For a guy who hasn’t been to Spruce Meadows for that long, Rowan Willis makes the place his own.
The 42-year-old Australian rider first landed at the facility in 2018. Considering there was no riding in 2020 due to the pandemic, the fact that he has jumped (so to speak) into the top 20 earners list – sitting at 17 – is pretty remarkable.
“I can’t wait to be here after 20 years,” Willis smiled, his right arm in a sling after it fell over his shoulder and separated him last week. “It’s because of Blue Movie (his 16-year-old mare). She had a few good runs at the Masters. Obviously, the prize money in this class is the best in the world. I’m glad she likes this class, so that’s really helped.
“Obviously she is backed by high horsepower, with Everse winning the derby. That’s great. It helps us runners when we can have the chance to win so many prizes, it makes a big difference for us.
A second big part of Willis’ Meadows’ success – which raked in a handsome total of $1,311,095.66 – came in the North American derby category, the Sun Life Classic. After taking back-to-back wins in 2018 and 2019 with Everse W, the return to competition in September 2021 saw Willis place a pair of horses in the top five, Conlando 55 in third and Everse W in fifth.
“I had the smallest jump down, otherwise I would have won it, not that I think about it,” laughed Willis, the 61st world ranked runner.
“I like it but it’s a bit more… it adds a bit of eventing style with the dyke and bank, which you don’t normally see in a show jumping event. I think everyone in Australia did a bit of eventing because that was the main equestrian sport. I spent a lot of time in England, did a lot of fox hunting there, so we used to jump on anything that got in our way. I think sometimes this stuff just gets a little more equestrian, getting them over obstacles that we don’t see every day. Adds a little more excitement.
In 31 seasons of participation in the Sun Life Classic derby, there have been only 24 clear rounds in more than 700 attempts. This year the word is that the Sunday course will be a bit different from the typical one we’ve seen since 1990. One of the big changes will be the elimination of the steep bank at one end, in favor of the smaller bank to the other.
“It will be a bit strange, because I am preparing for the same course,” sighed Willis. “It’s good with the derby to know exactly what we’re up against but… we’ll actually have to walk the course!” »
This year he will use a 13-year-old gelding named Billy Guilder which he obtained from British rider Will Funnell, who has won the Hickstead Derby four times and failed to achieve an all-time fifth-place finish this year.
“He’s a real derby specialist, so these horses come out of his stables,” Willis noted. “We hope it will fade a bit. »
The Aussie will drive Blue Movie in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup grand prix on Saturday and try his best in the notoriously expensive derby, despite the obviously sore shoulder.
“The ligaments are stretched,” he grimaced. “It’s tough out there. They don’t make it easy for us. That’s probably why we come.
“We joke, but it’s hard. We go there and it’s more of a battle in a way, rather than most other shows being blunt. It’s like playing ice hockey without being able to jostle each other. We have contacts here.
Willis spends the winters competing in Florida, then travels to various shows the rest of the year. The nomadic lifestyle has its ups and downs, he admitted, but he’s not ready to trade it for anything just yet.
“It’s tough being on the road most of the year,” he admitted, “but I’m making the most of it while I can. »