Inside his Florida home, Eric Lamaze has a trunk filled with tributes to his fallen horse. Signed condolences, letters and photographs. Children sent drawings.
People around the world were heartsick when Lamaze’s long-time mount, Hickstead, collapsed in a show-jumping ring in Verona, Italy, and died of a ruptured aorta.
No one felt the hurt more than Lamaze, who rode the 15-year-old stallion to Olympic individual gold and team silver in 2008.
But that was last November, and the allure of his sport has carried Lamaze back to the Olympics with much the same Canadian team as in Beijing.
But with a new horse this time, one that has never seen the big jumps and crowds at the spectacular Greenwich Park equestrian venue.
Knowing that, Lamaze did his best Thursday to curb expectations.
The team and individual jumping begins Saturday; Lamaze knows he’s in tough with his nine-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, Derly Chin de Muze.
“For me, with the tragedy with Hickstead, I’m not coming to these Games feeling that I’m defending my title,” the Montreal native cautioned before a training session. “Hickstead would have still been in great shape, I’m sure. And having him here would have really felt like defending my title. Having said that, I came with a very good young horse, we have a great team and we’ll try our best.”
Canada’s team entry at these Games is a mesh of young and old, enthusiasm and experience.
The leader is Ian Millar, the 65-year-old mainstay who is making a record 10th Olympic appearance. Also aboard are Jill Henselwood, also a returnee from the Beijing Games, and Tiffany Foster, an Olympic rookie who missed a chance at qualifying in 2008 because of a riding spill that fractured a disc in her back.
It’s a strong group of riders but their horses have never been to a show like this.
Lamaze understands that. When he talked about Derly Chin de Muze, it was as if he was reminding himself of what his new horse can do when it comes to the basics.
“She has the qualities it takes to go to the end. She’s very careful,” he explained. “I have a few rounds [of jumping] to get her to where I think she can be at her best.”
And not to worry, Lamaze insisted. “Every time you have Ian on a team it’s a strong team.”
Millar’s Olympic lineage has made him a popular interview at these Games. What he’s dubbed “an interesting journey,” began with the 1972 Olympics and Munich massacre, in which 11 Israeli team members were killed by Palestinian terrorists. From there, he competed at a home Games (1976 in Montreal), had his country boycott a Games (1980 in Moscow), only to finally win a medal in 2008.
The irony between Millar and Lamaze is they each lost their greatest horse. Millar’s Big Ben, a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, retired in 1994, then died of colic five years later.
Lamaze said he and Millar have never talked about their horses.
“I think we both know what made those horses so special and we understand we’re both very grateful to have had them,” Lamaze said.
“I think [Big Ben] would [have done well in today’s show jumping],” Millar added. “One of the great characteristics he had was he learned how to adapt.”
Lamaze has adjusted, too. Shortly after Hickstead’s death, he thought of walking away from competitive riding. He could teach, do other things. What was the point in starting over given what he’d lost?
Then, he found two new horses. When he determined it was time to get back in the saddle, he picked Derly Chin de Muze as the best-suited for London.
Lamaze just wants everyone to be realistic about the medal chances.
“We went into great effort to give her as much schooling before coming here from Spruce Meadows [in Calgary]. I think she is ready.”