The prize money, the prestige and the depth of talent are unrivaled.
We're talking about show jumping here and that means we might not be striking a chord with the vast majority of mainstream sports fans in this country. But what's taking place on the outskirts of Calgary is by far the most noteworthy international and athletic event Canada hosts on an ongoing basis.
More than $2.5 million is up for grabs culminating with the richest class in the sport, the CN International
, which constitutes the second leg of the newly minted Rolex Grand Slam of show jumping.
Nick Skelton of Great Britain won the first stop in Aachen, Germany earlier in the summer but his horse Big Star has been injured and won't make the trip to Calgary. It means Skelton forgoes the chance to win bonus money of a million Euros should he have captured all three of the Grand Slam classes. Geneva rounds out the schedule, indoors in December.
"Everyone is talking about the Grand Slam," said Eric Lamaze, the 2008 Olympic champion. "Everyone wants to win this. I'd lie to you if I didn't say I can't wait for this thing to get started."
Indeed, the lure of the Grand Slam and the CN International has attracted the very best horse-rider combinations on the face of the earth. Men and women will compete on equal footing in the spectacular International Ring, selected as the finest facility of its kind in North America and one which has few rivals anywhere.
Six of the top seven riders on the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) rankings list are on the Masters roster. That includes Olympic champion Steve Guerdat of Switzerland, as well as Elizabeth "Beezie" Madden of the United States, who claimed the World Cup title at the start of the season.
Madden is ranked as the top female rider and gives no quarter in a sport which is unique in featuring gender equity.
And then there's "Captain Canada"
, Ian Millar, who is currently the top-ranked Canadian rider heading into the Masters. Millar happens to be 66 years of age and has been in the spotlight at Spruce Meadows for more than 35 years.
"You're as old as you feel that you are and I'm in a sport where I compete with very young people," Millar said. "To be sharp and competitive with them I have to think the way they do, I have to be right with them or they're going to chew me up and spit me out."
While Millar stands his ground, it's his teammate Lamaze who many will be watching this time around. He has a new horse in nine-year-old Powerplay, who will get a huge test at the Masters. Lamaze purchased the horse at the start of the campaign from Swiss rider Pius Schwizer and has spent the entire summer in North America testing its mettle.
"This horse kept me in the sport," Lamaze said. "I feel like I can be a player again." The Olympic champion is referring to his fortunes following the sudden, in competition, death of his brilliant mount Hickstead late in 2011.
Since then Lamaze has struggled with motivation and the lingering supposition that the horse couldn't be replaced.
"I have a good feeling and we'll see how this relationship develops," Lamaze continued. "At nine-years-old Hickstead had not achieved his potential. I feel with Powerplay this could be great."
There have already been encouraging flashes for the evolving partnership.
At the July event, the prestigious QE II Cup, Lamaze guided Powerplay to a strong fifth-place finish in a grueling two-round class. The reason he kept the horse in Calgary was to give it time to become familiar with the huge demands of the best international competition.
"I would say it's a horse who has seen Spruce Meadows before and who knows what it takes to have success," Lamaze said. "The second round of this Grand Prix is the toughest thing I've ever jumped."
But there is something else to consider.
Lamaze has twice been victorious at the CN International, in 2007 and in 2011. On both occasions he rode Hickstead. Still, he did it before the great stallion had become Olympic champion and he turned the trick again late in Hickstead's career.
Now Eric Lamaze seems to be on his way back to the limelight with Powerplay and just in time for the Grand Slam.
"If you can win any one of these events it can define your career," he said. But he's not talking about himself he's referring to the horse. That's because Lamaze's place in history is already secure.
That's the thing about September at Spruce Meadows. To be successful on this enormous field of play, the horse must live up to its potential.
But it can only do so with the master's touch.
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