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Lamaze calls return to Spruce Meadows 'a dream' after dealing with brain tumour

Eric Lamaze salutes the crowd as he rode Fine Lady 5 to victory in a jump off in the PwC Cup at Spruce Meadows during The National showjumping event in Calgary on Thursday. The National runs through Sunday. Photo by Jim Wells/Postmedia.
Eric Lamaze salutes the crowd as he rode Fine Lady 5 to victory in a jump off in the PwC Cup at Spruce Meadows during The National showjumping event in Calgary on Thursday. The National runs through Sunday. Photo by Jim Wells/Postmedia.

Eric Lamaze lifted his helmet, revealing a closely cropped haircut and flashed his familiar grin to the crowd at Spruce Meadows.

It is one of the premier equestrian facilities in the world and a venue that has hosted some of his biggest career victories over the years; a second home to the 51-year-old Canadian showjumping legend who is the all-time money leader with over $5.3-million.

Thursday was a good day.

But over the last year-and-a-half, some days have not been good.

Lamaze, the modern-day face of the sport at the highest level, is currently battling a brain tumour. He confirmed the diagnosis only recently in an emotional televised interview in French to RMC Sport, but those well-connected in the community knew something was wrong last summer. It explained his absence from the show-jumping stage for most of this winter.

Yet, Lamaze is here. Competing. Battling. Fighting.

And winning.

“I’d be lying if I said I’m 100 per cent myself,” said Lamaze with a sigh, after capturing one of the day’s biggest prizes, the PwC Cup, with his flawless jump-off aboard Fine Lady 5. “It keeps me happy, that’s the word that I will use. It keeps me happy and gives me a great reason to get up every morning and to do something that I love doing.

“I’m not sure I’m doing it at the level that I was once doing it at, but I’ll sure try.”

Self-deprecating and humble, the Montreal native downplayed his performance. Fine Lady 5 was competing in a 1.50-metre class, a class which the Hanoverian bay mare — a horse capable of winning larger, 1.60-metre classes and the same horse he rode at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — should win, in theory.

“Let’s put some perspective to it,” he says with a grin.

But, the truth is, Lamaze’s presence at Spruce Meadows is a testament to his commitment and passion for the sport. He is showing grace, courage, bravery and determination in the face of this potentially devastating diagnosis. Just like his approach to showjumping, there is a calming ease about him.

Getting to this point was not easy. Horses aren’t machines. To remain at the top of the sport, they require specific exercise and care. And, in most cases, they are also only as good as the athlete riding them.

“I did not ride most of the winter,” explained Lamaze, who spends the majority of the year based in Belgium and in Wellington, Fla. “I started to ride at the end of the winter. (Fine Lady 5) really felt very rusty and was not on form. I had (British rider) Nick Skelton and (American) Laura Kraut riding some of my horses at the stable and Laura Kraut rode her for me and jumped her. Laura rode fantastic. But I got back on (Fine Lady 5) and I wasn’t riding very well myself. And I think she felt that. I think she felt some insecurity. She’s 16-years-old, she knows me well — so the guy on top of her just wasn’t the same and I think that created some insecurity with her.”

Shortly after the Spruce Meadows’ Masters tournament last fall, where he placed second in the BMO Nations Cup, and the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, he took six months off competing. Lamaze returned in March at the Winter Equestrian Festival, Global Champions Tour in Miami and the Royal Windsor Horse Show in England where he placed third in the Pearl Stakes with Chacco Kid.

But Spruce Meadows was the goal. He says he was “bound and determined” to make a “comeback.”

Lamaze brought his entire stable of usual suspects at the National Tournament, including Coco Bongo, whom he won a gold medal aboard at the 2015 Pan American Games, Chacco Kid among other young horses and students that Torrey Pines Stables are working with.

He credits his support staff and students for allowing him to focus on resting, yet he is the one imparting his own knowledge and experience on everyone around him.

“You know what, that’s when I’m at my happiest,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I crash, and that’s it. But, I have a lot to give back to the sport. Not only myself, on a horse, but to others. Young riders. I have had my share of ups and downs in the sport on a horse, so I know what a bad day feels like and I know what a great day feels like and I know what it takes to be able to win these classes. I like to give that back to my students. Along with a few technical aspects of showjumping, it’s something I’ll keep doing.”

Lamaze indicated that he would not be on Canada’s Pan American team, which will compete at Lima, Peru, from July 26 to Aug. 11. This week’s National is the final observation for Canadian chef d’equipe Mark Laskin. Lamaze said he did not want to jeopardize Canada’s chance at medalling if he is not feeling 100 per cent.

His long-term goal is the summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020.

His short-term goals are focused on the National tournament.

“I’ll be damned if I don’t try to win a class even if I’m not as good,” Lamaze said. “At this point, it’s really trying to get the feel of it back and feeling competitive again and doing it. I wasn’t out that long. But, you know, coming back was definitely harder than I was expecting and especially in the capacity that I was in. We had a few battles. But here I am and it makes me very happy.

“Every day, to be on a horse and ride, it’s something I’ll continue to do for as long as I can.”

Lamaze did not elaborate on the exact stage of his cancer or the prognosis. But it doesn’t take an oncologist to understand the toll the treatments are taking on him.

His balance is off. His energy levels aren’t where they usually are. His reflexes are affected.

“It’s a lot of things,” Lamaze said. “And there are things in the back of your head that stay with you. It’s a combination of a lot of things, to be honest, that stops you from being as good as you can be.

“But, you know, I love this sport and I love doing it.”

Lamaze has been among the best riders in the world for a large chunk of his career.

He has represented Canada at seven consecutive World Equestrian Games, five straight Pan American Games and medalled at both the 2016 and 2008 Olympic Games.

Lamaze memorably captured a gold medal and a team silver medal in his Olympic debut in Beijing aboard famed stallion Hickstead, who tragically passed away in a World Cup competition in 2011.

Eight years later and a new stable of horses, he won an individual bronze medal in 2016 in Rio.

At Spruce Meadows, he has twice won the $1-million CN International, the richest Grand Prix event in the world, both in 2007 and 2011.

And while his victory on Thursday wasn’t of that magnitude, it was significant for many reasons.

Perspective, remember?

“Listen, a win is a win,” he said. “It makes me happy to be jumping, to be riding, to be schooling, to be here at Spruce Meadows, to be jumping in front of the fans. I’ve had so much support in this part of the world. Those are memories I’ll never forget.

“For me, to be here is a dream at this point, looking back at the past year. It’s a bit emotional, in that sense.”

kanderson@postmedia.com

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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