A hush took over CenturyLink Stadium as McLain Ward picked up a gallop.
The rhythmical patter of HH Azur’s hooves and the collective breath holding of eight thousand fans greeting each massive fence in the fourth and final round of the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Omaha.
Clear to the last, Ward dropped his reins through the timers and brought the stadium screaming to its feet. A new FEI World Cup Jumping champion crowned!
“I’m so grateful not only for the horses that I had over the years but for the people behind me—a guy like Lee [McKeever], who has been with me for 29 years, since I did large ponies,” said Ward. “So to try to pull one off for them was very important for me.”
It’s a title that has long eluded the two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Ward has made 16 previous attempts to capture the World Cup Final. In 2009, he and his famed partner Sapphire came second to Meredith Michaels Beerbaum and Shutterfly. In 2010, they were leading after Round II only to be eliminated at the horse inspection. (The FEI later ruled that he was “incorrectly eliminated.”)
“I’ve been doing this a long time—25 years jumping international Grand Prix. I was very close so many times and one way or another messed it up,” said Ward.
“My father used to say the podium is only the last little part. The work is underneath.”
His 17th attempt proved the charm. Posting three faultless performances, Ward entered the last round with a rail in hand. Four faults would have forced a jump off with Switzerland’s Romain Dugent.
This time, a cool head prevailed.
“I felt pretty mellow all day. I was going to ride the best I could. I have lots of experience in this situation where I have cracked, so I understand how to do that. I just took a breath and believed in my horse and had a little luck and it came off. I owe a lot of people thanks for that,” said the world’s #4 rider.
His people were on his mind as he stood atop the podium, the range of emotions flashing on the Jumbotron—a face cracking smile, eyes briefly welled with tears, a disbelieving chuckle mid anthem.
“I was taking a moment to think about all the different people who have helped me,” he said. “I grew up in this business, so I was lucky to be exposed to so many people who were willing to help me in small ways and large. So, I just took a moment and reflect on that. My father used to say the podium is only the last little part. The work is underneath.”
And a definitive victory it was. Ward and HH Azur were the only pair to post four faultless rounds over three days of competition.
“You can lose [a championship] on Sunday afternoon but it’s won over all three days,” said course designer Alan Wade. “So I had a strategy in my own mind to sort of build them up height wise but I wanted them to leave in a good fashion over big fences and head to the next show. My main concern is to look after the horses.”
For Ward, it was a storybook ending to a hard fought dream.
“I was trying to put a fist pump [after the last jump] and I just lost the reins,” laughed Ward.