Alberta breeding center hosts annual competition, festival A DAY AT THE RACES


July 21, 1991|By Sharon Nicholas

Chances are, when you were growing up, there was a special horse in your life. It might have emerged from the pages of "Black Beauty," on television in the form of Trigger or at the movies as National Velvet. Or the magic may have happened while gliding on an ornate carousel horse at the carnival, riding a dusty pony in a circle at the county fair or when you were winning the West on a broomstick horse in the living room. Later, when you had grown up, perhaps your admiration turned to the Budweiser Clydesdales or Triple Crown winner Secretariat. But chances are it became more removed, less spirited.

There's an event that could revive that childhood magic -- it's the Masters, an international show-jumping tournament that takes place every fall along with a multinational fair and festival. The site, just south of Calgary, Alberta, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, is Spruce Meadows, a world-class show-jumping complex built to promote the sport, family fun and friendship among nations.

Rather than dust, dung and dilapidated stables, contemporary Spruce Meadows unfolds from trees, pathways and reflecting pools into a large, well-tended park. Open, grassy grounds reach from the plaza through the stable and exhibition areas, punctuated by hot pink, crimson and lavender flower beds. An annual gift from the Netherlands, four metric tons of fresh-cut flowers, are transformed into 3-foot-high, arrowhead-shaped arrangements of sunshine-colored gladiolus, dahlias and hundreds of tiny, tightly clustered blooms. They generously decorate the complex, as well as the obstacles in the show-jumping ring.

A special feature at Spruce Meadows is informality and accessibility. With the exception of private skyboxes, nothing is off limits. Exploring is encouraged, from the glass-front tournament center facing the outdoor International Ring to the Riding Hall, the stables and the more than 20 buildings that make up this year-round breeding and tournament facility. A friendly, accommodating staff and up to 500 volunteers are available in all areas to explain each facility's purpose, Spruce Meadows' programs, the various breeds of horses and even how to approach the animals in case you, rather than the horse, happen to be the skittish one.

The sport of show jumping had its first recorded beginnings in Ireland in 1752, when a Mr. O'Callahan raced a Mr. Blake from one church steeple to another, through farms and fields, jumping walls and fences. It was called steeplechasing.

About the same time, in England, the hunt became a popular gentlemanly pastime. When the Master of Hounds blew his horn, the dogs led the way as steeds with red-blazered riders bounded across the countryside to overtake the foxes. From it all, show jumping -- contests to see how high and wide a horse could jump -- evolved in Ireland about a century ago.

The challenging course in Spruce Meadows' verdant $ 1/8 International Ring combines water obstacles, striped rail fences (verticals), other verticals painted to emulate the stone walls in Ireland, and hedge-filled double fences (parallels and oxers). Many of the jumps (up to 5 1/2 feet high or deep) are bordered by tall, flourishing floral arrangements.

Throughout the tournament, competitors from about a dozen countries vie for over $1 million (Canadian) in prize money, the

largest purse in international show jumping. That's quite a feat for Spruce Meadows, which, in its 16th year, is a relative upstart in what is considered European domain. In prestige, the Masters ranks in the sport's top three tournaments.

The beauty, grace and power of show jumping are evident even to novice spectators. But the announcer and, on an individual basis, the staff, can provide a little insight into the details or the more subtle techniques of communication between horse and rider.

Although the ring is large, the grandstand's proximity to the field tends to raise the thrill index.

The Masters competitions and other major events take place morning and afternoon over a five-day period in the International Ring. Other activities, such as junior competitions and skills exhibitions, occur several times daily in the smaller All Canada and Rocky Mountain Hunter Rings.

The international spirit of the events is stimulated in the plaza amid the Festival of Nations' bright mini-pavilions. Usually those countries with Masters competitors are represented -- exhibiting their crafts, promoting their culture and presenting their cuisine.

Britain displays fine china and wools. The scent of homemade soup drifts from the Irish tent, and of cappuccino from the Italian. The beat of folk dancing reverberates from Mexico. The harmony of a choir resonates from the Netherlands. Costumes, song, dance and camaraderie fill the grounds. Spruce Meadow's promotion of international friendship comes alive here, person to person.

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