A who's who of the show-jumping world has descended upon Spruce Meadows this week for the National, the start of the 2017 summer season, and that includes the newly crowned world No. 1, Kent Farrington of the United States, who is here with a massive stable and many of his top students.
What sets Spruce Meadows apart from other show-jumping venues is that riders can hunker down for a month in the expansive barns and compete in a succession of events, rather than pop in just for a week and then move their stables elsewhere.
To celebrate Canada's sesquicentennial, Spruce Meadows has this year added the Canada 150 Speed Challenge to an already busy schedule, an event that will be held over a four-week span this month on identical courses set by renowned course designer Leopoldo Palacios. The succession of competitions creates continuity for the horses and allows someone such as Farrington to develop horses at the same time as he's trying to win the big prizes in the Grand Prix.
"We're multitasking," said Farrington, who won the 2016 Atco Queen Elizabeth II Cup at the North American here last July. "One of the benefits of Spruce Meadows is I can bring a lot of horses and a lot of students. It means we're competing at the highest level of the sport and, at the same time, hopefully building my team for the future, too.
"This week is the same as every week here – you try to win the big classes and produce some good young horses at the same time. We're doing both. "
When Spruce Meadows opened in 1976, it was a relatively small show, trying to establish itself on the world stage – but it has grown massively since.
According to Linda Southern-Heathcott, the Spruce Meadows president and CEO, while much has changed about show jumping in the ensuing years, the ongoing attraction of Spruce Meadows is that it remains firmly anchored to some of the sport's more traditional elements – primarily, the large and impeccably manicured grass rings.
"Back then, there were probably 100 events on the international calendar," she said. "Now, there are close to 4,000. Lots of people will do pop-up events, in a small stadium, on sand. They'll put it in Monte Carlo or Palm Beach or wherever. What we're seeing now is a shift," Farrington said.
"The reason I believe we're getting so many of the top athletes [to] come here is we have this large park where they can really develop their horses – and we're seeing it equate to Olympic results," Farrington said.
"Canada and the United States are now punching above their weight class. A lot of international riders are seeing that and so, instead of coming just for September [and the season-ending Masters], they are coming earlier in the year to develop their horses and hone their own skills, so they can continue to advance on the world stage."
The legendary Canadian rider Ian Millar, who turned 70 in January, has been competing at Spruce Meadows for parts of five decades, and is currently in good form again, even after suffering a shoulder separation in Florida a few months back. His primary mount, Dixson, was sidelined last summer as a result of hematomas in his sinuses, which was the primary reason Millar didn't qualify for Canada's Olympic team in 2016, after previously qualifying for a record 10 Olympic squads.
"It's a very unusual condition in horses," Millar said, "but, touch wood, it appears to be finally and once and for all resolved. He's been going strong since the last part of September. He had a fantastic Royal Winter Fair. And he had a great season in Florida, where, last week, we secured a spot in the Nations Cup finals in Barcelona. He's here and he's in great form."
Based on his recent form, Farrington will be one of the riders to beat this week. The 37-year-old, originally from Chicago but now based out of Wellington, Fla., began riding horses at the age of 8, taking weekly lessons at a downtown Chicago carriage barn.
Eventually, he turned pro in 1999, working for four-time British Olympian Tim Grubb. Farrington slowly worked his way through the ranks, beginning in 2004 when he won his first major Grant Prix at Saugerties, N.Y. He was part of last year's U.S. silver-medal-winning team at the Rio Olympic Games and is only two years removed from winning the 2015 RBC Grand Prix at the National, the featured weekend event.
According to Farrington, ascending to the No. 1 ranking in show jumping is different than, say, being ranked No. 1 in the world in tennis, because equestrian sports consists of two elements – a rider and a horse – that need to work in sync. So a better comparison might be a doubles tennis team, as opposed to a singles player. Farrington, who is fighting a slight illness this week, said he takes the greatest pride in achieving his goal of making it the top of the show-jumping world without ever compromising the health of his horses.
"I wanted to make sure the management of my horses was my No. 1 priority," he said. "My schedule and my results have gotten me to this point in the sport."
As for Millar, he is joined here by his son Jonathon and daughter Amy, part of a strong Canadian contingent that also includes Eric Lamaze, the all-time prize-money leader at Spruce Meadows at almost $4.9-million (U.S.) and a former Olympic champion.
"Everybody looks at our sport on a quadrennial basis, but that's changed," Millar said. "Traditionally, this was the year with no major international championship, but this year, there's the Nations Cup in Barcelona, which is our focus as a team. Next year, there are the World Equestrian Games, then the Pan Ams, then the Olympics again."
Millar will be 73 during trials for the 2020 Olympics and is as tough as they come, still competing so soon after a significant injury.
Can he possibly stick around for one last Olympic hurrah?
"I certainly hope so," replied Millar, with a smile. "You can function well with compromised ligaments in the shoulder, I found."