“I have family from the West Coast, so it always feels a little bit comfortable for me. It feels like coming home,” said Olympic Gold medalist McLain Ward after the CSIO5* Longines Grand Prix at San Juan Capistrano International in California.

This weekend, the universally accepted phenomenon of a “hometown advantage” translated to an exceptionally calm Ward as he walked the Leopoldo Palacios designed track. With 21 horse and rider combinations tasked with the challenge, only Jose Antonio Chedraui Eguia (MEX) and Ward ultimately left the ring fault free.

Returning for the shortened course first was Chedraui with 11-year-old mare H-Lucky Retto. Together, they put down an efficient 38.21 second clear. The pressure was on Ward and 13-year-old stallion Kasper van het Hellehof. Taking out a stride in the final line set them ahead, and they finished on 37.42 seconds. Cassio Rivetti (BRA) rounded out the podium with 10-year-old gelding Nadale van Dorperheide.

“It’s a big win. Kasper really performed beautifully. He’s been a great campaigner for us. His ownership team is a group of people who are really behind the United States and international competition, and it really makes it that much more special to win our home Nations Cup Grand Prix,” said Ward.

The win marks a new milestone in their three year partnership: their inaugural CSI5* Grand Prix win. Ward and Kasper have contested 5* events in Dinard (FRA), Aachen (GER), Rotterdam (NED), Knokke (BEL), Piazza Di Siena (ITA) and all over North America, earning the bulk of their podium finishes at 1.60m—three to date. The pair has 37% clear round and 47% top ten finish averages over 19 rounds at the height, according to Jumpr App. Their stats climb to 64% and 57%, respectively, at 1.55m.

“We’ve really grown in our relationship together…he’s been a wonderful addition,” Ward said.

“I thought [Chedraui] actually did the smart round. That’s what I thought he was going to do, be neat and clear and try to hope that I made a mistake and had a fence down,” said Ward.

“The first turn wasn’t great for me; Kasper’s left turn is a little bit difficult. He likes to kind of run off to the right. When I got that under my belt, I thought, ‘Just keep it smooth.’ I knew I was able to do one less to the last than Antonio.”

Friday’s CSI5* Grand Prix is a taste of what’s to come leading up to Sunday’s CSIO5* Nations Cup, and there’s a lot riding on the result. The U.S. team is seeking qualification for the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona, which will be the first opportunity to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“Leopoldo is one of the most seasoned and one of the great course builders in the world over the past two decades. He has a super feeling. He didn’t have a huge class today and we do have the Nations Cup coming on Sunday, but there were some strong combinations and he had to build at a 5* level,” Ward explained.

McLain Ward and Kasper van het Hellehof. Photo by McCool Photography

“The most important part of this week for us is the Nations Cup. Our first opportunity to qualify for the Olympic Games is the Nations Cup Final which will be in September in Barcelona. We have to qualify out of our league,” said Ward.

The United States is currently leading the North American, Central American & Caribbean division standings, and after falling short on the qualification for the 2022 Nation Cup Final they’re eager to maintain their lead.

“So these three Nations Cup – the first in Mexico, which we were successful at and won, then here in San Juan Capistrano and then on to Langley. Our backs are against the wall. This is a must-do. I think all of the best riders and supporters of horses in our country are trying to come together and get this job done,” said Ward.

Looking to get the job done on Sunday is Lillie Keenan with 13-year-old gelding Argan de Beliard, Karl Cook with 13-year-old mare Kalinka van’t Zorgvliet, Laura Kraut with 10-year-old gelding Dorado and Ward with his top partner, 14-year-old gelding Contagious. With these odds, we say they’ve got a pretty good shot.

Feature Image: McLain Ward and Kasper van het Hellehof. Photo by McCool Photography