There’s nothing like it in the USA.

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair continues to make a success of tradition while keeping up with the times. Spectators in formal dress at the Royal hearken back to the National Horse Show’s long-gone era of white tie and evening gowns, when that show was at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

If you’re nostalgic for those days, come to the Royal. It has never given up its cachet and remains a fitting climax to the long march through the North American Fall Indoor Circuit, which begins with the Pennsylvania National in October, followed by the Washington DC International and the now-informal National in November at the Kentucky Horse Park. The fact that the Royal is in a different country from the other shows adds to its glamour and appeal for Americans.

The Royal’s strength comes not only from honoring the past, but also from equine variety. Where else can you see a ring full of impressive six-horse draft hitches, giant Percherons, Belgians and Clydesdales braided up and outfitted in shining harness, but also the elegance of coaches drawn by four-in-hand teams, saddle-seat entries, hunters, hackneys, exhibitions and of course, an outstanding array of jumpers?

There’s no question that the Royal is one of a kind. Add to the horse show’s charm the joys of the fair, giving many visitors their first in-person look at cows, sheep, llamas, chicken and other livestock, as well as the glories of the vendors and delicious food that would be bad for you if you ate it more than once a year. It’s an incredible package in an amazing city.

And the show is always being reinvented. Royal CEO Charlie Johnstone commented on one of the big differences of this year’s edition, which involved moving the featured grand prix, the $205,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Toronto, from Wednesday night to Saturday.

“It makes it more consistent with other events,” he explained.

“It really is taking our best product and putting it on our prime night. When you look at an event that’s 96 years old leading into our centennial…we’ve got a lot of happy fans walking out of here I think the future’s very bright for the Royal Horse Show,” he concluded.

Wednesday always had seemed like an odd evening for the biggest money class of the show. Saturday is a much more suitable time, with riders and their top horses playing to a packed house as the finale of a night that included a variety of championships in other divisions; in effect, building the suspense for the class that meant the most to show jumping fans.

Having the Cup qualifier on the last night, instead of early in the week, also gave course designer Alan Wade more of a chance to see and assess the horses over several days in order to build a suitable grand prix test for the contenders.

While a Canadian winner would have been enjoyed by the fans, the next best thing for them was McLain Ward of the USA, who took the grand prix for the ninth time. After all, he was practically one of their own. McLain, who rode HH Gigi’s Girl for his victory, was competing in his 23d or 24th Royal, he had lost count. He has told me several times he considers the Royal practically a vacation.

“I love being here, I love walking through the underground, I love going to certain restaurants and I think the show is being run beautifully,” he commented, and other American contenders shared his enthusiasm.

“I think the organization is phenomenal. I think they’re doing a brilliant job,” McLain said of the Royal.

Charlie noted “the new schedule has worked. It’s important we’ve got a show that’s not just show jumping. We’ve got all sorts of disciplines that really attract people from all different sectors. We’re looking at this as an event, but also as an entertainment opportunity.”

He said people coming for the grand prix “were in awe about what was happening. Being in a venue that was sold out with 7,000 people in advance, they knew they were walking into something that was going to be very exciting and exceeded their expectations.”

For his part, McLain plans to continue returning annually. At one point, he said, he was feeling a little melancholy, wondering how much longer he could participate. So he looked up Ian Millar’s age, and when he learned that Captain Canada was 71, he said, “I’ve got 29 more years. That’s good.”

~Nancy Jaffer