You know you’re not having your best winter season when the server at the local coffee chain notes your diminishing win rate.

“I was at Dunkin’ Doughnuts the other morning at 5:30,” shared four-time Olympic medalist McLain Ward (USA), “and the guy said, ‘Are you actually McLain?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Well, you were doing so much better last year.'”

The server’s not entirely wrong, either.

Ward has been largely missing from atop the podium this Winter Equestrian Festival, an absence that looms large for a rider who routinely dominates the WEF Challenge Cup and has very rarely fallen outside the world top 10 this past decade.

In 2023, Ward logged 12 podium finishes at WEF, including seven victories, then skipped across the pond mid-circuit to win the Rolex Grand Prix ‘s-Hertogenbosch at the Dutch Masters, too.

This year, he’s earned seven podium finishes to date in Wellington, highlighted by two wins—both this week—and €235,448 in prize money (Jumpr App). He’s currently no. 11 on Jumpr App’s rider rankings for earnings in 2024, which is to say Ward’s “not great” winter circuit is still better than most rider’s entire year.

And week 10 at WEF? Well, it was great for Ward by any standard.

The world no. 10 won both feature classes of the 4* week and on two different horses. Ward and First Lady were over a second and a half faster than runners up Kent Farrington (USA) and Myla in Thursday’s WEF Challenge Cup. He went on to win the Saturday Night’s Horseware Ireland Grand Prix by nearly a second with Contagious.

“He’s had a bit of four-faultitis here in Florida; two great grand prix with one down,” said Ward of the Contagio gelding.

On Saturday, they looked to have it cured.  

“It was a very hot night and a quick turnaround for us,” continued Ward, who jumped last in both rounds. “I only jumped three jumps in the schooling area because I didn’t want to let him bottom out. He dug in deep and we were lucky to go last.”

Three combinations jumped clear over Oscar Soberon’s (USA) challenging first round track to advance to the short course. Ward’s 2016 Olympic teammate Lucy Davis and new mount Ben 431 were the pathfinders, but pulled a rail in the short course.

Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts and Derby de Riverland set the time to beat with a clear in 44.19 seconds. Ward’s jump-off time of 43.24 sealed the win.

“When I walked, I thought the jumps were placed so you couldn’t get quite straight and were always coming in at a bit of an angle. Interestingly enough, you had two very experienced horses go clear. Nicola’s horse is a younger horse but very talented and he’s a very good rider. I thought there’d be a few more clear, but it proved to be challenging and the time [allowed] was just enough to force mistakes.”

For Ward, the fight for top finishes is a familiar dance.

“You can have a little rub, have four faults and be very frustrated, or if that same rail stays up, you win the grand prix and you’re a hero,” said Ward. “It’s a fine line, but I’m grateful to the horses and to be able to keep banging heads with these riders.”

With the Paris Games less than six months away, he has his sights set on Olympic qualification. But at age 15, Contagious isn’t a forerunner in his string.

“I think Contagious is getting a bit long in the tooth for another championship, but Callas [16] has a lot still left in her tank, so she’s certainly on the radar. We have an exciting new horse, Ilex, that we think can do incredible things. We have a few options and a plan with each of them that leads to Paris in the best form. We hope that we can make the team and bring home another medal.”