Visiting cowboy saloons, trading a trophy for a trip to Hawaii, and becoming a three-time Spruce Meadows grand prix winner – the top Canadian venue holds many fond memories for British showjumping legend John Whitaker.
H&H caught up with John, who turned 68 last month, on site in Calgary during his long-awaited return to the prestigious Masters tournament (6-10 September) for a trip down memory lane.
John first started competing at Spruce Meadows in 1980, and enjoyed success with his Olympic team silver medal-winning Ryan’s Son. But it was John’s 1986 Spruce Meadows’ appearance that remains a significant moment in showjumping history, when he won the grand prix for the first time, with the grey superstar Milton.
“It was brilliant to win. I’d been in previous years with Ryan’s Son and we’d done quite well, so to then come and win it was a special one. It always makes the flight home very nice,” says John.
John went on to win the grand prix twice more; in 1992 on Henderson Gammon and in 1994 with Everest Grannusch. To date only former Olympic champion Nick Skelton has bettered this record, winning four times; in 1985 with Everest St James, 1993 with Everest Dollar Girl, 1998 on Virtual Village Hopes Are High, and 2008 with Arko III.
Six-time Olympian John has also enjoyed much team success at Spruce Meadows, helping Britain to victory in the Nations Cup event on seven occasions – including four on the trot from 1989 to 1992 alongside his brother Michael, and Nick Skelton. But it was 1980 that perhaps delivered the best spoils, when some negotiating from the late British showjumping team manager Ronnie Massarella resulted in a spontaneous holiday for the team.
“We weren’t allowed to take the trophy home because it stays at Spruce Meadows,” explains John. “So when Britain won it for a third time in a row, Ronnie was trying to get something out of it because we couldn’t keep the trophy, so a holiday in Hawaii got suggested. When we won, Ron Southern [Spruce Meadows founder] stood by it and gave us the holiday. It was much better than the trophy!”
A “game-changer” for showjumping
Looking back, John believes Spruce Meadows was a “game-changer” for showjumping, owing to the generous prize money it put on the table. Today the CPKC International grand prix prize pot is one of the richest in the world at $3m (£1.762m).
“The other shows had to up their game prize money-wise, so it changed the sport. It was fantastic in those days to get prize money like that,” he explains, adding that the unique Calgary weather also added some surprises to the mix.
“A couple of times in the morning you’d be walking the course and there would be snow on the ground. One year I remember they cleared the ring with hand shovels, because they didn’t want to damage the ground with machines.”
John adds that Spruce Meadows hasn’t rested on its laurels and continues to develop its world-renowned facilities.
“The place is incredible,” he says. “They keep improving it and making it bigger and better, which seems impossible – but they keep doing it.
“Until this year, I hadn’t been for at least 10 years. And I missed it the years I didn’t come. It’s the way they do things here, the way they look after the crowds and get them in. It’s always a good atmosphere here.”
Recalling more Spruce Meadows history, John says in the early years much work went into promoting the event – and a special after-hours haunt, renowned for its line-dancing, remains a place for riders to visit for some downtime.
“The first time I went to Spruce Meadows they had all the teams dressed in their riding gear in wagons driving us around Calgary promoting the show. They also used to put free buses on from Calgary for spectators, so they really promoted it well and got people coming. And now it’s known throughout the world,” he says.
“It’s definitely one of the standout shows – the prize money, the atmosphere, the place, the organisation. They make it very easy for us to want to come here.
“We’ve had plenty of fun times. We used to always stop at Ranchman’s on the way home, it’s a real cowboy saloon. We haven’t been yet this trip, but I think we have to for old times’ sake. We used to call in nearly every night when we were younger. There was no line dancing for us though – just sampling the beer!”
“It’s good to be back”, says John Whitaker
This year marked John’s return to Spruce Meadows for the first time in more than 15 years – and the British team’s since 2016. The squad of Sameh El Dahan and WKD Toronto, Ben Maher and Exit Remo, Matt Sampson and Equine America Ivanhoe GPH, and John with Equine America Unick Du Francport, hoped to replicate Great Britain’s past success in the Nations Cup event. Another Brit in action at the Masters tournament was Rolex grand slam winner Scott Brash and his World Championships team bronze medal-winning ride and Paris 2024 hopeful Hello Jefferson.
“It’s good to be back, and with the team,” says John. “They’re all good [shows] to win, but this is especially a good one. It’s a good place for Matt, he does well here, Ben’s on flying form, Sameh’s been doing well, and I’ve been doing well.”
Although the Brits didn’t pull off the win, they could hold their heads high finishing fourth, in what was an action-packed and drama-filled Nations Cup competition at Spruce Meadows. The win ultimately went to Ireland, the country’s first Nations Cup victory here since 2001.
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