The term “core memory” was popularized after the release of the Pixar Film Inside Out, referencing the moment a person experiences a defining memory that ultimately shapes the essence of who they are.

As an equestrian, it’s an experience that defines who you are as a rider or horseman. McLain Ward has already etched his named into the fabric of U.S. show jumping, but the beautiful curse of equestrian sport is that no matter how decorated you are, there is always another achievement to reach for and one that is singular in its distinction.

For Ward, who has a scattering of Olympic, World Cup and World championship gold titles, a dream he had yet to live out was winning the CHI de Genève Rolex Grand Prix.

Until Sunday, that is.

Ward and his veteran partner 16-year-old mare HH Azur “Annie” were one of 40 starters to contest the Gérard Lachat and Louis Konickx designed 1.60m track and among the 13 combinations to progress to the jump-off. While it was a bit of a crowded jump-off, when the class includes 16 out of the world’s top 20 riders there is no surprise the field was able to negotiate the technical track.

It came down to the final two to jump off; reigning world number two Martin Fuchs (SUI) and Ward. To the thrill of the Swiss crowd, Fuchs and his 10-year-old gelding Leone Jei became the first pair to manage a sub-40 jump off time. Ward didn’t have hometown advantage, but he brought his Castle Hill family with him. In addition to his own team and faithful groom Lee McKeever, ten of his owners traveled to Geneva in a show of support. So, he had the extra push he needed.

Last to go, Ward negotiated the nine-fence course with the right balance of tact and risk, knocking Fuchs straight out of winning contention. The blistering time of 38.43 seconds was faster by a whopping 1.34 seconds. Safe through the timers and eyes upon the scoreboard, Ward flashed a wide smile and emphatically fist pumped the air and patting his mare. Annie too, gave a feel good shake with ears pricked happily forward.

“To win the Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva ranks right up amongst the very greatest moments. Olympic gold medals, the Grand Prix in Calgary…this is a very special moment,” said Ward, who spoke through tears in an interview published by USA Jumping.

The win also makes him a live contender for the Rolex Grand Slam, which features the four Majors: CHIO Aachen, the CSIO Spruce Meadows “Masters,” CHI Geneva and The Dutch Masters of Den Bosch.

“Azur is an incredible partner and friend, and thanks to everybody that helps put it together; Hunter Harrison, the Harrison family and François Mathy, my father watching up above. It’s a dream today.”

Fuchs also had a profound experience in Geneva, even as Sunday’s win slipped from his grasp. His former top horse Clooney 51, who sustained a shoulder fracture in the paddock last year, had his formal retirement ceremony. It was an emotional sendoff for all who looked on as Fuchs said a few (French) words about what the 16-year-old gelding meant to him before taking a final victory gallop.

Related reading: Because Unicorns need to Retire Too: 8 Things to Know About Clooney 51

Rounding out the podium was Shane Sweetnam (IRL) with James Kann Cruz, the nine-year-old rising star in his string. The pair had a breakout week along the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) tour this year at Traverse City II, where they won back-to-back CSI5* classes, including the prestigious American Gold Cup CSI5* Grand Prix.

The Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva marks the latest milestone in Ward’s spectacular career with HH Azur since catching their first 5* results in 2015. In the seven years since, she’s carried Ward to over 20 FEI wins and has an extraordinary top ten finish rate of 72% at 1.60 according to Jumpr App. The mare’s clear round rate is 56% at the same height.

While it’s rare to see a 16-year-old horse at the top of her game, HH Azur is by any definition an exceptional horse. This year alone she’s logged a CSIO4* Grand Prix 1.60m win in Wellington in March, a CSI4* 1.55m Grand Prix in North Salem in May and a CSIO5* 1.60m win at Spruce Meadows in the Tourmaline Oil Cup.

She might even have a few still to go, but Ward’s team is focused on the now and appreciating all that Annie desires to give at this point in her life.

“No team deserves it more,” wrote student Lillie Keenan (USA) to facebook.

Feature Image: Rolex Grand Slam / Peggy Schröder