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James McVeigh puts out a bowl of draft Guinness for Marty to slake his thrist during a visit to McVeigh’s New Windsor Tavern on Thursday. Initially denied entry to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, the official hotel of the Grey Cup, but was later allowed entry. Marty and a contingent of the Calgary Committee also visited the Bank Of Montreal and several television stations. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
James McVeigh puts out a bowl of draft Guinness for Marty to slake his thrist during a visit to McVeigh’s New Windsor Tavern on Thursday. Initially denied entry to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, the official hotel of the Grey Cup, but was later allowed entry. Marty and a contingent of the Calgary Committee also visited the Bank Of Montreal and several television stations. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

football

Marty the horse helps Toronto lighten up with a quick tour and a bowl of beer Add to ...

Marty is a 15-year-old Canadian-breed horse. Sturdy and muscular, with soft black hair, he spends most of his time in the obscurity of a petting zoo in bucolic Stouffville, Ont., entertaining children and munching on hay.

But on Thursday, Marty was the talk of Toronto: paraded along downtown streets, initially denied entry at the posh Royal York hotel, prancing gamely through a bank headquarters, visiting television studios and downing a couple of pints at a pub. Torontonians stopped to watch, or followed reports of the horse’s progress online and on television, as reporters tailed the stallion through the city.

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One news channel even interrupted coverage of a police news conference to go live when the hotel finally changed its mind and allowed Marty to step gingerly onto the marble floors of its ornate lobby.

The reason for all this? A group of hardcore Calgary Stampeders fans wanted to recreate a legendary moment from the 1948 Grey Cup, when the city’s future mayor rode his steed into the Royal York and showed stuffy Toronto how to give ’er. So they called up that Stouffville petting zoo and hired Marty’s services.

Of course, there are few Calgarians today who fit the old cowboy stereotypes – the city is, after all, an affluent business centre and capital of the nation’s petroleum industry – but the horse still holds hefty symbolic significance, whether at the annual Stampede or any number of parades.

Toronto also played to its image – uptight. Citing health and safety concerns, the Royal York insisted it would not allow Marty in the hotel. The Canadian Football League, meanwhile, refused to allow another Stamps’ tradition – a horse named Quick Six that gallops along the sidelines when the team scores – at the Rogers Centre, where Calgary will take on the Toronto Argonauts in Sunday’s Grey Cup final.

The result in both situations was compromise, horse sense prevailing. After negotiations, the league agreed to let the “touchdown horse” in the stadium, but forbade it from charging down the field, saying it would interfere with equipment for the broadcast and halftime show. The Royal York, after seeing Marty’s mediagenic trot around town, eventually allowed him to stand just inside the doorway.

Earlier in the day, Fletcher Armstrong, a sturdy 56-year-old Stampeders fan with a handlebar moustache, rode Marty up to the front doors of the hotel, where he was surrounded by hundreds of fans, a pack of cheerleaders, reporters and curious onlookers. Executive chef Collin Thornton offered the stallion some carrots and apples from a silver platter, but when Marty pressed his nose against the glass doors, the hotel wouldn’t open.

“He wants to check in!” Mr. Armstrong called. Another fan joked: “There’s no room at the inn!”

Paul Deegan, public affairs vice-president at the Bank of Montreal, had heard about the horse on the radio. If the hotel wouldn’t allow the equine inside, he decided, the bank offices at First Canadian Place would. Mr. Deegan dispatched employees to find the horse and invite him over.

Around 11 a.m., the raucous crowd marched up Bay Street and brought the horse into the bank, where stockbrokers and tellers gathered around to snap pictures. “Would Marty like a credit card?” shouted one woman. The besuited Mr. Deegan even donned a white cowboy hat and clambered on his back, amid whoops from the crowd.

Later, in a quiet moment, Mr. Armstrong approached Mr. Deegan to thank him personally for the warm reception.

At this point, Marty’s party had a momentum of its own, and everyone was determined to keep it going. So he rode west to CP24’s television studio at Queen and John streets, then back east to the Dundas Square shopping district for a star turn inside Citytv.

The next stop was McVeigh’s Pub on Church Street, where the bartender placed a bowl of stout on the bar for Marty to quench his thirst. “Now I’ve seen everything!” exclaimed one silver-haired gentleman as the horse lapped up the suds.

It was around this time that officials at the Royal York decided to let the horse in after all, so Marty made the triumphant trek back to the hotel, walking the red carpet normally reserved for the prime minister.

“Welcome back,” corporate affairs director Kerry Ann Kotani said cheerily. “It is now check-in time.”

Marty stepped inside, surrounded by his entourage. “Yahoo!” Mr. Armstrong cheered, raising his cowboy hat in the air.

Caricature? Maybe so, but there was a genuine feeling on the street, one of simple, unbridled fun. It was a chance for Toronto, a city that has grown blasé about football, to connect with the CFL’s mythologized past.

Marty’s owner, Blair Purcell, recalled going to Argonauts games as a child. “There were 40,000 people at the stadium,” said the 49-year-old, resting a hand on his mount. “I would like to think this will bring lots of attention to the CFL and the Toronto team, and they can build on this. It’s just been incredible.”

For Calgarians, it was a chance to show off the city’s flair on a national stage. Mr. Armstrong, who grew up on a grain and cattle farm in Saskatchewan before moving to Calgary in the 1970s (he now co-owns a contracting company), put it simply: “It’s our history.”

Marty, for his part, wasn’t taking any time to relax. After a stop by his trailer, he was off to the Stamps fans’ hotel for another party.

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