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Build... And They Will Come
Rosemont, ON, Canada
Photo: Anthony Trollope/StockImageServices.com

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Karen O'Connor and Upstage
You'd expect most horse competition hosts to be disappointed if only 12 horses came to compete at their first event. Especially considering that the competition's centerpiece - a cross country course designed to test horse and rider stamina and skill - cost more than $65,000 to build. But British-born Jo Young, a respected dressage coach and international judge, and her partner Bill McKeen, an international technical delegate and an Equine Canada course designer, were delighted.

"We were thrilled we got 12 entries, even though we knew it was a huge financial loss," recalls Young of the first Wits End Advanced Horse Trials in 2004. She, McKeen, their adult children, joined by a legion of volunteers and supporters had performed a minor miracle in staging the competition on Young and McKeen's Mulmur Township farm in just eight short months.

Young and McKeen firmly believed that higher level courses were needed to ensure Canada's ability to produce world-class eventing riders and horses... and that their twelve horse event was just the first step.

Their faith paid off: last year, more than 80 competitors, from 5 countries, came out for the 2007 Wits End Horse Trials, which has grown to become Canada's only FEI World Cup Qualifier. This year's event, September 25 to 28, is expected to draw the best of the best.

In the last two years, the Wits End competitors have included the Who's Who of American eventing stars, such as Phillip Dutton, Karen O'Connor, Will Coleman, Bruce and Buck Davidson and Bonnie Mosser and Canadian riders such as Penny Rowland, Selena O'Hanlon, Waylon Roberts, Edie Tarves and Samantha Taylor who was the top placed national rider at last year's event.

Given his win at this year's Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event (the only four star event in North America) and at the 2006 and 2007 Wits End World Cup Qualifiers, all eyes will be on Phillip Dutton this year. The 45-year-old rider, born in Australia, where he grew up on a sheep and wheat farm, developed a love for eventing at an early age. In 1991, he moved to the U.S. to train in a more internationally competitive environment and to prepare for the 1996 Olympics, where he was a member of the 1996 gold-medal winning Australian team. Since 2006, Dutton has been an American citizen and now represents the U.S. in international competitions, including the 2007 Pan Am Games, where he was a member of the gold-medal winning team and individual silver medalist.

Pan Am individual and team gold medalist - and last year's 7th place Wits End competitor - Karen O'Connor will likely give him a run for his money, along with last year's second place rider, Will Coleman. Swelling the US ranks will be Texan Clark Montgomery who won the prestigious Red Hills International Horse Trials earlier this spring.

But the glory could well go to a Canadian: 33 year old Mike Winter has been on a roll this year, winning the Red Hills CIC 3* on Wonderful Will, placing 6th against stiff competition at the Fork CIC 3* with Kingpin, and earning a 12th finish on Kingpin at the prestigious Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event, which marked the best placing by a Canadian.

He was a team silver medalist at the 2003 and 2007 Pan American Games and individual rider for Canada at the Athens Olympics and is one of the most likely contenders for a spot on this year's Olympic team.

Winter, who was born in Montreal but grew up in Toronto, is now based in Georgia with his wife Emma, an advanced level rider and their two daughters. He rides six to eight horses a day including his top mounts, Kingpin, a 12 year old Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by The Kingpin Syndicate, and Wonderful Will, a 10 year old thoroughbred owned by Sher and Elliot Schwartz.

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Phillip Dutton and Woodburn
This may also mark the year a rider manages to make the allotted cross country time on the Wits End course, a feat not yet managed. "The terrain is very hilly and course designer David O'Connor has to take that into account," says Young. "Because of that, it's hard to complete the course within the allowed time. Our course is unique in North America, in that two-thirds of the course can be seen from the top of one hill, which is marvelous and very exciting for spectators."

Even Young and McKeen must have a hard time believing how quickly things evolved since the happy "accident" of finding their 60-acre farm seven years ago.

In 2001, Young was heading to teach lessons when she took a shortcut through the tiny village of Rosemont. She noticed a small real estate office there and stopped in. Usually, agents would listen as she described her ideal property - one with sandy footing and rolling land. Then, they'd wish her good luck after they heard the budget.

This day was different. Not only did the real estate agent not flinch when she told him what she had to spend, he said he had a nearby farm that he could show her immediately. It was exactly what they were looking for. She phoned McKeen, they put in an offer and sold other properties they each owned. The 60-acre property was theirs... and "total panic set in" as Young recalled.

There wasn't even a driveway to the house and no horse schooling facilities. She and McKeen started slowly, adding a dressage ring, then a few schooling jumps. They toyed with the idea of holding some lower level horse trials, but figured there were plenty of those. What Canada needed was a higher level of international competition. "We thought we'd give it a shot and build one," recalls Young.

People like 1956 Stockholm Olympians Jim Elder and John Rumble pitched in. Various fundraising efforts were held and donations rolled in, from all ages and walks of life, including local Pony Clubbers.  "The thing about eventing is that it's amazing sport... people give back," says Young.

Last year, Wits End offered $25,000 in prize money - a rarity in the eventing world, but crucial to attracting top-name riders.

"Gradually by word of mouth, the Americans heard about it. Now we're part of the major North American circuit," says Young.

American rider Bonnie Mosser competed at the 2007 Wits End for the first time. "She finished in sixth place and won $1,000, which she donated back to us," recalls Young. "She said 'thanks for a wonderful event, here's my contribution.'"

Young and McKeen are also striving to develop the facility into a training farm for riders and horses through educational clinics, schooling sessions and other events, like the Canadian Young Event Horse Championships, held in conjunction with the World Cup Qualifier.

"It's taken on a life of its own," says Young. "We've got a trade fair and last year the parking lot was completely full with more than 1,000 spectators. We want to get more of the general public out." For the price of $5 per car (bring your own picnic basket), an entire family can watch world class competition against the spectacular backdrop of fall colours provided by the beautiful Mulmur Hills.


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