“I had a good feeling when I walked the course,” said Olympic Gold Medalist Laura Kraut (USA).

It wasn’t because the track set by Steve Stephens (USA) for the $425,000 Lugano Diamonds CSI5* Grand Prix looked easy. Rather, the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) Week 7’s “Saturday Night Lights” presented a motivating challenge for her and her Tokyo Olympic partner, 13-year-old gelding Baloutinue.

“I knew it was going to be difficult. The track he built was big and the oxers were really wide. For me, I thought it was probably the scopiest course we had this year, and I was happy with what I saw,” said Kraut.

The course claimed rider after rider, with horses especially dropping rails in the final stretch, which presented a bending line plank to a double combination with a liverpool. In the end, seven horses advanced to the second round, all of which were seasoned competitors. With the likes of world number nine Daniel Deusser (GER), world number five Shane Sweetnam (IRL) and McLain Ward (USA) aboard his Tokyo Olympic partner Contagious, it was anyone’s game.

A jump-off of this caliber meant riders knew it would be a fight to the finish, but overzealousness proved to be costly. Deusser’s 13-year-old mare Killer Queen Vdm put the brakes on after they rolled back too sharp to get a good line to the double combination. Adrienne Sternlicht (USA) made a similar misjudgment with 15-year-old Benny’s Legacy and had to take an extra circle.

The crowd erupted once Kraut and Baloutinue went clear in a blistering 40.26 seconds, and with Ward the final rider to go it became a face-off between the USA teammates both on their Tokyo silver medalists. From the moment the buzzer sounded it was clear Ward wanted it, putting down a fiery pace with bold lines while the crowd kept their eyes anxiously on the clock. It wasn’t until Contagious landed from the final fence that the result became clear, 40.56 flashing across the screen.

Ward and Contagious were just tenths of a second behind, but it was just enough for Kraut, who noted that sometimes a little bit less is actually more.

“I’ve not had many successful jump-offs [with Baloutinue] and I’ve not jumped very many with him. I always try to go faster than I probably should, but he’s fast enough on his own, and tonight I just let him go his speed and that seemed to work better,” said Kraut.

“He’s a trier, he’s elastic and he’s very careful. It was a fantastic crowd; the atmosphere here at night is as good as it gets. We feel like the crowd is really behind us; when I was clear it was an explosion.”

They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and the Lugano Diamonds CSI5* Grand Prix was certainly Kraut’s on Saturday. With this win the pair has now accrued over 700,000 euros in prize money and boasts an impressive 47% top ten finish rate according to Jumpr App. Yet Kraut isn’t about the glitz and glamour, she is a known philanthropist within the horse community as a proud JustWorld International Ambassador, giving back every chance she can.

Winning is better under the right conditions

We can imagine that Ward had a brief moment of chagrin when he saw just how close he came to Kraut, but that feeling didn’t last any longer than it took him to bring Contagious down to a trot. Emphatically patting his neck towards the exit, there wasn’t a shred of disappointment in their effort.

Mclain Ward & Contagious. Photo © Sportfot

I know that Laura’s horse is very quick, and Contagious is fast across the ground but a little slow in the air. I tried everything I could, and I didn’t leave anything on the table,” Ward explained.

“Contagious is incredible because he’s always very careful, but I never really expected him to do everything he’s done. I think at the end of the day the horse is a little bit of a lion. He rises and he fights with you, and he’s really been a great partner to me.”

Being a good partner to Contagious also means weighing the risks, challenging him enough in the jump-off to have a shot at the win while still riding smart. Even if that means leaving the door open for Kraut and Baloutinue.

“I did see one less to the second-to-last, looking through the gazebo, but it was such a blind turn and he has a tendency to go a little to the right. I thought it was too risky, and to be frank I thought maybe I had done enough already.”

Top riders not only want to win, but they want to do so deservingly.

“You never want to win because someone else messed up, you want to win because you were the best and you did better,” said Ward.

Sharing that sentiment was Sweetnam, who landed in third place with gelding Csf James Kann Cruz on a respectable time of 42.35 seconds. At 10-years-old, James Kann Cruz was the youngest horse on the podium. He’s already logged a CSI5* Grand Prix win along the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) tour this year, and he’s only getting better.

“I’m very happy with him. Every time I jump with him, I feel I have a chance, and every class I can go a bit quicker. We’re sat up here with two Olympic horses, so I couldn’t be happier,” said Sweetnam.

Shane Sweetnam & James Kann Cruz. Photo © Sportfot

“All the 5*’s have different course designers that come over here and they want to prove something. Two weeks ago was an incredibly tough course and the standard was very high. Same again tonight, I thought there would be only three clear but it showed how good the standard was of the horses and riders. It proves that these are top 5* Grand Prix and you better bring your A-Game,” said Sweetnam.

Week 7 serves as WEF’s midway point, and with Nations Cup week approaching riders will need to keep up their A-Game now more than ever.

Feature Image: Laura Kraut and Baloutinue /© Sportfot