Olympic equestrian champion Eric Lamaze may be better behind the reins than behind the wheel.
The Canadian winner of gold and silver in Beijing is facing traffic charges in Florida after a speeding Mercedes crashed onto a property steps away from his $3 million (U.S.) estate in a sumptuous gated community where he flips homes for profit.
Lamaze, who rebounded from a cocaine-laced past to become the world's top-ranked show-jumping rider, was charged with careless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and driving with an expired licence in the wee hours of March 21 in the village of Wellington in West Palm Beach. Police reported $52,000 in damages at the scene, which is in a neighbourhood populated with multi-million-dollar homes and polo fields.
However, the 41-year-old claims he wasn't driving the 2009 silver car believed to be his, and has entered not guilty pleas to the criminal charges. Lamaze's defence attorney, Richard Walter Springer, said from his Palm Springs office only that Lamaze was involved in the accident "as a passenger."
Lamaze's girlfriend Tiffany Foster, another man and a restaurant valet are on the defence witness list filed in Palm Beach County court by Springer on April 1. Lamaze, who is requesting a jury trial, will also offer a security video tape from the Players Club restaurant and photos of the scene as evidence, according to court documents.
However, the closest Players Club restaurant to Lamaze's home (about 2 kilometres away), has video cameras that are not hooked up to record and are there only for show, according an employee at the establishment favoured by horse lovers. There is a valet service.
Calls to Lamaze's Florida home went unanswered earlier this week. On Tuesday, he left Florida for Europe where he begins competition today in Antwerp, Belgium.
Police state in their citation that Lamaze was driving too fast for the conditions and drove off Mizner Way, the street on which he lives.
The Palm Beach Post's blogging columnist, Jose Lambiet, reported that Lamaze's AMG SL63 Mercedes flipped on its roof and landed on the lawn of a neighbour, Richard Abedon, after hitting a palm tree and destroying a mailbox. Lambiet reported Abedon called 911 to summon Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputies to the scene.
Abedon did not return several calls. A woman who answered the home phone yesterday said the family had no comment, but did add the lawn has been repaired.
Mending fences, as it were, would come at a high price tag in this ultra-rich Wellington oasis where Lamaze winters and competes against international fields. It's also where the Summer Games star has scored real estate profits over the past few years, including this huge coup: In August of 2005, the Montreal native paid $1.85 million (U.S.) for a newly-built home on the same street he now lives on. He sold that five-bedroom, five bathroom home six months later for $3.09 million.
Among the drop-dead wealthy in Lamaze's horsey 'hood is the Fleischhacker family who own Hickstead, the phenomenal steed he rode to individual gold and team silver in Beijing. Their estate is pegged at more than $12 million.
Before his heroics at Beijing, Lamaze had been know for many years as the bad boy of Canadian equestrians. Born to a drug-addicted mother and raised by an alcoholic grandmother, he lived some of his teen years on Montreal's streets.
He found his salvation in horses, but drugs continued to be part of his life. Despite being one of the top equestrians in the nation, he wound up missing both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics after testing positive for cocaine.
His fortunes turned when he was matched with Hickstead, a 12-year-old stallion. Together they dominated the Grand Prix circuit in 2007, and he become the first North American to win more than $1 million in prize money. The following year, the pair found gold at Beijing and the story of redemption was complete.
"There was a time that I was so far away from even dreaming of this," Lamaze said after winning his individual gold. "That this has happened, that it was possible for me, it involved so many people other than just me, the people who have supported me and stood by me and encouraged me to move on and be the best that I can be."
As well as his Palm Beach home, Lamaze continues to sell and train horses from his farm in Schomberg, north of Toronto.
The Palm Beach Polo club website boasts that residents of the Wellington community can "rub shoulders with polo players and world-class equestrians in the sporting utopia."
This private development is dotted with tennis courts and two championship golf courses but Wellington is definitely horse country – from the meandering bridle paths between manses for recreational riders to the competition ring that draws top international fields.
So far this year in Wellington, Lamaze has continued his post-Olympic dominance by winning two major $30,000 events (on Take Off and Narcotique de Muze II) and on Feb. 27, he was part of the victorious Canadian team in the $75,000 Nations Cup.