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In 1996, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame enshrined two athletes that were "at the forefront of the Canadian equestrian scene." Would you be surprised if one of the athletes in question was neither a man nor a woman – but a horse. For the second time in its history, the Selection Committee agreed that not only Ian Millar, "one of the world's most successful riders," would be admitted into the Hall of Fame but also his mount to be deserving of this honour as "the realm of the sporting hero is not limited to the human race, as Big Ben, Canada's most celebrated show jumping horse, has proven." The first animal who was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame was the racehorse 'Northern Dancer' (1961-1990) from Oshawa, Ontario in 1965; its owner and successful businessman, E.P. Taylor (1901-1989) was admitted nine years later, in 1974, as a horse racing builder.
The story behind this legendary horse originates at the van Hooydonk Farm in Kalmthout, northern Belgium where on 20 April 1976 an unusually tall colt was born. The foal was originally named 'Winston' after Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and when sold to a Dutch trainer in 1983 he was renamed 'Big Ben' – on account of his height (17.3 hands, 60 inches, 152 centimetres) comparing him to the London landmark clock and tower. That same year, Canadian equestrian Ian Millar, C.M. (b. 6 January 1947) purchased the liver chestnut Belgian for $45,000 and relocated him to Millar Brooke Farm where he owns and operates in Perth, Ontario.
While many people believed that Big Ben was too big to be a suitable show jumper, Millar's intuition could not have been more accurate as over a period of eleven years, they became one of Canada's most successful horse-rider partnerships in Canadian sports history. Beginning to compete in show jumping events in 1984, they represented Canada in more than 30 Nations' Cup events and Millar rode Big Ben to more than 40 Grand Prix victories, including winning the derby at the Spruce Meadows National six times in eight years. Big Ben and Ian Millar went on to become the very first horse-and-rider combination to win two consecutive World Cup final titles in 1988 and 1989. They competed in three Olympic Games (1984, 1988 and 1992) and took home both Individual and Team Gold Medals from the 1987 Pan American Games. Big Ben is believed to be the first North American show jumper to win more than $1.5 million in prize money, including being the only horse to have won the 'du Maurier Ltd. International Grand Prix' twice (1987 and 1991) – which was the richest grand prix in the world at that time. Big Ben retired from competition in 1994 at the age of eighteen, but not before embarking on a final tour across Canada to bid farewell to his loyal fans. He lived out an enjoyable retirement in Perth until a bout of colic led to his death on 11 December 1999 and was buried at Millar Brooke Farm. Six months before his death, on 2 June 1999, Canada Post had issued a four-stamp series honouring famous Canadian horses that depicted Big Ben and rider Ian Millar.
Ian Miller has had a long and distinguished career since he first became of member of the Canadian equestrian team in 1971 until his formal retirement from international competition announced in May 2019. Due to his longevity and accomplishments, Ian Miller is often nicknamed 'Captain Canada' in his sport. Although born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he undertook a degree in business administration from Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario before moving to Perth, Lanark County – about an hour's drive south. Among the numerous medals and over 130 Grand Prix and Derby victories realized during his career, it is worth noting that after he won the Grand Prix of Bordeaux, France and the Grand Prix of Stuttgart, Germany in 1989, it earned him the number one ranking in the world in show jumping. In addition to be a silver medalist for team jumping at the 2008 Summer Olympics – the nation's first team show jumping medal in 40 years, Millar broke the record for the most Olympic appearances by any athlete in any sport (ten) when he was a member of Canada's team at the London 2012 Summer Olympics. A national treasure, Millar was invested in 1986 as a Member of the Order of Canada (C.M.), named Ontario's Athlete of the Year in 1989, and received an honorary doctorate by the University of Guelph in 2005. In 2013, he was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
On 22 May 2005, the Perth and District Chamber of Commerce erected a statue in tribute of Big Ben with Ian Millar riding in a picturesque park – appropriately called 'Big Ben Park' – along the banks of the Tay River in downtown Perth, not far from Millar Brooke Farm. The statue depicts the legendary team in full flight over a jump. It was sculpted at Stewart Patterns, New Hamburg, Ontario by Stewart Smith, Jean Abernethy, and Ruth Abernethy and was cast in bronze by Artcast Inc., Georgetown, Ontario.
On this day, 20 April 2022, we commemorate the 46th anniversary of the birth of the sporting hero Big Ben, more than 75 years since the birth of Olympic medalist Ian Miller and mark nearly 17 years since the unveiling of a statue in Perth, Ontario in honour of these equestrian team athletes who are admired and remembered throughout Canada and the greater equine community.
André M. Levesque