Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping


Inside CSIO Spruce Meadows 'Masters' 2023 : Sunday 10 September


(Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Tom Lovelock) (Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Tom Lovelock)


Often considered to be one of the toughest and most prestigious show jumping competitions in the world, the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex held at the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament was once again a true spectacle of the world’s best equestrian talent. In total, 34 combinations from 12 nations, including five of the top 10, took on the typically massive course designed by Leopoldo Palacios.


CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament is the third Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Major in the calendar year and the second to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping.


The first round consisted of 17 fences and 12 combinations and was a true test of stamina, skill, and bravery for both horses and riders. It was third in the ring, Angelie Von Essen, who produced the first clear round of the class with her Selle Francais gelding Alcapone des Carmille. At the halfway mark, only four riders had finished the course faultless, including home favourite Tiffany Foster, who set the ‘International Ring’ alight with a foot-perfect round.


Disappointment came for the newly crowned FEI European Champion and 2021 winner of the class, Steve Guerdat, who was one of 10 riders in the class who faulted at fence 12. Shocks also came as some of the class favourites did not proceed to the second round including World No.4 Ben Maher, winner of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, Scott Brash, and Dutch rider Harrie Smolders.


With the 12 top riders from the opening round proceeding into the next round, those who could produce a fast-four fault round would stay in contention for one of the sport’s most coveted prizes. Such riders included Canada’s Erynn Ballard and Egypt’s Nayel Nassar. In total, five riders cleared the technical course, including Rolex Testimonee Martin Fuchs who impressively jumped a portion of the course with only one stirrup after a huge jump from Leone Jei over the Canadian flag planks.


After a short break, the sold-out crowds waited with bated breath to welcome these incredible combinations back into the sun-bathed arena. Combinations returned in reverse order from the first round, with any combinations that tied on scores after this round proceeding to the jump-off. Only one rider on four faults from the opening round put pressure on those who carried forward zero faults, this was Mexico’s Andres Azcarraga, who looked pure class, breezing the course inside the time limit of 77 seconds. To the delight and cheers of the fans, Tiffany Foster was first to jump a double clear, and set the standard for the remaining three riders. Rolex Testimonee, Martin Fuchs, a double Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Major winner ensured that there would be a jump-off, meanwhile heartbreak came for the last to enter the arena, Fuchs’ fellow Testimonee Bertram Allen, who faulted at CPKC triple, meaning that just two would jump-off.


Anticipation was heavy in the air with Canadian fans hoping to have their first home victory since Captin Canada’s [Ian Millar] victory in 2014. Foster produced a respectable round with just one down in a time of 44.45 seconds. As the striking grey, Leone Jei, walked through the clock-tower you could hear a pin drop. The Swiss rider flew across the ‘International Ring’, with the scopey grey showing all of this talent, to cross the finish line clear in a time of 43.58 seconds and take the victory in this prestigious class.


Speaking of his victory, Fuchs commented: “It is unbelievable to win here at this historical show – I have always wanted to win this class. My dad competed here a number of times and never won. He told me that I would have to win for us both and I am so pleased that I have been able to do so!”


The new Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping live contender, continued: “Leone Jei is incredible – he is such an amazing horse with so much talent! I have always thought he was the horse that could win this Grand Prix. It has been a perfect end to a perfect week! I haven’t had a single fault on any of my horses this week – it has been a dream come true.”


The Rolex Testimonee added: “He [Leone Jei] jumped incredibly in the first round – so well that he jumped me out of the saddle over the Canadian flag planks, and I lost my left rein and stirrup. I tried hard to get my stirrup back but had to jump three or fences before I could get it back. After the first round we had a discussion about changing his bit as he was so keen, but my dad told me that we shouldn’t do this and that I should just ride better!”



(Photo: Spruce Meadows Media) (Photo: Spruce Meadows Media)


Please you tell us about your role and what it entails?


My name is Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and I am the head coach and general manager of Cavalry FC. I have been with the team since its inception – we launched in 2018. I first met Linda [Southern-Heathcott] at the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ in September 2017, and first pitched the idea about professional soccer on the ‘International Arena’ during a course walk.


Before joining Cavalry FC how much did you know about the sport of show jumping?


Interesting, I had been to Spruce Meadows to watch my stepdaughter, Tatum, compete several times before we launched the team. She is very passionate about equestrianism, as is my wife. When I first met my wife, my stepdaughter was competing regularly, and so I learnt about the sport from them initially. Funnily enough, we had attended an event with the Calgary Flames Family Foundation, and my stepdaughter was invited to ride on what is now at ATCO Field. I remember it being a big deal for her.  So yes, I have been around horses a little bit, it was fortuitous that received an invite to join a fellow friend of mine to ‘The Masters’ in 2017.


Have you found any similarities between the sports?


There are definitely similarities between both sports. They are two sports of details. They are both about relationships; if you think about the rider and the horse – they have to trust each other, and it is similar in football your players have to have trust in the tactics, the strategy and the training.


The layer of detail in equestrianism that is required is astonishing – one error in a 60 second round could cost you the win. This is also the case is soccer, as in a 90-minute game, one error could affect the result. These are both sports of fine margins.


The utmost professionalism is needed in both sports. For example, if you look at a show jumping, and the training and care that is taken after a horse it is so impressive. This also transcends to soccer in the way that our players are taken care of – from their diet to the way that they train. There are a lot of crossovers.


Equestrian has the Majors as does Tennis and Golf, what would you consider the four Majors of football?


Wembley Stadium has to be high up on the list as one of the four Majors of football. I would say the New Camp Stadium, although I have never been there. They are renovating it now so it will definitely be a special stadium to go to. Also, the Estadio Azteca in Mexico, I remember going there to watch the 1986 World Cup, and the stadium being packed. The last one would have to be the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy.  This is when I fell in love with football during the 1990 World Cup. I have had the chance to visit the stadium and it was such a wonderful place.  


Having experienced both football and equestrianism, what do you think they can learn from each other?


Equestrianism carries such a regality in the way that people dress and carry themselves – there is a reason why Rolex is involved in the sport. This is also the case with tennis for example with The Championships, Wimbledon.


I think what soccer has brought is, is that you have the same elegance when you enter Spruce Meadows but with a different fan experience. So, you get the same environment, but different experiences, which is pretty unique, especially for a place like Spruce Meadows. On one hand you have the ‘International Arena’, where riders are trying to win a Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Major where everything is quite quiet. Then you have ATCO Field where the crowd is much louder: from the first whistle to the last one, so it is really unique.

The other thing in terms of the performance is that our players now wear these GPS vests. This enables us as coaches to have a data point to see how hard the players are training and to see how fast they are running. I always speak to Ian Allison about this and ask if you would be able to monitor the horses and if they are overtraining or under training. It is always a fine margin with the detail. The use of technology could be an interesting crossover. I realise that there are timing gates but it would be interesting to monitor the health of horses as well.


Being located at a venue such as Spruce Meadows, where they keep innovating to get better, how does that motivate you and your team to keep improving?


I think Mrs. Southern-Heathcott said it best, this is a place of excellence that goes above and beyond. I think it defines what Spruce Meadows is. When you walk through the gates into Spruce Meadows, you feel the excellence. I have always been a believer that when you are at the top of the game, you change the game. I think, week in week out, year in year out, the Southern family and the Spruce Meadows leadership team are always trying to add another layer of excellence. It is just amazing to be part of this.

What we have tried to do on the soccer side is to be motivated to try and be the best. We are currently at the top of our league. I think we have won the most regular season points out of any team, and this  is the environment we have created. We have sustained the best winning record over five years, when we play at home. The environment that the team plays in is always key to performance and that is what Spruce Meadows has created.


Have you ever watched the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex here, and what did you think the atmosphere and level of competition were like – how this compare to when you play your matches?


Yes! I was invited as my friend was a Vice President of Telus and he invited me to meet Ian Allison and Linda Southern-Heathcott. The first thing that I said to Linda was how great the grass was! Soccer is a game has always been played on beautiful grass. Unfortunately in this country, you have to play on a lot of artificial surface but Spruce Meadows has the natural grass. So similar to Wimbledon, we pride ourself on that.


My follow up question to Linda was have you ever thought of playing a sponsored match? I noticed all the Rolex clocks, the WestJet signage – there were numerous respectable brands, and to me it looked like a soccer stadium. Linda asked how heavy my athletes were, to which I replied around 50-90kg each, and she said well our horses are 1,200 pounds so I am sure we can take 22 players on here, no problem.


It was just a passing comment at the time, but my friend had a meeting with her the following week, and he mentioned how there was a professional soccer league coming to Canada. Linda wanted to know the purpose. They have always been a family driven by purpose, and the purpose of this was  to help Canadians, and it just lit a match with her, as that was exactly how equestrianism was built by Mr. and Mrs. Southern. They decided to build a pathway for Canadians when there was not one in show jumping. Nowadays, Canada is competing in the Olympics, because there are places to come like Spruce Meadows that strive to be the best. So when the same message was given about helping Canadians, the family was inspired by it.


Regarding the atmosphere, the first thing I noticed was the glamour of it all, it is definitely a first-class venue. The intensity is what surprised me because I was expecting the crowd to be polite with only clap quietly. The anticipation was what really surprised me – you hold breath for the length of the round, and then when there is a clear round, everyone just lets out this sigh of relief. I thought that was incredible because I have not experienced anything like that in all the sports I have experienced and played.


During the summer, Spruce Meadows hosts both football and equestrian events, are there people that go to both – do you notice a cross over of fans?


I think that there is a cross over of fans, you can come to the same location and experience something totally different. There are people that have been to the Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market that have not been to  ‘The Masters’. Similarly, there are fans that attend a Cavalry FC game that have not experienced the equestrian events. I think that now people see Spruce Meadows as a destination. Now, I think people visit the grounds for the day and end up catching some of the high-performance show jumping before a football game so it is definitely starting to amalgamate.


Spruce Meadows has had a long history with the horse – Cavalry FC is now  five years old, how have you seen the sport grow here and how to you hope it grows over the next five years?


I think that we have stayed true to the original purpose of creating a pathway for Canadians to reach the highest level in the sport. Within our five years of the club, we have seen four players compete in the Canadian national team. This opportunity would not have happened if the club had not existed. I think the next goal will be for us to create a unique and world class soccer experience. Over the next 10 years, and especially with the 2026 World Cup coming through the US, Mexico, and Canada, I think that the game will continue to evolve in terms of participation but also in terms of interest of an audience spectacle.

Much like in equestrian where the horse and rider compete, fans often only see the players on the pitch, but there is so much going on behind the scenes that makes the players, can you tell us about your team.

It is interesting because just recently I was nominated as manager of the month in our league. In my opinion, it is an award for all the staff and the players that are committed to our process. This is turning up on time early in the morning to have a team breakfast to build camaraderie, to placing emphasis on developing our technique, to the physiotherapists that ensure that our athletes remain healthy, to our sport scientists who develop our tactics. There is so much behind the scenes that leads to our success. Our supporters also play a part, this season we had a very slow start to the season where we have had five ties in a row, but they still support us. I think it is a record that we have not won for five games, but we have also not lost. It was quite bizarre.

When the team is doing well, the players get the accolades and rightly so, but when the team is not doing well the coach is questioned. It is the only environment, I think, where the work that you do throughout the week is judged on the outcome of a 90-minute game. All the work you do behind closed doors is all in preparation for what the fans see on the weekend.



(Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Ashley Neuhof) (Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Ashley Neuhof)


Can you please explain your official role and what this entails?


I am the course designer here at Spruce Meadows, and I have been working here for over 25 years. To be a good course designer you need to have a lot of experience in the sport, and you need to be able to create brilliant competition through your courses. I have a fantastic team that helps me and ensures that we provide the best course possible.


To ensure that the level of the sport continues to grow, it is vital that the horses are looked after, and so it’s a fine line between what is achievable for the horses and riders and what will push the sport forward.


What is so special about the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament?


I consider Spruce Meadows to be my home, and I consider the Southern family to be my family. I have been working here for over 25 years and in my opinion, there is nowhere quite like it. The team is extremely special, and the level of detail and planning that goes into the event is incredibly impressive.


As a course designer, there can be a lot of pressure to build a great course that lives up to the standards of Spruce Meadows, but the team here places their trust and confidence in my work.


The CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex at the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament is often considered to be one of the toughest courses in the world, what makes it so unique?


As a course designer, you have to consider a number of factors including the height and width of the fences, the time allowed, the layout of the course, the design of the fences, and the slope of the ring. It is important for us to focus on all aspects and ensure that a balance is achieved – this is what makes a good Grand Prix – and it is a balance that I think we have achieved here at Spruce Meadows.


We [course designers] can be compared to choreographers – we want to ensure that the class is a true spectacle for those who are watching. We try to get the balance right for everyone, from the horses and riders to the fans.


In the past, I have designed courses for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In my opinion, the course for the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, here in Spruce Meadows is bigger and harder than the Olympic courses.


Can you please give us some insight into the course? 


It is a very testing course. In the first round, there will be 13 fences with one triple and double, and in the second round there are 12 fences with one triple and double again – it is a lot of jumping. The spreads and the height of the fences will be very big as well! Here at Spruce Meadows, we have a collection of fences that come from every Olympic Games and Major championship since 1974, so the course always looks amazing.


During the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, here at Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, I use fences that have not been jumped during the previous classes for example; the double of Liverpool’s, the dry ditch and the water jump.


The Grand Prix is a different type of course from the Nations Cup course which is more classic. In my opinion, the CPKC ‘International’ is more demanding on the horses and riders, and the purpose of this class is to emphasise the impressive skills of the horse and rider combinations and provide great sport for the fans.


How important is it to have the best riders competing here at Spruce Meadows?


In this year’s edition of the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, we have six out of the top 10 riders in the world competing. The event attracts the best in the world, and this allows me as the course designer to be creative when testing the level of the horse and riders. The course needs to be challenging, especially the second round. In the second round, the 12 best riders from the first round compete; they really are the crème de la crème of the sport, and with this level of talent, I can truly test them with my course.


The line that contains the double Liverpool will be challenging – it is a special feature for the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, here at Spruce. Whilst I like to use this feature every year, I differ it slightly year on year. It is my job to come up with new and innovative ideas for the course each year – which is not easy!


The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. How positive has it been? 


I have seen a change over the last 10 years. Rolex has helped the sport exponentially – all of the best riders in the world aim to ride in these Majors. It is truly remarkable to have the world’s best riders competing to win these Majors.


At Spruce Meadows, we had the privilege of witnessing Scott Brash being the first and only rider to achieve the incredible feat of winning the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping back in 2015. That was a such memorable and incredible day – it is something that I will never forget.


The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping has definitely added another level to the sport. In my opinion, there is nothing more important than the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping in the sport.


Do you have a highlight in your career?


I have experienced a number of special moments in my career, but the one that stands out is when Scott Brash won the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping here at Spruce Meadows in 2015. It was truly incredible – the audience and riders were all rooting for him and wanting him to win. The atmosphere that day was something I have never experienced before!


What advice would you give someone starting in the sport as a course designer? 


My piece of advice is to love horses and to be truly passionate about what you do. You should always try to continue to learn about horsemanship as it helps you progress in the sport. I monitor the emotions of horses, analyse statistics, and observe what occurs during the show. You shouldn’t enter into this business in the hopes of being rich and successful, but you should enter for the love of the sport. It is my passion for the sport that has brought me here today.


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