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Amy Millar rides her horse, Heros, during the team jumping final at the Rio Olympics. (TONY GENTILE/REUTERS)
Amy Millar rides her horse, Heros, during the team jumping final at the Rio Olympics. (TONY GENTILE/REUTERS)

Like father, like daughter: Amy Millar seizes chance at Spruce Meadows Add to ...

Amy Millar first competed in the prestigious Nations’ Cup at the Spruce Meadows Masters when she was in her early 20s.

She didn’t know it would be nearly two decades before she rode again for Canada in the top-tier international equestrian event south of Calgary.

Millar arrives at Spruce Meadows this week on a high, seizing an opportunity in the absence of her father Ian, the Canadian show-jumping legend, whose top horse, Dixson, is recovering from surgery. That opened a door for Amy, a 39-year-old rider who competed in her first Summer Olympics last month. This weekend she faces another world-class field of show jumpers at Spruce Meadows.

It has been a long journey. Millar has lived her life in the equestrian world – “I feel like I’ve grown up at Spruce Meadows,” she said – but staking out a place at the sport’s elite level has been a challenge.

But she showed she belonged among the elite in the intense and exhilarating Rio Olympics. In the individual jumping competition, Millar and Heros were penalty-free on the first day of qualification, although they struggled somewhat on Days 2 and 3, and didn’t make the finals.

In team jumping, however, Millar rode well for Canada’s four-rider squad, led by Eric Lamaze, one of the world’s best. Canada contended for the bronze medal but finished fourth.

On Heros, Millar feels she has a horse on which she can compete against the best as they progress together – Heros is only nine years old, several years younger than prime age for top show jumpers. And her time spent among the leading riders this year, rather than in the lower ranks, has been invaluable.

“The sport has so much to do with what horse you own,” Millar said. “I’ve not consistently had a great horse.” She and Heros are establishing a kind of telepathy between rider and horse require to succeed among the best.

“Your horse needs to almost read your mind,” she said. “They need to think with you.”

Millar and Canada’s team are in contention for top prizes this weekend. The $300,000 BMO Nations’ Cup – $100,000 for the winning team – is at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The $2-million CP International Grand Prix, in which Millar has competed a few times before, begins at noon on Sunday and has a first prize of $660,000.

In recent years, Canadians have fared well on home turf. Ian Millar won the Grand Prix aboard Dixson in 2014; Lamaze won it on Hickstead in 2007 and ’11. (Hickstead died suddenly of an aortic rupture heart artery two months after the 2011 win.)

In the Nations’ Cup, Lamaze helped lead Canada to victory in 2014. Canada was third last year, second in 2011 and third in 2010.

After Canada’s fourth place at the Rio Olympics in the team competition, Millar is confident. “We feel good about it,” she said. “We want to win, and I don’t see why we can’t.”

The venue will buoy Millar. “It’s an incredible feeling,” she said of jumping at Spruce Meadows.

Still, there’s a sad backdrop to this year’s event. Two Spruce Meadows icons died last winter – Ron Southern, the Calgary businessman who co-founded the venue with his family, died on Jan. 21, and riding master Albert Kley died two weeks earlier. Their spirit, however, lives on. “Those two men, they have an omnipresence here,” said Ian Allison, senior vice-president at Spruce Meadows.

Allison first worked at Spruce Meadows as a teenager when it opened in the mid-1970s. He was a groom and shovelled horse stalls. He’s watched what was then an unlikely idea, an international show-jumping venue south of Calgary, establish itself as a world leader.

In show jumping, Allison said, “We’re like Augusta, or Wimbledon.”

This is Spruce Meadows’ 41st year of competition – over the years, athletes from 61 countries have competed for about $120-million in prizes. The Masters, the showpiece event, draws about 200,000 visitors over five days.

And some things never change.

The $5 price of a rush-seating ticket has been the same since Spruce Meadows opened. Seniors and children 12 and under attend free. “Especially during these economic times,” Allison said, “people appreciate that they can come see the best in the world.”

As Amy Millar readies to make her jump, her dad isn’t quite ready for retirement. This is only the second time Ian Millar hasn’t ridden in the Nations’ Cup since Spruce Meadows first held the event in 1977. Millar’s other absence was in 1990, when he was recovering from injury. This time, his horse, Dixson, isn’t fully recovered from a surgery to remove hematomas from the gelding’s sinuses.

Dixson is the latest in a line of strong horses Millar has had. “I’ve been remarkably fortunate to have horse power on a very consistent basis,” he said.

Without Dixson, Millar, a 10-time Olympian, did not compete in Rio, but was there as a coach and trainer. “Amy did a fantastic job,” he said of his daughter.

Ian Millar, at 69, looks to the future. He has a promising eight-year-old stallion, Vittorio, who will be an ideal age for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Millar can picture adding another Olympic medal to the silver he won with Canada in team jumping at Beijing in 2008.

“As long as I’m still in one piece, and I’ve got a good horse, and it’s still fun, I will be there,” Millar said of 2020.

Lamaze, a former world No. 1 who’s currently ranked No. 10, will lead Canada at the Spruce Meadows Masters this week. At 48, he is Canada’s top rider and won bronze in individual jumping in Rio. With the gold he won in individual jumping in 2008, Lamaze became only the seventh rider ever to win two individual show-jumping Olympic medals.

In Rio last month, the elder Millar and Lamaze made something of a pact, aiming to ride one more time at an Olympics.

“We’re going, aren’t we?” Millar asked Lamaze, half-joking, half-serious, about Tokyo 2020.

“Absolutely,” Lamaze said. “If you’re going, I’m going.”

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