On the second day of the 2023 edition of the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, 42 of the world’s best horse and rider combinations took on Leopoldo Palacios’ stunningly designed course in the hopes of securing their place in the pinnacle class of the show, the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex.
The iconic International Arena, which has played host to numerous historic moments in the sport, including Scott Brash’s incredible Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping victory in 2015, was beautifully bathed in the late summer sun. First to enter the arena, Ireland’s Conor Swail, who claimed this class last year, set the standard for the remaining combinations with a perfectly judged clear round. It was only five horses later that the newly crowned FEI European Champion and Rolex Testimonee, Steve Guerdat, ensured that there would be a jump-off as he mastered the technical course aboard the impressive gelding Albfuehren’s Maddox.
The world-class field truly impressed the knowledgeable Canadian crowd with a total of 15 riders clearing the 1.55m, 12 combination course faultlessly. The elite list of riders included the winner of the ATCO Cup earlier in the day, Martin Fuchs, and Britain's Matthew Sampson, a regular winner at the venue. The crowd also were thrilled to see Canadian riders Mario Deslauriers and Erynn Ballard finish the first-round fault-free.
Three combinations elected not to return to the jump-off, meaning that 12 combinations proceeded to the jump-off. Entering the ring in the same order that they jumped in the first round, it was second to go, Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, who jumped the first double clear of the class in a time of 44.27 seconds and set the pace for those to follow. However, fourth into the arena Richard Vogel with the big striding stallion, United Touch S, eclipsed Guerdat’s lead with a time of 43.07 seconds. The pressure was then on the remaining competitors to match the time set by the young German rider. America’s Natalie Dean came closest to taking the title away from Vogel, but eventually crossed the finish line in a time of 43.63 seconds to take second place.
Speaking on his victory Vogel stated: “I feel amazing! My horse jumped incredibly – I think he really likes the ring here. He jumped superbly in the first round and gave me a great feeling in the jump-off. The size of the arena here suits him very well, he has so much scope and such a big stride so I can leave out strides without ever chasing him. We tried our best and luckily it was enough to take the win.”
Commenting on his plan for the CPKC ‘International’ Grand Prix, presented by Rolex, the German continued: “I was planning on competing him in the class tomorrow to get him used to the ring, as it is his first time at Spruce Meadows. The arena here is so unique – you do not get the opportunity to ride in one like this very often! He felt so confident and jumped so well, so now I have to decide if don’t jump him until Sunday or if I stick to my original plan.”
How has planning been going for this year’s event?
The planning for the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament has been going extremely well. We have had several capital projects that we undertook and these are now all completed. The place looks beautiful and we are ready for the world to join us.
Is there anything new that the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament has introduced this year? Will you be doing anything special to mark the 10th anniversary of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping?
We have introduced new seating for our guests, with new seats on the East Side. We are currently building a restaurant that will not be ready until 2025 as it is still under construction. We have put in tables and seats in the West Grandstand, have been working on the footing, and have introduced new footing in the warm-up ring for the international horses. We also have a new tunnel, and have put in drainage for the warm-up footing. There has been lots of things happening and changing!
The main business for Spruce Meadows is the horse, and our show jumping events, but our venues are built to be versatile. We host business meetings along with business council meetings, tours and a large Christmas market. We were ranked fourth in the world for our international Christmas market. We have indoor tournaments as well as a big dog show in the summer where 3,000 dogs compete. At Christmas time we have a beautiful drive-through light program, so people can drive the venue and enjoy the beautiful holiday lights.
On Sunday during the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, we'll be doing a tribute to the horse and to the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping as well as launching the CPKC ‘International’, presented by Rolex.
The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. How has the initiative positively impacted Spruce Meadows as a show?
The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping has impacted us immensely through the collaboration of such a wonderful partner, Rolex, but also with other venues. It ensured that we continually push ourselves to be better and to create new opportunities. As organisers of the four Majors, we are all aligned as far as any safety protocols and on the treatment and welfare of the horses. We all have an ESG program, and create ESG reports. I think overall, we were leaders in the space before, but we are even stronger now with the partnership because we are all working together.
What has been your personal highlight from the first 10 years of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping?
My personal highlight which is near and dear to my heart is Scott Brash winning the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, because it happened at Spruce Meadows. What remains the most memorable to me was that as he came down the last line, which is the double of Liverpools beside the end gate, all of the riders were out watching and cheering for him. That was a really special moment because riders do not always cheer other riders on due the nature of competitions. In this case, they really, truly wanted him to win.
What is your advice to someone who wants to get into the sporting events industry?
The best advice I could give is that patience is key; nothing is built in a year or two years, you have to stay committed. Patience is key when you are working for excellence, but you cannot achieve this in a couple of years; you have to have the patience to continually try to improve, and then you will eventually see success. So, I think patience is the one word.
For you, as well as the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, what are the key components that make a successful sporting event, or sporting major?
Teamwork. You have to have a strong team with you and around you. You need to be able to successfully communicate what the vision is, but it is the teamwork that helps you be successful.
So here at Spruce Meadows, we have 95 full-time employees. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we lost all of our office staff but we have a full complement of office staff again, and they are doing a fabulous job.
Like the tennis legends Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, who have dominated the tennis world and its Majors, how important is it to the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament to have the best in the world competing at your event?
Well, obviously it is of most importance to have the best horses and riders competing here. The challenge for Spruce Meadows is always the calendar. For example, this year when the flight came over from Europe with the horses, it conflicted with the FEI European Championships. Sadly, that means that some of those horses are not able to compete. But this year, we still have six of the top 10 in the world coming here to compete. I believe that if we can continue to offer the best, then we will continue to see the best come.
The CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, is often considered to be the leading equestrian venue in North America, how do you ensure that you continue to innovate and adapt to ensure you maintain this status?
For us, we look at four stakeholders, and we try and improve the experience for at least one of the stakeholders every year. Our stakeholders are the sponsors, the media, the athletes, and the fans. In terms of improvements, it may be redoing the skyboxes for the sponsors, changing the footing for the athletes or offering unique experiences for the fans. If we continue to attract the top riders then the media will continue to write and report about them, which is also very important.
Do you and the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament organisers take inspiration from any of sport’s other major competitions, e.g., in tennis or golf?
We absolutely do take inspiration from other major competitions. It is slightly different over here in North America than compared to in Europe and England as we want to vie for the front page. So, it is important for us to understand who is on the front page, is it football or is it the US Open right now? That is what we are vying for, so we have to continue to create great stories for the media to report on.
Additionally, we travel the world, not only to show jumping events but to tennis, golf, and Formula One events, to observe what they are doing to continually improve the experience for the fans. It is very important for us and we take one group and try and improve their experience each year.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN WHITAKER’S TRAVELLING GROOM KERRY FINCH
Can you introduce yourself, tell us who you work for, and what your role is?
My name is Kerry Finch, and I have been working with John Whitaker for five years as his travelling groom.
Tell us a little a bit about your journey to the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament
We flew over to Calgary after competing at the Brussels Stephex Masters in Belgium. We stayed at Helena Stormann’s in Eschweiler for five days after Stephex, before travelling onto Canada. My journey to the airport only took an hour which was great – I arrived there at 3.00am to check on the horses before they flew. After that, I travelled from Brussels to Paris to catch our flight to Calgary, and we arrived two-and-a-half hours before the horses landed to ensure that everything was okay.
How important is the whole team – vets, farriers etc. – in ensuring the success of the team?
It is extremely important – there is definitely a strong team aspect, as without everybody pulling together and doing their job, we would not be successful. It is vital for every team member to constantly coordinate with one another to ensure that everyone is kept in the loop. Everyone plays a crucial role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of these horses; it is not just the people who attend the shows, it’s also everyone that remains at home.
Can you tell us about the horses that you have brought with you and what their characters are like?
We have brought three horses with us to the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament, and they are Equine America Unick du Francport, Sharid, and Green Grass.
Unick du Francport is very special in his own way and very quiet. You cannot be sharp around him, you have to remain quiet as he is quite a sensitive horse in that respect. At the same time, he knows what he wants, and does what he wants. If you are hand grazing him and he sees a spot of grass that he wants, he will head there and will not go where you want until he gets his way. Otherwise he is a really easy horse to look after.
Then there is Sharid, who travels with him [Equine America Unick du Francport] – they have travelled together for nearly three-and-a-half years now. They know each other really well and have a habit of whinnying after each other but they do not stress out if one has left the stable. Sharid is another lovely horse to look after; he loves to sleep. You know that something is not right when he does not go back to bed after breakfast to sleep on the floor! He is definitely a gold medallist when it comes to sleeping. He can be a bit sharp when John gets on him so I have candies available to help settle him. He has become so used to this routine that now he just stands there looking at me whilst expecting a treat. Horses learn very quickly.
Then there is Green Grass, he loves food and rolling! All the horses are lovely; they all have different personalities. They are spoilt really!
What are the facilities like for both yourself as a groom and the horses at the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament?
There is no other show that can compare to the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament in the world. CHIO Aachen is an incredible show that is brilliant to attend, but Spruce Meadows enters a whole new level. There is so much space in the stables, and paddocks that we can turn the horses out in – everything is incredibly clean and tidy. They also provide shuttle services for the grooms which makes life easier. The organisers have provided areas where we can hand walk the horses, and we are not restricted to certain areas. The facilities are just top class here at Spruce Meadows.
There is no other show in the world that will go above and beyond what they do. I have attended the show in the past when it has snowed, and straight away they began shovelling the show by hand. I was also here in 2005 when it rained for two weeks straight – I have never seen anything like it. They were proactive by pumping water off the main rings. The ground held up so well so we were able to still jump on it. When you have a problem they sort it – it is truly one of my favourite shows!
How much do you enjoy coming to the Majors – The Dutch Masters, CHIO Aachen, Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’, and CHI Geneva? In your opinion, what sets them apart from the other shows?
I have actually been doing this job for nearly 30 years, and I have never actually attended The Dutch Masters, however CHI Geneva is a beautiful indoor show, and CHIO Aachen is just incredible! All of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Majors go above and beyond. They set up areas where the grooms can get coffee and other similar things as well, and if there is a problem they do everything they can to help solve it.
How special it to be part of John Whitaker’s team?
I initially joined John Whitaker’s team as a freelance, and I was only supposed to be with him for a month but I never left. Previously, before joining John, I worked for Michael [Whitaker] for 13 years. I also worked with Billy Twomey for six years. It is really easy working for John; everything is really old school and simple. If you find a bridle that works for a horse, you do not change it. My horse has had the same bridle for the last three-and-a-half years – that is kind of how it works. Things are simple, and if there is a problem we just deal with it. Everything is just really old school. We are not into having horses treated every six weeks but if they need treatment, they will receive it.
John is 68-years-old now and he does not stop when he is back at home. He is up in the morning tacking his own horses up and riding them. Afterwards, he then looks after the cows and the hay on the farm or anything that needs mending or fixing on the farm.
He is really humble; nothing goes to his head. If anyone approaches him for an autograph, he will always stop and talk to them for five minutes. It is never too much for him.
What qualities do you think that John has that has meant he has been so successful for so long?
John does not give up; he just keeps going. There is no determination to out prove anyone or anything; it is just the way he is. He is someone that gets on with it, and who continually keeps going. I think the day he stops will be the day that the world does not have a John Whitaker. Age does not define him!
Five years ago, John bought Equine America Unick Du Francport who was quite the character. He was difficult and would stop and spin when things upset him. John did not have a Grand Prix horse at that time, Argento was at the end of his career, so we were not entering into the big competitions. Afterwards, it was two years of grafting, doing all the tours and the county shows in order for Equine America Unick Du Francport to settle down. John was determined, and kept on going until the penny dropped. If you look at them now, they are unstoppable. In the last few years, they have formed quite the partnership.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into industry?
A lot of people come into the industry for the money but it is important to be passionate for the job and not look at the hours of it. It is as difficult as it sounds; you are there for the horses. It is a way of life and not just a job. You have to put your heart and soul into it for it to be done properly. It is not easy!
You cannot think that you are better than anybody else. The mantra should be that if you do not know, you should ask for help. A lot of younger grooms that come in today that do not want to take advice from the older grooms – but they should be like a sponge learning from everyone around them. I learnt from doing exactly this. The first time I flew to Spruce Meadows, I had never flown with horses before – I was only 20-years-old and I learnt from all of the other grooms around me.
What is the grooms’ community like? Do grooms support one another?
Overall, it is a supportive community. This year, in Spruce Meadows, there are 16 of us from Europe and we all arrange together what time we get the shuttle to do night checks. Some people only have one horse here, and they are always happy to help out those who have a few! It is the simple things that are important. For example, I have asked someone to help me during the Nations Cup parade. Everyone is really helpful, and this is very important in the grooming industry.