The arena was hushed except for the thud of Big Ben’s hooves striking the turf after the 11year-old chestnut horse skimmed the last 1.6-m jump. Then, as Ian Millar, 40, a native of Perth, Ont., doffed his black riding cap, 27,000 onlookers rose to cheer his flawless victory. The performance won Millar, a Pan-American Games gold medalist, the $80,000 first prize in world show jumping’s richest competition: the $250,000 duMaurier International, the final event at the Spruce Meadows Masters Show Jumping Tournament, held from Sept. 9 to 13 near Calgary.
Applauding from an infield platform in the arena—the centrepiece of the multimillion-dollar equestrian centre owned by Calgary industrialist Ron Southern and his wife, Margaret— were executives from blue-chip corporate sponsors. The largess of more than 30 companies underwrites a large part of the annual Spruce Meadows extravaganza, which has put Calgary on the world’s show jumping map. Declared British national riding team member Nick Skelton: “This is the best show in the world. It’s not just the money, but the way Ron Southern organizes it and what he does for sponsors.”
What the affable, Calgary-born Southern, 57, offers sponsors is high visibility in an international event that blends business, politics and sport. At
the Spruce Meadows tournament, staged on Southern’s 320 acres in Calgary’s southwestern outskirts at the edge of the Alberta foothills, company logos as high as eight feet are moved into key positions for television coverage during individually sponsored jumping events.
Southern’s project has matured since its humble beginnings in 1975. Then he paid CTV $15,000 for television coverage. Now he receives more than $100,000 in payment for live coverage across Canada and a delayed satellite feed to Britain. Said Peter Churchill of
the British weekly magazine Horse and Hound: “This is the classic of world show jumping.” Still, Southern avoids snobbery. Said the founder of ATCO Ltd., an Alberta holding company with international interests in energy and resource-related companies: “Elitism is the sport’s curse in North America. I abhor elitism, so I concentrate on athletic qualities.”
That approach has earned Southern accolades from key players on the international equestrian circuit. Said Henry L. Collins III, chairman of New York’s National Horse Show: “There are not enough superlatives to describe this show.” Added horse fancier and breeder William Mulholland, who is also chairman of the Bank of Montreal: “The payoff for us is the big audience. This is a high-class event with the world’s top competitors.”
The opportunity to mix business and pleasure lures diplomats like U.S. Ambassador Thomas Niles, top executives of major Canadian corporations and politicians. Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski was a prized guest for senior executives of Southern’s own ATCO Ltd., which has bid on a multimillion-dollar northern warning defence system. Said Mazankowski, as an ATCO executive served him a beer during an Alberta government reception: “They don’t treat me this well in Ottawa.” Spruce Meadows also attracts the international horse set. For the New York-based Gucci fashion firm, Italian Countess Marina Meneghetti de Camillo presented sponsors and guests with company scarves and ties. Gucci sponsors a world horse-jumping cup and awards 240,000 Swiss francs ($210,000) in prizes on the global circuit. A dressage troop of Hanoverian stallions from the West German State Stud, Napoleonic Guards from France and seven of the Queen’s Household Cavalry, courtesy of Buckingham Palace, all participated in the 45-minute farewell revue. And this year the Netherlands government, besides donating five tons of freshly cut flowers to bedeck the Spruce Meadows grounds, unveiled its ultimate gift: a tulip named Spruce Meadows, a newly developed pure-white hybrid.
For Calgary, a city more accustomed to man-versus-horse action at its annual stampede, the record attendance of 94,000 for the five-day event indicates that show jumping has become a sport with mass as well as upscale appeal. Said Countess de Camillo, herself a former member of the Italian equestrian team: “People gain style just by watching this sport. And don’t tell me I’m snobbish. I’m very simple—heritage and style mean simplicity.”
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