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Captain Canada and the common thread of The Royal

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2008 | 11:59 AM

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It’s a familiar place.

Even though the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto has undergone a facelift, been refurbished and transformed itself into yet another hockey rink, it still reeks of “The Royal.”

Outside, dozens of yellow school buses are parked and wait in orderly fashion. Their cargos of primary-aged kids have been deposited only to venture into the bowels of the Canadian National Exhibition complex to examine poultry, pork and the rest of the exotic livestock. In order to join the party one has to be wary of the traffic at the Coliseum’s threshold. Clydesdale’s clip-clop by and tractors traverse Manitoba Avenue with rush-hour type frequency.

Once inside, I kind of lose my way. The Coliseum is much brighter than I remember and there is now a maze of hallway to get to the show ring where the equestrians are jumping.

“Are you lost Russell?”

It’s a voice I recognize and as I look onto the dirt of the stadium there is Ian Millar - tall and slender in the saddle - atop a brilliant, white horse. He’s 61-years-old and looks just like he did when I first met him nearly two decades prior out at Spruce Meadows near Calgary.

Not long ago, he realized a life-long dream by winning an Olympic medal. It was his first trip to the podium in nine tries beginning at the Munich Games of 1972. The silver medal, as the anchor with the Canadian equestrian team in August in Hong Kong, might have capped his prolific career and paved the way for his retirement to the sidelines with a role as the wise mentor. And yet, the man they call “Captain Canada” rides on.

“I still love to do it,” he says of competing. “A day without riding and training is not a complete day for me.”

Indeed, as I rummage around the Coliseum and watch the schooling of the horses going on, Millar is by far the oldest in the ring but you wouldn’t know it. He jumps more fences than any other rider then he dismounts and does some instructing while leaning youthfully on his riding crop. Suddenly, he jogs to the boards and disappears into the tunnel, which leads backstage, only to burst into the ring a moment later aboard another ambitious horse, raring to go.

“I love to teach the students,” he told me. “And one of the best ways of teaching is through demonstration.”

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has been a Canadian tradition for nearly nine decades. Since the event’s genesis in 1922, it has become the largest, comprehensive, agricultural exhibition and horse show in the world. It is a resilient presence in this nation that many of us sometimes take for granted while pursuing frenetic, urban lives. It is a reminder that, in a land of plenty, the city exists because of the country.

Ian Millar, it seems to me, is a reflection of that. He is the big star every year at “The Royal” – his name known to a sizable number of us who live in places like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. But he is a product of rural Canada, the inhabitant of a farm near Perth, Ont., not far from Ottawa. Millar even describes things in the lexicon of the country.

“After winning the medal we had to get out of Hong Kong in a hurry,” he recalls. He was talking about the fear of an impending tsunami about to hit the island where the Olympic equestrian events had been held. “It was tough getting a cab and things were shut down like a snow day in Lanark County!”

There is a certain charm to Ian Millar - kind of rough around the edges - and the same can be said for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

On the day he began the quest for his eleventh Canadian Show Jumping Championship, Ian Millar crashed through the first fence and fell off his horse. The competition, for him, was over. But he bounced back, led the horse safely to the stable, and re-emerged to watch his son Jonathon and daughter Amy take up the chase.

“It’s about families,” he says with a wink. “That’s what you see here at The Royal more than anything else…families.”

True enough.

And comforting to know that Millar, his bravado in tact, will be back to continue the hunt in the next big championship the Coliseum had to offer. He’s just like the enduring, winter fair itself.

Millar is always there, kind of like the constant Canadian as well as the common thread that exists to weave “The Royal” into all of our lives.

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