When Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward arrived in the sleeting, snowing city of s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, it was with a clear mission.
Ward left the palms of Wellington International in an effort to clinch the main event at the historic Dutch Masters, the Rolex Grand Prix. With his longtime partner 17-year-old mare HH Azur, Ward was the sole American on the start list, but the European crowd watched them intently, and with bated breath.
That’s because the Dutch Masters is one of four legs in the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, offering a 2 million euro bonus to any rider who wins three stages in a row. After winning the Rolex Grand Prix at CHI Geneva with HH Azur in December, Ward officially became the Live Contender.
He maintained the title after Sunday, jumping-off in a blistering 37.86 seconds with HH Azur, aka “Annie.” For Ward, it’s not only winning the class that is a dream come true, but the continued success of his partnership with Annie.
“I knew a lot of things were going to have to come together today to pull this off, but I have an incredible team and this mare is just something from a dream,” said Ward.
Course designer Louis Konickx presented a 17-element course that aimed to challenge some of the best combinations in the world, while also allowing a healthy group of riders to advance to the jump-off to indulge spectators. More riders slipped through than even Konicks bargained for, with 16-pairs flawlessly negotiating the track. Considering the level of the field, with eight of the top 10 riders in the world vying for the title, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that so many managed to tackle his 1.60m challenges.
“I thought it was enough but I have to talk to the riders because it wasn’t selective enough. I suppose some things in my courses were too nice, I don’t know,” laughed Konickx.
World No. 1 Henrik Von Eckermann (SWE) was first go with his Tokyo Olympics and FEI ECCO World Championships gold medal partner, 13-year-old gelding King Edward. They went for broke with a daring, open gallop through the lines that resulted in overshooting some turns and collecting extra seconds on the clock. They crossed the finish in 38.52 seconds, which was swiftly overtaken by Julien Epaillard (FRA) and 10-year-old gelding Donatello D’auge.
Ward was able to shave the time down even further in the final galloping line to the Rolex oxer, a bold decision considering the final element has been his huckleberry as of late.
“The last fence has been a little bit of an issue in the last few Grand Prix. In Geneva, I got away with a big air. Aachen I didn’t. The nine strides was a little bit more reasonable so I thought I could get there and stay on it and she turned herself inside out,” explained Ward.
The crowd erupted when they reached the landing side clean, as did Lee McKeever, the megatron flashing to his elated manager of 30 plus years. The team had a grueling wait to celebrate the win, however. Ward was early in the order and the threat of losing his lead loomed large.
“I don’t think it has quite sunk in yet, it was lot of stress having to watch the remaining 12 riders in the jump-off. The level here so high, and I think later I will realize what we have achieved,” said Ward after the class, still stirred by the adrenaline.
“The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping has truly raised the bar of the sport and winning a Major is one of the greatest moments in a rider’s career. I am so proud of my team and my horse, and a little proud of myself,” said Ward.
Now, the obvious goal is to secure the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping by winning the next leg in Aachen. As competitive as Ward is, he has a different series of priorities.
“After Geneva we decided that if Azur was in good health, we would aim towards this, and we had a plan. We only showed once in Wellington as a warm up for here,” said Ward.
“It is a huge challenge, and I would love to take Azur to Aachen, the next step, and hopefully onto Calgary. But as I said in Geneva, we’re going to leave here and assess how she is. She’s 17-years-old now and I take nothing for granted. I’m always grateful for every great competition she gives me.”
At the moment, her 17-years is something of an advantage. The mare’s experience in adapting to the different challenges in Europe and the United States helped Ward adjust himself.
“It’s always a challenge to come from an outdoor venue to a very tight ring where these riders next to me have been doing week in and week out, but Azur is extremely seasoned.”
The stats back up the statement, with a 72% top ten finish rate at 1.60m according to Jumpr App, which also translates to 3,741,159 euros in prize money.
With all of Azur’s distinguished experience, this was in fact her first Dutch Masters. The last time Ward competed at the venue was nearly 30-years-ago.
“For all of the top riders who are fortunate to have a horse who is capable of the sport at this level this has become a major goal. These four iconic events, that are, as I said so important to win. We grow up dreaming to win these Grand Prix. The best get them once in their life. So already that’s a goal. It’s a hard task, it is not an easy challenge,” said Ward.
Winning a Rolex Grand Prix on any of its world stages is undeniably special, but for Ward the real heart of his success is much closer to home.
“I showed here 30-years-ago with Lee McKeever, the one who runs my stable…I’m very fortunate to have an incredible group of people behind me and I speak a lot about them because it’s the key to our success in sport and life. My family, my two girls and my wife obviously are incredible. We have a great group of owners, and my story with Lee is very unique. It’s been a long story, not always easy but a great one in the end.
“My groom Virginie, she’s not been with me quite as long but is really a top, top professional and they’re the ones that do the work. Like my father used to say, I get to be on the podium but they’re the ones that do the work and a great deal of this is owed to them.”