Whoa! New horse-jumping soirée for Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation to feature former Olympian Ian Millar

Sports celebrities, business leaders, horse-jumping athletes to compete in obstacle course at Wesley Clover Parks
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Ten-time Canadian Olympian Ian Millar with Karen Sparks, co-chair of the inaugural Spurs & Sparkles fundraiser for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation that's taking place at the Wesley Clover Parks equestrian centre this July 15th. Photo by Caroline Phillips

OBJ.Social is supported by the generous patronage of Mark MotorsBruyère FoundationMarilyn Wilson Dream Properties and Sparks Dental. Read their stories here.

Wesley Clover Parks is looking to "stirrup" the Ottawa charity gala scene with a new Spurs & Sparkles horse-jumping soirée that promises to be unlike anything ever seen around these here parts.

As part of the evening, local celebrities and corporate business leaders will be putting the pedal to the metal of their golf carts as they team up with grand prix show jumpers on horseback. Together, they'll be racing in a thrilling three-part Get Up & Gallop ride-and-drive competition. Spectators can get in on the action by bidding on which team they think will finish the obstacle course with the fastest combined time.

The gala is set for Monday, July 15 on the grassy grounds of the west-end equestrian centre, in support of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

Expect to see such prominent businesspeople as tech giant Terry Matthews as well as popular Ottawa Senators teammates Mark Borowiecki and Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Canadian horse-jumping athletes. The race will also have a stick and ball component to it.

“So many events have the same formula, but this is taking charity events outside the box,” Wesley Clover Parks executive director Karen Sparks – who holds a life-long passion for show jumping – said during an interview at the equestrian centre. “We’re really excited about it. It’s going to be fun but it’s still going to have a classy element to it.”

And she’s not just talking about Zack the donkey, who will be dressed to the nines in his official role of greeter. 

The evening, to be catered by the Brookstreet Hotel, will take place under a magnificent party tent on a scenic, sprawling property that offers a refreshing change of scenery from city life. There will be drink pairings, freshly shucked oysters from The Whalesbone, and ample opportunity for networking; organizers have opted for food stations over a stationary, sit-down dinner.

Tickets are $175 each, or $150 if purchased by a group of 10.

The fundraiser is being co-chaired by Sparks and gala organizer extraordinaire Catherine McLaughlin, whose 15-year-old daughter Charlotte McLaughlin is a champion show jumper. Her husband, Terlin Construction owner Terry McLaughlin, is also a major sponsor and will be participating in the ride-and-drive competition.

It wasn’t hard to rope in Ian Millar, 72, an icon in international show jumping. He understands more than most people how devastating cancer can be. He lost his wife, Lynn Millar, to the disease in 2008. 

“It’s a terrible road for anybody to have to go down and, unfortunately, my family knows the journey all too well,” he said during an interview at the equestrian centre.

The 2008 Olympic silver medalist announced his retirement from show jumping this past spring, having competed in a record 10 Olympics – the most of any athlete in history, in any sport. 

He told OBJ.social how pleased he is to be participating in Spurs & Sparkles.

“One of the most important uses of sport, really, is to have a greater influence,” said Millar. “Yes, we entertain and we provide good sport, but it has to be more than that. Being able to assist a charity, through the sport, is very, very rewarding to all of us.”

One could listen all day to Millar speak about his relationship with horses. It started during childhood, when the milkmen would let him climb up into the horse-drawn wagon to steer. Little did he know at the time, the animals knew exactly where they were going.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new about horses,” said Millar. “You never get to know it all and every time you think you’ve got a handle on it, they’re going do something else. And you have to have a sense of humour because, every once and again, they’re going to throw you on the ground when you least expect it.

“They’re unpredictable,” Millar continued. “They’re a great big animal, about 1,500 to 1,600 pounds with basically the intelligence of a four-year-old child, and we get on them and gallop down to the jumps and basically trust our health and welfare to them. The reason we stay safe is that they’re busy taking care of themselves, so, by extension, we get taken care of because they’re very smart about these things.”

Millar and Sparks have been friends for 20 years. Not only is he close with her, but also her father, high-tech entrepreneur Terry Matthews.

"He's a genius," said Millar. "He's one of the most interesting people I've ever been around. I have the greatest admiration for him."

The fundraiser will also feature such athletes as Canadian Olympic team silver medalist Jill Henselwood, Olympians Amy Millar, Beth Underhill and Hugh Graham, international rider Erynn Ballard, and up-and-coming star Sam Walker.

Spurs & Sparkles is taking place during the world-class, show-jumping Ottawa Equestrian Tournaments that run July 10-14 and July 17-21 at Wesley Clover Parks.

The idea for the fundraiser arose during last year’s competitions. Sparks and Tracy Howard, who’s in charge of events at Wesley Clover, noticed that the hospitality tent – which they’d invested so much time, effort and money on – was going unused one idyllic evening, during a break from programming. They saw this as an opportunity to add a new fundraising component to the Ottawa Equestrian Tournaments. They chose the Cancer Foundation, where funds raised will help local families navigate cancer through cancer coaching and will support local research and clinical trials. 

“It’s a cause that’s close to our hearts,” said Sparks, while listing the family members that she and her team at Wesley Clover have lost to the disease.