2015 by the North American Riders Group, features hunters, international jumpers, dressage and even indoor eventing over a course designed by former U.S. Eventing Coach Mark Phillips. In addition to the sporthorses, hitches of giant draft horses decked out in jingling harnesses, beautifully matched coach horses, high-stepping hackneys and speedy roadsters will vie for more than $900,000 in prize money in the Ricoh Coliseum, Nov. 4–13.
As its name suggests, the Royal also features more than 2,000 agricultural competitions highlighting more than 5,000 animals and produce such as giant vegetables as well as maple syrup, artisan cheeses and butter sculpting. The animal roster includes goats, sheep, fancy birds, bunnies and cows. Heifers at the cattle auctions can fetch prices that horsepeople would associate more with show jumpers imported from Germany. And the national black-and-white show for cattle brings up to 5,000 people to the coliseum, the only time the bovines are in the horse show arena as opposed to their own ring in the midst of the fair. Other attractions are a petting zoo, wine-tasting, top chef competitions and food that runs the gamut from fried “beaver-tail” pastries to fine dining and shops.
The horse show and agricultural exhibits are held in an indoor complex with more than 1 million square feet at Exhibition Place, which houses convention/exhibition venues, sporting facilities, restaurants, nightclubs and more, set on 192 acres. All of the horses are stabled in the multilevel Horse Palace, which is adjacent to the coliseum.
The Horse Show
The first four days of the horse show are devoted to Canadian competitions, including the country’s national jumper championship. For many Canadian riders, qualifying at the Royal is “part of the goal-setting for the end of the year,” said Christine Reupke, the show’s business manager, who has competed there herself.
“The Royal is always something everybody aspires to. There’s nothing quite like it. When you step into the coliseum ring, there’s a feeling you get. Part of it’s national pride, part of it is a sense of achievement, part of it is fear, too, because you can feel your horse’s heart beating through his girth.”
The Royal is the final segment of the North American Fall Indoor Circuit and last year became part of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League. The qualifier, the Hickstead Grand Prix, is always held on a Wednesday night, which this year is Nov. 9, and it always plays to a packed house.
Defending champion McLain Ward, who has won the grand prix seven times, looks forward to coming to the Royal and considers it practically a vacation.
Other show highlights include dressage with an invitational Grand Prix Nov. 9 and Freestyle Nov. 10. Just four riders participate, but this year an international rider will be added to the formerly all-Canadian field. The Big Ben International Challenge that will wrap up the jumper competition Nov. 13 over courses designed by Portugal’s Bernardo Cabral is usually a sellout, reaching the facility’s capacity of 6,792 fans. Individual tickets, ranging in price from $36–$115, go on sale Sept. 6.
Innovations to the show for 2016 include an Under 25 jumper division and more youth competitions, including the 1.20-meter Junior Jumpers and Pony Jumpers. In addition, the final day will be devoted to a rodeo for the first time.
“Even though it’s such a great historical venue, we’re really making an effort to stay relevant and do things that will support the sport. In the last three to five years, we’ve recognized the fact that we need to evolve and innovate and adapt to what’s going on in the world,” said Christine, who is also a trainer and judge.
“We’re trying to make sure everyone’s experience, whether as a visitor or competitor, is awesome,” she added. “We’re reaching out into the downtown core, into the bedroom communities, and we’re working on getting a bigger presence this year. We’re making big efforts to attract city people. It’s entertainment they won’t see but once a year.”
Over the decades, “the demographics of the city have changed our attendees,” Andrew, the show chairman, observed. “The ability for a Toronto urbanite family to walk to the horse barns and see how you groom and care for a horse is a unique experience they can’t get anywhere else around Toronto. It’s attracting a much broader audience now than it used to.
“They view the horse show very much as an entertainment venue, as opposed to just the pure horse sport and competition of it, but they love the competition aspect as well. We’ve had to adapt our show floor a little bit to accommodate that,” Andrew said, noting that, for instance, the number of dining options has been increased. There are six restaurants and a food court at the Royal.
Adds CEO Charlie Johnstone, “You’ve got in excess of 300,000 visitors coming through the doors in 10 days, some of whom are very specific in their interests and may not be aware of all the other offerings within the whole fair.
“How you satisfy their expectations and needs coming to the event becomes a challenge for the staff—how you make it new and fresh while keeping the traditions and heritage of the Royal that make it so special,” Charlie said, noting that it’s a “country-comes-to-the-city environment.” It’s getting tougher for the country to come to the city, though, because development pressure means there’s less parking space or room for trucks to unload animals and crops.
There are a lot of moving parts, and everything has a ripple effect. “If we want to have a concert in some of the rings in the evening, that has an impact on show-time finishes and set-ups and food and beverage,” Charlie continued.
“What we find motivating is how we keep tweaking it year after year.”
The Social Scene
One of the horse-show traditions that won’t be changing is the formal dress, which is de rigeur the last four days of the show for those sitting in the boxes and VIP terrace. Many of the boxes are passed down through generations and those seeking to buy box or terrace seats must agree to abide by the dress code or face a stern warning from the show committee.
Ringside boxes are artfully draped with red and black bunting held in place by large black, gold and red replicas of horse-show ribbons. But even if “you look up to the [less expensive] blue seats, you will also see people who like to get dressed up, which is great,” Andrew said.
“This is a true social event and entertainment outing where you’re part of the crowd in black tie, rather than the exception to the rule, and there’s white tie and tails as well,” he added.
Kelly Delworth came to last year’s show on Saturday night dressed up with her husband, Charlie, and their friend, Courtney MacGillivray. “My father had a box, so it’s very nostalgic for me,” she said of her first visit back to the horse show in decades. “I was happy to dress up for the occasion.”
Tickets for the VIP Terrace also include admission to the black-tie Tanbark Club, alluring with silver drapes, transformed from an area that at other times of the year is part of the fan zone of the Toronto Marlies, the minor league hockey team that plays in the coliseum. Those looking for something less exclusive can try the Hitching Ring Cafe and Bar, close to the warm-up area, for a view of horses that even those in the Terraces don’t have.
The riders stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel (www.fairmont.com/royal-york-toronto), a building brimming with history that offers free shuttles to the show. After the classes end each night, riders congregate in the crowded Library Bar, where you’ll likely see Olympian Beezie Madden at one table and her fellow gold-medal teammate McLain Ward at another.
On Nov. 11, Remembrance Day—World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—the hotel has a moving ceremony in its lobby to honor members of the armed forces and those who sacrificed for Canada. Nearly everyone in the city wears an artificial red poppy with a black center, the symbol of the day, pinned to their jackets or sweaters.
To get to the Royal, check whether Porter Airlines (www.flyporter.com) has a connection from your city to Toronto. The airline features old-fashioned service and comfort, including wider seats than typically found these days. Porter lands on an island just off downtown. You can take a short ferry ride to the “mainland” or walk through a tunnel. A bus will drop you close to the Royal York and the train station.
For more information and ticket information, go to the show’s website www.royalfair.org. Rooms are available for $199 a night at the Royal York through the website. Check the website in September for special travel deals from the U.S.
Many volunteers at the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair have a long history of involvement. Show Chairman Andrew McKee’s family has been with the event since it began. His grandmother, Margaret McKee, rode in the first Royal in 1922. His grandfather, John William McKee, was president in the late 1940s and his father, Angus McKee, was on the board of governors and still attends every year.
“It’s never an obligation. It’s always been a highlight on the calendar for the family,” Andrew said. “I’ve attended every Royal in the 45 years of my life save one, when I was overseas and couldn’t get back for it.
“Through my childhood and my adult life, there have been different things that have interested me over the years, but there’s always something to keep you coming back,” he added. “Now my kids are Royal Fair addicts.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.