Looking at the International Ring at Spruce Meadows for the first time since the incident Eric Lamaze refers to as "the tragedy" – the death of Hickstead from an aortic rupture at an event in Italy last November – Canada's top-ranked equestrian was flooded with memories of his great horse.
On their last visit to Calgary's elite show-jumping venue last September, the duo had added a second $1-million CN International Grand Prix to an impressive list of career victories, which include a gold and silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The question of which horse will be Lamaze's mount for the 2012 London Olympics will be answered over the next five weeks, during the Spruce Meadows' Summer Series, which begins Wednesday with the National Tournament.
While Lamaze has brought six horses to Calgary, he says he has narrowed the Olymp ic contenders to two: Verdi, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, and Derly Chin de Muze, a nine-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare who had two flawless rounds in her first appearance with the Canadian equestrian team at the FEI Nation's Cup in Florida in March.
"Derly is coming into Calgary as a very green horse that had a lot of mileage put on her in a short time," Lamaze said. "She's very careful and has a lot of power. I think things have come together really nicely."
If the younger horse needs more experience with difficult jumps and large crowds, Lamaze says he's the one who needs to get more experience with Verdi, who was previously ridden by Stephanie van den Brink of the Netherlands.
"You're not going to change a horse like that," he said. "It's about me getting to know his rhythm, his stride; what to do on show day and how much work to do before."
With Hickstead, he says, they were completely one at the end. "We never changed anything because we knew we had found the key. But with these new horses, we're still trying. You have to improvise and see."
And what audiences will see over the next five weeks is the start of what many hope will be the next great partnership in Canadian show jumping.
"I don't think you'll have to ask me which horse I'm going to ride [in London]," Lamaze said. "I can't think I will have two horses nose to nose and be flipping a coin. One of them will stand out."
It was a Summer Series at Spruce Meadows many years ago that marked the pivotal moment in the rider's relationship with Hickstead.
"It was awful in the beginning, like a bad, bad marriage," said Lamaze, who was ready to send the difficult stallion back to his original European owner.
Then, during the 2006 Masters Tournament, they began to trust each other. "It was me who said, 'Okay, I'll let you get away with that.' And he said, 'Okay, I'll do this for you.' We kind of shook hands and then off we went.
"You pick up the pieces and get yourself some new horses and hope you find some good ones," he said after a pause, the loss fresh again. "If you're lucky enough in your lifetime, you get something half as good as Hickstead was and you're going to be okay.
"It's rare enough to have one horse that you have a chance to do something good with. That I would have two at the last minute – I have to be the luckiest guy alive."