Omaha, Neb. – April 2, 2017 – As two-time Olympic and Pan American Games gold medalist McLain Ward of the United States made his way to the main arena of the CenturyLink Center for the second and final round of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final, his mind flashed back to 2009. At the Las Vegas World Cup Finals eight years ago, Ward and his iconic mount Sapphire just missed the championship title, falling short to Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly. It took Ward 17 tries, but on Sunday, he and HH Azur stayed cool, calm and collected and made history by claiming their first-ever World Cup Finals on home soil, jumping the only five consecutive clear rounds throughout the entire event.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and have been very close so many times and one way or another messed it up,” said Ward. “I’m so grateful for not only the horses I have had over the years but the people behind me. I was pretty mellow all day and I was going to ride the best I could. I just took a breath and believed in my horse and had a little bit of luck. I owe a lot of people thanks for this.
“At the end of the day, I love to compete,” continued Ward. “It’s stressful, it’s hard and it takes something from you for sure — I’m not going to say it doesn’t — but it gives you much more in return. You’ve got to try not to focus on certain things that didn’t go your way — a rail, a situation. Days like this are worth it.”
Ward and his spectacular 11-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, affectionately known as “Annie” in the barn and owned by Double H Farm and François Mathy, demonstrated flawless performances and were uncatchable all week, winning all three phases of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final.
“I was told as a young man that the moments in the trenches you remember more than the podium,” said Ward. “The work is underneath. That’s true if you look back; there are a lot of people who have fought this battle with you. I’m not so emotional typically in prize giving but I think you can see it was a happy day.
“It’s different than the Olympic team medals,” continued Ward. “Those certainly are incredibly prized possessions, but I coat-tailed a medal in Athens with a great team. I felt the medal in Hong Kong, and the medal in Rio I contributed to a great deal. I was very proud of that but that’s a different situation. An individual championship is ranked very high. I’m not going to say higher or lower because I’m always so proud to represent my country but it’s different.”
The top 30 of the world’s best horses and athletes qualified to compete in Sunday’s grand finale after Thursday and Friday’s initial two phases. Points were awarded to riders based on their finishes throughout the first two rounds, which were then converted into penalties that were carried into Sunday’s final round.
Sunday’s competition consisted of two rounds over two extremely difficult courses designed by Alan Wade, and the 20 best-placed combinations advanced to the second round. Throughout the afternoon, only seven were able to produce double-clear efforts over the technical tracks.
“My main concern [when designing my courses] is the horses,” said Wade. “If riders want to make mistakes I don’t want to see the horses get in trouble. I saw a number of horses that jumped that second round better than they jumped all week and for me that was good. The riders will be blaming themselves for the faults that they took earlier in the week that put them out of the championship. Overall we had some excellent, top class show jumping — good horses and good riders jumping big fences.”
The two athletes who rounded out the top three in the overall rankings, jumping double-clear in Sunday’s phase three, was second place finishers Romain Duguet (SUI) and Christina Duguet’s Twentytwo des Biches, while Henrik Von Eckermann (SWE) and Karl Schneider’s Mary Lou concluded their trip to Omaha in third place. The athletes added 0 faults to their total scores on Sunday, with Duguet finishing on 4 faults overall and Von Eckermann finishing on 8 faults.
“The feeling is really great and I am really happy,” Duguet said. “Twentytwo is only 10 years old and she started to jump at the grand prix level one year ago. I have to ride her a bit more quiet and that’s what I did this week and she did a fantastic job. I am really proud of her — it’s super.”
“I knew in the end if I rode well the horse would not make any mistakes,” Von Eckermann explained. “For me, I was happy to win third place today as I started at sixth [after Friday’s phase two]. I was, of course, angry about my fault in the end two days ago. I wouldn’t have been faster than McLain if I made the jump-off so I wouldn’t have won anyways. That’s why I’m really happy with my third place and the horse really deserved it.”
Knowing how it feels to come so far and be so close, Ward stayed focused throughout the entire week in Omaha and didn’t let the intense, competitive atmosphere get to him.
“I felt a little pressure,” said Ward. “I was in [Romain’s] position in Vegas a few years back when Shutterfly won and I remember I jumped two clear rounds on the last day and then Meredith [Michaels-Beerbaum] had to go. She didn’t have a great warm-up and I was thinking about that as I went in for the second round — how she kept it together. I was stressed but I have a great horse and I believed in her. She jumped her heart out.
“One thing about sports is no matter what the challenges are, you go to perform and you have to move on afterwards,” continued Ward. “I was lucky enough to have a great horse in Sapphire and I’m lucky enough to have another great one in HH Azur. I’ve been a fighter and a digger and a grinder my whole career. I try never to give up. I try to keep working at it. My team works at it, and today’s just a culmination of a lot of people’s hard work.”
Even after finally winning one of the world’s most coveted and prestigious prizes in show jumping, Ward’s key to success is simple: believe in yourself and your horse.
“I think the only game plan I had this week was to try to do the best I could each day and hopefully be in the hunt and fight today,” Ward said. “You have to go into these championships believing you have to jump five clear rounds to win. It’s not like it was before, where you could make a mistake and come back. People are just too good. These guys don’t give you an inch and everybody is a fighter by nature at this level.
“The amazing thing is the horse,” continued Ward. “She’s number three to my wife and daughter. She felt a little tired in the last round in the schooling area. I told her before we went in, I said, ‘Annie I need a little help today. Just try to stay focused, one more round to go.’ She dug in deep and just felt phenomenal the last round in the ring.”
Results: 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final Overall Standings
Rider/Country/Horse/Penalties After Final II/Final III Round A/Final III Round B/Total
- McLain Ward/USA/HH Azur/0/0/0/0
- Romain Duguet/SUI/Twentytwo des Biches/4/0/0/4
- Henrik Von Eckermann/SWE/Mary Lou/8/0/0/8
- Martin Fuchs/SUI/Clooney/5/4/0/9
- Sergio Alvarez Moya/ESP/Arrayan/9/0/0/9
- Guido Klatte jun./GER/7/4/0/11
- Gregory Wathelet/BEL/Forlap/3/4/4/11
- Steve Guerdat/SUI/Bianca/8/4/0/12
- Maikel Van der Vleuten/NED/VDL Groep Verdi Tn N.O.P/12/0/0/12
- Lorenzo De Luca/ITA/Ensor de Litrange LXII/16/0/0/16
- Kevin Stout/FRA/16/0/0/16
- Marcus Ehning/GER/Pret A Tout/10/8/0/18
- Leopold Van Asten/NED/VDL Groep Zidane N.O.P./12/0/8/20
- Simon Delestre/FRA/Chadino/15/0/8/23
- Laura Kraut/USA/Zeremonie/14/9/0/23
- Charlie Jacobs/USA/Cassinja S/16/4/4