Omaha, Neb. – March 30, 2017 – McLain Ward kicked off the first phase of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final on Thursday evening with a win for the U.S. in the one-round speed leg of the competition.
Ward bested 37 of the world’s top horses and riders aboard the 11-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, HH Azur, owned by Double H Farm and François Mathy. Omaha is Ward’s 17th World Cup Finals, and after coming as close as second in 2009, he is on the hunt for his first championship title in 2017 and is so far off to a great start.
The Alan Wade-designed course, set at 1.60m in height, challenged horses and riders throughout a series of 13 obstacles around the small, indoor main arena of the CenturyLink Center. Thursday’s faults-converted speed phase is designed to give a rider with a rail down a chance to stay in the running heading into Friday’s second round of competition.
Ward used HH Azur’s big stride to his advantage on Thursday, carefully guiding his 2016 Rio Olympic silver medal-winning mount to one of the few clear rounds of the evening in 59.27 seconds for the win.
“I didn’t go to the World Cup last year but they did change the specs to 1.60m for the first day, which actually really suits my horse because it becomes a bigger course in size and dimension, but maybe less of a traditional speed track. With a big powerhouse like Azur, that certainly is more suitable,” explained Ward. “Alan Wade is my favorite course designer in the world — I’m a huge fan of his. There weren’t a lot of options tonight but there were big jumps and I was able to use my stride on a few turns.
“I think on a few of the rollbacks I was able to make up some time,” continued Ward. “She’s a pretty quick horse with a very big stride so I try to use that to my advantage. Even though she’s a powerhouse, she’s a real blood mare. I thought the course was big enough for the first night.”
Coming in second place with a clear round was Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and Karl Schneider’s Mary Lou in 59.58 seconds.
“It’s [Mary Lou’s] first championship,” said Eckermann. “She’s jumped bigger classes and if she’s here it’s because she’s ready for it. I started to ride her in September. She was jumping at the 2* 1.45m level and she had a great season. She’s trying to do everything right and she’s very special.”
Two-time defending World Cup Finals champion, Steve Guerdat of Switzerland, and Bianca, owned by Elias Stud Farm, rounded out the top three of the evening in 60.06 seconds.
“I’m very happy,” said Guerdat. “The ride could have been a little bit better but I’m very happy with the way [Bianca] was jumping. She jumped amazing and I hope I can keep on riding well. She’s done a few qualifiers and she started doing grand prix competitions only last year. I think she’s just getting a little bit more confident. She’s improved a lot quite fast. She had a long break over the winter and I got her back fresh. I was a little bit afraid I would be short on time to get her here but she kept on improving. I think she was great today. Especially for the first day, she was actually very good to ride.
“I’m very happy with this position,” continued Guerdat. “Especially with the way that my horse was jumping. She felt very good so I’m happy with it. I’m very happy for McLain today. We knew he was one of the top men this week so we’ll have a good fight to the end.”
The rest of the U.S. team also fought hard on Thursday, with Charlie Jacobs and Cassinja S and Laura Kraut and Zeremonie both incurring only 4 faults on course and finishing back-to-back in 14th and 15th in 65.32 seconds and 65.80 seconds.
“I’m grateful,” said Jacobs. “My horse jumped well and she came out healthy. I thought we had a good round. Unfortunate rail I think. We’re in the thick of it at least and I’m happy about that. It’s always an honor and a privilege to represent the United States. I consider myself very fortunate because I have the horses and the people in my life to allow me to do this so it’s a real treat to be here and I couldn’t be more thankful for all those that support me.”
Jamie Barge and Luebbo and Todd Minikus and Babalou 41 claimed spots 31 and 32 on the leaderboard in the final standings, while Jenni McAllister and Legis Touch the Sun ended in 34th. Audrey Coulter and Capital Colnardo and Karl Cook and Tembla will not be returning in Friday’s second round of competition due to elimination and retirement.
“It is always an honor [to represent the U.S.] and I’ve been very fortunate in my life to represent my country in a lot of different events,” said Minikus. “That is one thing I do feel very special about and I couldn’t be happier for that.”
The second round of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final will take place on Friday at 7 p.m. (CST) and involves one-round with a jump-off against the clock. With three athletes eliminated after Thursday’s competition, only 34 are invited to participate in Friday’s next phase. Points are awarded to each rider based on their finishes in each of the first two rounds. Those points are then converted into penalties that riders carry into the third and final competition on Sunday.
Heading in to Friday, Ward noted that having Thursday behind him is a relief as competition continues to ramp up.
“The first day is the toughest part to me,” said Ward. “I actually asked Ludger Beerbaum — I think this is his 30th World Cup — I said, ‘Does it get less stressful?’ He said, ‘No.’ You always come with high hopes and obviously with a horse like HH Azur you have particularly high hopes. Especially on our home soil I’d like to have a great finish. I think that’s the biggest stress, just dealing with the nerves. I think it doesn’t matter what I’m riding at this level, I try to bring a horse that I think can compete and I always believe in my heart I could be at the top. I certainly realize that this is one of those career opportunities to do well.
“[HH Azur] is an incredible animal,” continued Ward. “The biggest thing I try to do is not mess up for her. I think the world of her and her performance has been great. I’ll just keep digging this week. I feel these two very close behind me so I’ll just keep pushing on. I feel great. This is a particularly special event. It would certainly be nice to try and pull this off. My wife and daughter are here as always and I’ll try to make everybody proud.”
Results: Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final I
- McLain Ward/USA/HH Azur/59.27
- Henrik von Eckermann/SWE/Mary Lou/59.58
- Steve Guerdat/SUI/Bianca/60.06
- Gregory Wathelet/BEL/Forlap/60.36
- Leopold Van Asten/NED/VDL Groep Zidane N.O.P/60.71
- Romain Duget/SUI/Twentytwo des Biches/60.88
- Martin Fuchs/SUI/Clooney/61.37
- Sergio Alvarez Moya/ESP/Arrayan/62.05
- Guigo Klatte jun./GER/Qinghai/62.17
- Simon Delestre/FRA/Chadino/63.24
- Nicola Philipppaerts/BEL/H&M Harley vd Bisschop/63.59
- Kevin Staut/FRA/Reveur de Hurtebise H D C/63.63
- Sheikh Ali Al Thani/QAT/Carolina/64.61
- Charlie Jacobs/USA/Cassinja S/65.32
- Laura Kraut/USA/Zeremonie/65.80
- Marcus Ehning/GER/Pret A Tout/65.88