Winds of change have begun to blow across Spruce Meadows

For Canadian horse sport, namely show jumping, times are changing. As Scott Russell writes, with the retirement from international competition of Ian Millar and the formidable situation Eric Lamaze is confronting, the long standing foundation of Canadian show jumping has been somewhat shaken.

Canadian show jumping team will be without the services of 'Captain Canada'

Canada's Ian Millar, shown in this 2014 file photo, will not be competing at Spruce Meadows for the first time in the 44-year history of the venue. (File/Getty Images)

For the first time since I can remember, ominous clouds loomed upon our arrival for the National Show Jumping Tournament at the outset of June at Spruce Meadows.

The turf in the international ring showed off its' traditionally, resplendent, emerald green. The grounds were lush and teeming with activity. A new soccer stadium had suddenly appeared on "Meadows on the Green" and its occupants, Cavalry FC of the fledgling Canadian Premier League, boasted a perfect record in the early going of the ambitious loop.

But for Canadian horse sport, namely show jumping, times are changing.

The ageless, Ian Millar, "Captain Canada" as he's come to be known, wore jeans and a cowboy hat and not riding britches and a helmet as he surveyed the course. 

For the first time in the 44-year history of this magnificent venue he is not scheduled to compete in one of his sports' biggest international gatherings.

At 72 years of age, the 10-time Olympian, two-time World Cup final winner, four-time Pan Am Games champion, and member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, has retired and now coaches the next generation of riders.

"For all things there comes a time," Millar mused, his feet firmly planted on the familiar playing field. "I'm as good as one can be at this stage of my career. No one wants to see an elite athlete lose a step."

And yet, for so many years they've come in droves to see him at this place, arguably the best facility of its kind on the face of the earth, and unquestionably a bona-fide national treasure.

There are 20 nations represented here at the National this year. It's the largest opening tournament to the summer season in Spruce Meadows history featuring 350 horses from around the globe as well as myriad Olympic and world championship medallists.

It is a competitive roster which has rarely been rivaled.

Lamaze focused on riding

Included is 51-year-old Canadian, Eric Lamaze, the most prolific rider in Spruce Meadows history. Not only has he won millions of dollars here, Lamaze is also the most decorated equestrian this country has ever produced. 

There are three Olympic medals, including the individual title in 2008, as well as a world championship medal to his credit.  That's not to mention Pan Am gold and a resumé which includes every major, professional, accolade his sport can offer.

But Lamaze is riding against the current. He recently revealed in an interview with a French broadcaster that he`s been battling cancer for a year and a half.  But that won`t deter what he`s here at Spruce Meadows to do.

"I don't want people to look at me as anyone other than Eric Lamaze," he said after dismounting his horse, Chacco Kid, following a clear round performance on Thursday.

"I'm battling a brain tumour, but I have to deal with this by myself as best I can. I am going to ride as long as I can because this makes me happy. I can ride, I can teach and I do what I can."

Indeed, Lamaze has steadfastly deflected attention from his personal struggle and in a press release prior to the National urged the fans of show jumping to cast their collective attention to what happens inside the ring and not beyond its borders.

"I want to be treated like everyone else and I appreciate everyone's thoughts," Lamaze said. "But I've shared my story and now I want us all to move on and focus on sport."

"I completely agree with that," the Canadian team leader, chef d'equipe, Mark Laskin said of Lamaze's mindset. "It's absolutely natural. Now he wants to be focused on applying his craft. He is the consummate competitor."

Uphill battle to Tokyo

That said, with the retirement from international competition of Millar and the formidable situation Eric Lamaze is confronting, the long standing foundation of Canadian show jumping has been somewhat shaken. 

Canada faces an uphill battle to finish in the top four at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, next month in order to qualify a full team for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Not since the Athens Games in 2004, when Millar was the lone Canadian rider, has Canada failed to challenge for a team medal at the Olympics.

"It's a bit unsettling because for the first time in a long time there are a couple of people that we can't automatically count on," Laskin admitted.

"It's a bit unclear. There's a lot to be decided and we can't take any of our competition for granted."

The same might be said of any sport. Nothing is a given and the tide can turn in the blink of an eye.

There are many things you can bank on in this place which is full of rich tradition. On the other hand things are often as capricious as the weather which more often than not plays its part in the narrative of horse jumping in southern Alberta.

The winds of change, it seems, are constantly swirling at Spruce Meadows.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.


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