COMMENTARY – Spruce Meadows Masters $3,000,000 CP Grand Prix

© Cealy Tetley: Ian Millar scored the biggest victory of his career, winning the $1.5 million CP International, presented by Rolex, riding Dixson at the CSIO5 Spruce Meadows 'Masters' tournamentIan Millar scored the biggest victory of his career in 2014, winning the $1.5 million CP International, presented by Rolex, riding Dixson at the CSIO5 Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ tournament

Before I begin my report on the 2016 Spruce Meadows Masters $3,000,000 CP Grand Prix, I would like to review my credentials and why I feel that I am in a unique position to put forward a few opinions on the way that this class has been portrayed in social media and on Canadian national television. I am a level 4 FEI Course Designer. I was the course builder and a course designer in the International Ring at Spruce Meadows for 17 years, although I was never the course designer for this feature event. My daughter jumped in this event and placed 8th a few years ago. So, as I give you my judgment on this year’s event, I believe that the following facts and opinions come from a position of solid knowledge.

From the very beginning, Spruce Meadows has viewed the events at all their Tournaments as being competitions that strive to show sponsors and spectators that they are watching the best athletes, both horse and rider, excel at the highest level. If you go to Spruce Meadows to compete at any of the Tournaments you must know that the bar is set very high and that bar has always been there. As a course designer you know where the bar is set and you will be expected to produce courses that reflect that high standard.

There have been some riders and show managers that have alluded to the future of the sport and where it is headed and they state, without change, everything remains stagnant. Not all change is good. If other management groups across North America and Europe want larger numbers in the second round or the jump off, so be it. To those ends, the level of the courses must be altered to produce those results. There are many ways to achieve these results, but in the end the bar comes down. This is not necessarily wrong, but on the other hand, it is not wrong to keep the bar high. At Spruce Meadows Masters the prize money in the CP Grand Prix was $3,000,000 and if some competitors thought that the course was going to be soft in either the first or second round they were wrong.

© Holly Grayton/ Spruce Meadows aerial
Spruce Meadows from above

The history of this event over the years is very consistent. From the beginning, with CD Pamela Carruthers (13 years) and the course designers that followed, along with several new sponsors along the way, the courses over the years have produced very similar results. There have been few clean after the first round and fewer after the second and for several competitions there was no jump off as there was only one horse and rider that managed to go clean. Like it or not, this is the view that Spruce Meadows has taken, this is what they want and it works for them and for the sponsors. If as a show manager you want something else or you want something different, go for it, but not here. They have a formula that works. So, as manager you should not point the finger at someone who has a different viewpoint and has been very successful with that view over so many years.

Before getting to the actual course, I have a few thoughts on the use of social media and the coverage by sport commentators on national television. The use of social media to rant about and diminish the reputation of any official in our sport is just plain cowardly. There is nothing more to say about this issue because it will continue and cowards will remain cowards. It’s nothing new, Twitter, and Instagram and Facebook are the hiding place of cowards. If you really want to make a point about something, how about signing up with your real name and then spew the garbage. Ah, not quite as easy, huh?

Watching the national coverage I was amazed by the lack of preparedness by two of the lead commentators, one representing Spruce Meadows and one representing our sport. There was no reference to the history of this event! Why? It’s one of the greatest and now, most important show jumping events in the world. They either knew nothing of the past or if they did they felt that it was not relevant. Wrong. Not relevant? Some riders live all their life to win this class. For the play by play guy to introduce the words unfair, trap, impossible was an insult to the venue, sponsor and the course designer. On the other side of the coin, Mac Cone as the colour commentator. was factual fair and extremely accurate in his analysis. It was the best we have had in a long time.

We will now go to the heart of the matter, the first round course.

The course is on grass and has a number of natural obstacles, our much discussed water jump, dry ditch, and a permanent double of liverpools. The weather, as is sometimes the case in Calgary, is not good with serious rain and cold temperatures. With these factors added to the fact that they are jumping with the grass surface, does not make for ideal jumping. None of the above should come as a surprise to the competitors as this is the Masters in Calgary in September.

As is normal in our sport, the riders get to walk and assess the course and have the right to withdraw from the class if they feel that for whatever reason it would better to save the round for another day. I have no doubt that any rider having walked the course realised that it was an extremely tough test, but if they did not withdraw then they felt that they could give it their best shot and had a chance to win the $3,000,000. If a rider was eliminated and then blamed the course designer for building an unfair test, then I find the comment highly unprofessional.

© Kenneth Kraus/ Dave Ballard and Leopoldo Palacios   2-2-13
Dave Ballard and Leopoldo Palacios

The use of the natural jumps is a little harder to come by today because of the many artificial surfaces and difficulty in installing these natural obstacles, but rings such as the International Ring were created at Spruce Meadows because that was what was done when most rings were created on grass. Leopolodo Palacios is the course designer and has been the CD for this tournament for many years and has an intimate knowledge of this ring. The heights and widths of the jumps on this course were well within the rules and the distances between the jumps if related were not overly aggressive. The time allowed was aggressive, but the speed (400m/m) makes for more difficulty. Also it must be said that Leo is well known for very aggressive Time Alloweds. The final results show that seven competitors jumped the triple without fault. There were also four with no faults at all. No course designer wants to have one area of his course to be the focus of the whole round and would like to see the whole course come into play. The unfortunate fact is that this result happens more than a course designer would want. (you can see these results when you search the grand prix’s from Wellington on Phelpssports Course Discourse). One further history fact is that in an Olympic year, the field of horses at Spruce is missing some of the Olympic riders and horses (mainly horses) as they are being rested after the Olympic Games and did not make the trip to Calgary.

My final thoughts on the Masters 2016 is that Leopoldo Palacios did his job correctly and fairly. Speaking with him today it was not his intent to have the line to the triple and the triple be the focus of the first round but it was tough and fair.

I have said it many times in Course Discourse “who wants to be a course designer?”

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