Spruce Meadows from the air
There’s just something about Spruce Meadows.
It’s in the lush green spaces, the brightly coloured flowers, the seven immaculate competition arenas, the freshly painted fences, and the artwork scattered throughout the grounds. The world-class facility always seems to be in tip-top shape for the June arrival of hundreds of entries and the thousands of spectators.
And the place just seems to run like a well-oiled machine.
But, despite this outward appearance of well-scheduled flawlessness, behind the scenes is a different matter.
It all comes down to teamwork and communication, said Ian Allison, senior vice-president of Spruce Meadows. He compared the running of the tournaments to that of a theatre production – the staff is almost always in some state of “rehearsal” leading up to the competition season.
So, what does it take to put on an International show jumping tournament at Spruce Meadows?
I went behind the scenes to find out.
The Sport Side
It is the job of Jon Garner, the competitions manager, to make sure everything runs flawlessly on the sport side of things. This gets started long before the beginning of the Summer Series, by putting together the schedule in the early part of the year.
From then on, it’s coordinating ring times with TV broadcasts, as well as scheduling ride times throughout the different competition rings.
Precision is key.
Spruce Meadows' Jon Garner
“Once the competition starts, it’s about making sure everything goes smoothly,” said Garner, who enjoyed a riding career before coming to Spruce Meadows. “On a great day, I have absolutely nothing to do.”
“This happens more than you’d think,” he added with a smile.
Scheduling aside, Garner also oversees the jump inventory – which has enough different elements to fill a couple of storage barns on the property.
“We’ve tried to make each ring have a different feel to it,” said Garner. “And each ring is unique…. Part of that is the equipment that belongs there.”
The big International ring would swallow up the equipment for the small rings, for instance. And the International ring equipment - which includes five-meter long poles – would look silly on the smaller fields.
The key for putting on a successful tournament, he said, is having enough inventory to allow the course builders to change the look of the competition rings from day to day.
While some of the jumps are constructed in-house with input from course builders, the Spruce Meadows International ring is home to an expansive collection of fences from World Championships and Olympic games. Garner said he has a soft spot for the Dutch bicycle jump, a souvenir from the ’94 Championship in The Hague, Netherlands.
“It’s proven it’s worth over the years,” he said.
“You have to be careful if you’re going for the dramatic or sneaky fence – you can only have so many of them. That’s the challenge when you’re going with championship material.”
When these jumps aren’t in the ring for any of the five international tournaments or 11 other tournaments, they are under the watchful eye of Arturo Sedano and his jump crew. Each year, this team looks at each rail on the property, sands it down and repaints it. If needed, they’ll do it more often.
The permanent obstacles, like the dry ditch, the open water, the two banks and the tabletop, brave the temperamental Alberta winters. Each year these obstacles get examined and repaired if needed.
The Grounds Side
These jumps wouldn’t look quite so impressive without the blood, sweat and tears of D’Arcy Finlay and his grounds crew. With 27 acres of competition arena, not to mention the expansive green space, the team sure has their work cut out for them.
As senior operations manager and manager of grounds, Finlay looks after anything that grows and anything the horses ride on. This includes the turf rings and sand warm-up areas, and trees, flowers, park space and pastures. And the work appears to be abundant and endless: he has one person who’s job is to just cut the grass in the competition rings each day, one person who trims around the permanent obstacles, an irrigation team who waters the grass, and a team who repairs the damages around the property in the springtime.
“There are certain elements that need to be in place prior to the tournaments,” said Finlay. “The footing is No. 1. Flowers don’t stop the competition, but if the footing is compromised in any way, it’s a major issue. Without our footing, we’re nothing.”
So, Finlay and his team came up with a formula. With not a lot of information out there about show jumping footing, he said he took a lot of ideas from other turf sports – like football and baseball – and interpreted the information for the larger athletes.
The International ring is now topped with sand. This is used for better drainage, traction, as well as to help the plant maintain more nutrients. Beneath the turf, he said there are drainage pipes every two meters throughout the field.
During competition, the crew is on the look out for divots, and will sprinkle them with a mixture of sand, organic matter and seed – this helps for quick germination.
“What you don’t see is after the competition, when the whole team comes in the ring and walks up and down the whole arena to get, not only the take off and landing spots, but every divot on the whole course,” said Finlay.
Each fall, the International ring grass is covered by an enormous tarp for the winter months. Finlay said the tarp acts as a giant green house in the springtime, so they can get a bit of a head start on Mother Nature. The rest of the competition rings stay open to the elements during the winter months.
The Media Side
And the hard work of Finlay and his team will not go unnoticed, thanks in part to a three-year television rights agreement with CBC Sports to carry – in Canada – eight events. Spruce Meadows Television will produce the rest of the events for international distribution, said Allison.
Allison is the publicly perceived part of Spruce Meadows. He represents the sport, handles sponsorship and media, and builds and protects the Spruce Meadows brand.
Spruce Meadows' Ian Allison
“I’m fortunate to be a lifer,” said Allison. “I started here for the first tournament and I’ve been involved in every aspect of the operation, from grooming to driving the horses, to divot patrol, jump crew and maintenance.”
Rising at 5 a.m., Allison’s tournament day begins with local newspapers and a quick catch-up of global show jumping news. Then it’s off to the office for meetings, a minute-by-minute breakdown of that day’s events, and breakfast with competitions manager Garner.
Along with hosting sponsors, watching the sport and participating in award presentations, Allison oversees the television and production component of Spruce Meadows. He provides commentary on the event productions, and writes three or four documentaries a year – this year he said to expect two documentary hours based on the life of Hickstead.
Spruce Meadows production
In addition to internal productions, Spruce Meadows Media Services acts similarly to an agency, completing commercial productions for class sponsors like Rolex or BMO, corporate videos, as well as the occasional non-equine related production.
The Hosting Side
As with any type of tournament, sponsorship plays a big role at Spruce Meadows, and the venue goes to great lengths to host their generous sponsors in style.
At least a week before the first event, the event and signage team gets to work, said Tyler Osborn, manager of hosting venues and signage. For instance, all of the signs around the rings are “choreographed,” to make the switch from one tournament to the next that much more seamless.
Next come the skyboxes surrounding the International ring, which get fully stocked as the hosting team puts the finishing touches on everything.
Alberta House, above
“Each one has different food and beverage requirements, so the skyboxes are all unique,” said Osborn. “Each has a different feel to it.”
In addition to the skyboxes, Spruce Meadows is home to six other venues that are used for hosting sponsors during tournaments, corporate parties, weddings and a variety of other events. Like the skyboxes, the event planners work with the hosts to create and decorate a venue to their individual specifications. All the hard work is appreciated – the renowned show jumping facility is such a popular wedding destination that they are booking into 2014, said Osborn.
The food for these events is provided by Great Events Catering, a privately owned, on-site catering company. Ron Southern first met the owners – the Kuenz family – when they ran a hot dog stand outside of the Atco building in downtown Calgary. That was about 30 years ago, said Osborn.
Work for the hosting team continues long after the days events are over and done, as they wait for 400 to 500 guests to leave. And after everyone is gone, each venue is cleaned, reset for the following morning, and the timing for the next day’s events is choreographed down to the last minute.
The Manpower Side
If there was one component that all of the Spruce Meadows experts agreed on, it was that the tournaments would not be possible without the dedication of their volunteers. With opportunities ranging from kitchen duties, transportation duties, hosting, as well as a variety of ring positions – there can be anywhere from 300 to 500 volunteers on the grounds for each tournament, said Sarah Ftichar, the volunteer coordinator at Spruce Meadows.
“We run everything with the help of our volunteers,” she said. “Without them, our tournaments wouldn’t happen. It speaks volumes about Spruce Meadows that some of them have been here for decades.”
Spruce Meadows volunteers
sponsored fleet of vehicles
One such volunteer is Jennifer Tizzard, who has been a transportation volunteer at the facility for 21 years. She was inspired to approach Spruce Meadows management about establishing a pick-up and deliver service after volunteering to drive athletes around during the ’88 Olympics in Calgary.
The transportation volunteers act as a taxi service: ferrying people around, picking them up from the airport or hotel, dropping them off at Spruce Meadows, and doing equipment pick-up and deliveries for the staff. The work of the volunteers isn’t limited to riders, they also taxi international ambassadors and CEOs for Ron Southern’s round table meeting at the Masters tournament in September.
“Perhaps the most important job we have is driving around with golf carts and picking up people with mobility issues,” said Tizzard.
“If we’re feeling really nice, we’ll pick up mothers with screaming kids,” she added with a laugh.
Together with Russ Knight and Aurele L’Heureux, Tizzard arrives at the grounds three weeks before the first tournament to get everything in order. When I spoke with them, they had just returned from picking up a fleet of silver vans donated by Chrysler – a longtime Spruce Meadows sponsor. During the 2011 tournament season, each of them racked up 1984 volunteer hours.
For all of the longtime staff members and volunteers at Spruce Meadows, the facility is no stranger to revamps and improvements.
“We’re like Wimbledon or Augusta – we put on the party,” said Allison. “We provide the standard and we’re constantly looking to improve things for the media, the athletes, the fans, and the sponsors. We’re constantly critiquing ourselves.”
Well, the critiques seem to be working, as each year I return to the Spruce Meadows grounds I stumble across some sort of new development. This year, the major undertaking was the reconstruction of the east grandstand along the International ring. The stands were ripped apart last November by nearly 150 km/h winds. Luckily, no one was injured.
Spruce Meadows destroyed and replaced grandstands
But the grandstand did need to be replaced, and in time for the June 6th beginning of the Summer Series.
“We wanted to do it right, and we wanted it to look good for television,” said Allison. “We’re jumping two major tournaments out there.”
Currently, the revamped grandstand is open to the elements – but that didn’t seem to keep fans away during the first leg of the Summer Series, the National tournament. Construction for the roof structure will get underway once the North American tournament wraps up in July, and be in place for September’s Masters tournament.