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Lamaze writes another comeback story against all odds, win RBC Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows


Not every victory is perfect.

Eric Lamaze is saying this on a cloudy Saturday at the Spruce Meadows National tournament where many are gathered for the beautiful scenery at the Southwest Calgary equestrian facility. Or maybe they came for the farmers market. Or because it’s a welcoming place to spend an afternoon, eating ice cream with your family and pets. It’s $5 to get in, the same as it’s been since 1975, and free for children and seniors — or, as the venue’s founder Ron Southern used to say, it’s also free if you jump the fence.

The results of the RBC Grand Prix presented by Rolex, who won the $165,000 first-prize, or added FEI points to their rankings were an afterthought for some.

But this victory does matter. This beautiful, complicated, relentless and triumphant story — Lamaze’s story — transcends the sport of show jumping. This is life. Real life.

And, as the 51-year-old Montreal native explains, it is far from perfect.

“That’s what I tell my students,” Lamaze, an astute teacher and richly experienced rider, is saying of his flawless round in the RBC Grand Prix on Chacco Kid.

It is the second time he has won the event, also capturing it on the famed Hickstead in 2010,

It is, of course, the secondary angle of this impressive tale.

“You learn the least when you win,” he continues, “because we don’t discuss the things that went wrong when you win. Because you’re so happy for (the students). It’s when things go bad that you learn the most.”

Lamaze has been living with a brain tumour for the last year and a half.

Those well-connected in the community knew something was wrong last summer and his absence from this winter’s show jumping stage confirmed it. He took off time to receive treatments and rest while his students and staff at Torrey Pines Stables cared for his horses.

Coming into the start of the summer series at Spruce Meadows, Lamaze was forthcoming of what he was dealing with after going public with the news a few weeks ago in an emotional televised interview in French to RMC Sport. Earlier in the week, he would not elaborate on the prognosis or where he is at in his treatment.

There is no guarantees in life and, this winter, there were times Lamaze wasn’t sure if he’d ever return to the sport that he has credited for saving his life over and over again. It’s his lifeblood and he has poured his entire heart and soul into it ever since he dropped out of school at 13-years-old, after a difficult upbringing with his mother in jail on drug charges in Montreal.

This week’s National tournament has been his comeback story. Another one. He called it a “dream.” But his journey is far from over.

Even after he’d won an earlier class in the week, the PwC Cup 1.50-metre competition on one of his other top horses, Fine Lady 5, Lamaze explained that things don’t feel right. His balance is off. His energy levels aren’t where they usually are. His reflexes are affected. At the end of the day, he crashes out of exhaustion. Those are just the physical effects.

Horses are intuitive. Lamaze explained that they knew something was wrong; that something is different.

Yet when he led Chacco Kid down the final stretch in the International Ring and sailed over the double jump with ease and flew over the Rolex obstacle to finish the jump-off course with flair — like he’s done so many times here in his decorated career — Lamaze looked like himself.

“I don’t feel like it’s perfect,” insisted the all-time money winner at Spruce Meadows, who has claimed more than $5.3 million. “You carry a lot of emotion with you out there. I do, anyway. I question myself a lot on distances that I take which before came to me and it was really the right thing to do. Now, I’m taking it, but I’m second-guessing myself as I’m doing it. I guess that’s where the difference is, that’s what I’m talking about. So far, I’ve made the right choice and in some places, I’ve made the wrong choices and the horses cover up.

“We make mistakes that horses do cover up sometimes and we give them a big pat at the end of the day. Rarely, there is such thing as a perfect round.”

Lamaze’s story has been told before, when he squandered the opportunity of representing Canada ahead of the 1996 Olympics when he tested positive for cocaine and was banned from the team. Then, again, before the 2000 Olympics when he was suspended for life for testing positive for banned cold remedies and diet supplements. While appealing that suspension, he tested positive for cocaine again and received a second lifetime ban from the sport. At one point, he contemplated suicide.

But he rewrote his own narrative when he won a gold medal and a team silver medal in his Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008 on Hickstead. Later that fall at the Masters, Lamaze and Hickstead won the $1-million CP International, the richest Grand Prix event in the world, for a second time.

A few months later, tragedy struck again when the impressive stallion died, stricken with an aortic aneurysm during a World Cup competition in Italy. The 15-year-old Olympic champion fell in a way that protected Lamaze. On Saturday, he said Hickstead was looking out for him.

Only three riders went clear after a difficult seven-rider jump-off, including his close friend and No. 1-ranked FEI rider in the world, Steve Guerdat, who was No. 2 on this day aboard Albfuehren’s Bianca and a clean 46.96-second loop around the course. Ireland’s Conor Swail, aboard Koss Van Heiste, finished third.

American rider Beezie Madden would have beaten Lamaze with her fast deployment of the course (44.62-seconds,) but her horse, Coach, knocked down the top rung of the final jump.

The thought of what Lamaze has been able to accomplish in the last 18 months, in the face of this potentially devastating diagnosis, can bring anyone to tears.

Guerdat was.

“Eric has always been an inspiration for all of us, for many things,” the 36-year-old Swiss show jumper said, his eyes red and voice shaking. “And I think that people probably don’t really … how do I say it … what he’s doing, what he’s done. I don’t know how he does it. What he went through … I think if, today, he was able to just do a nice round, he would be a hero already. But to go and win it? I have no words.

“We always talk about superheroes in different sports. In tennis. In football. In Formula 1. But I don’t think anyone has done what this guy has done. I have seen him a few months ago and, I didn’t think I’d see him…”

Lamaze, en route to the middle of the International Ring, said “When you’re down, it’s amazing what a horse can mean to you.”

He elaborated.

“This is our livelihood,” said Lamaze, who has goals of competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “But we are very close to these animals and I have great respect for them and what they do for us. I have great respect for their understanding … how can I say … of my absence for a long time and for me getting back on. But I must say, other than my close friends and everybody, the horses are a big part of why I’m here today. Perhaps, I don’t know which level I will continue riding at as the year goes on. But the horse will be part of my life, until the day it will no longer be possible.

“But my fight for the moment is to keep riding. And I will fight every day to keep doing this because the horse is the greatest therapy that you can have.”

So, yes, Saturday mattered.

“This is an ongoing battle for me,” Lamaze said. “And today is a gift.”

kanderson@postmedia.com

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