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Ian Millar and his horse "In Style" eye Beijing Games
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10:47, January 24, 2008

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Ian Millar turned 61 this month, but don't expect to see him curled up in front of the TV with a copy of Horse Illustrated just yet.

Canada's most decorated equestrian is instead warming up with the rest of the world's top show jumpers in Florida ahead of what will be his record-equaling ninth Olympics if he qualifies for the Beijing Games.

The six-time Spruce Meadows Derby winner is at the Wellington Equestrian Facility at West Palm Beach for 12 weeks of winter competition on a course designed by American Steve Stephens and Venezuelan Leopoldo Palacios, the minds behind this summer's Olympic course in Hong Kong.

"Everyone is very interested in studying their work and how they've crafted the jumps," Millar told China Daily by phone. "They just put a new ring in this facility, which is exactly the same size as the one in Hong Kong. Even the footing is really similar, so this is a very, very important competition."

When Palacios designed the course for the 2000 Sydney Games, he included a "kangaroo" fence but painted it different colors so as not to scare the horses. Hong Kong could see anything from dragons to a tea drinkers on its 50 competition fences.

"The Great Wall will certainly be featured," Palacios said. "So will Hong Kong landmarks like the Tsing Ma Bridge."

Equine Canada thinks Millar has as good a shot as ever to go for his maiden Olympic medal.

"Ian's chances of qualifying are excellent," said Terrance Millar (no relation), chair of Jump Canada's high-performance committee. "I feel that Ian rides as well today as he ever did."

"His laser focus and his extraordinary enthusiasm for the sport after all these years make him an exceptional athlete."

He has survived a collapsed lung and a bleeding brain, injuries that would make most sexagenarians consider calling it quits.

But Millar thinks his horses, as much as anything, have kept him in the game.

In Style is his mount of choice, followed by Redefin and Rivendell.

The German-Dutch thoroughbred In Style carried Millar to fourth place in the individual and silver in the team event at last year's Pan American Games - Millar's eighth - in Rio de Janeiro. Neither man nor mount showed any sign of wearing down.

"I missed the medal by one, but he did great," said Millar, who took individual gold at the Pan-Ams in 1987 and 1999. "He's got a real good shot at doing this."

Having experienced four decades of professional ups and downs, Millar knows that even the best-laid plans can go awry when dealing with a 1,400-pound warmblood instead of, say, a BMX, sprint track or Mercedes McLaren.

"Our range can be way different for sure. If your horse goes off form that day it can be anywhere between mediocre and disastrous. And if that horse is really in synch, a miracle can happen. It makes our sport more exciting."

Show jumpers also have to deal with more variables than their machine-riding counterparts.

"With events like this, you really need the luck to go your way," said Millar.

Ironically, the one time Millar did medal in an Olympic year was at the Nations Cup in Rotterdam in 1980 - the year Canada joined a US-led boycott of the Moscow Games. Canada took team gold at that tournament, dubbed the "alternative equestrian Olympics".

Whether the 61-year-old breaks the record for Olympic appearances year remains to be seen. Austrian sailor Hubert Raudaschl holds the current record with nine Olympic appearances. Italian brothers Piero and Raimondo D'Inzeo also have eight starts apiece, but they began their careers as three-day eventers before migrating over to show jumping.

Millar, who holds the North American record for Grand Prix and Derby wins, came closest to a podium finish at Sydney in 2000 on Dorincord but finished 13th. Three Olympics on the legendary Big Ben - only the second horse to be inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame - also failed to produce a medal, and Millar ranked a lowly 24th in Athens on Promise Me.

But his bad luck may come to an end if In Style peaks on cue. After all, the line between success and failure has everything to do with timing.

Sydney, for example, was just a case of bad luck. Dorincord was on fire throughout the tournament and the duo was closing in on 10th place in the individual event before the wind blew down a couple of jumps on the final day, forcing a re-start that threw Millar and his horse off kilter.

"That horse literally had the week of his life in Sydney," Millar said. "We had a really regrettable incident on that last dayyeah, I was plenty close to a medal on that one."

Source: China Daily

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