With the crinkle of a blue plastic wrapper, HH Azur kept her feet firmly on the ground and stood calmly at attention as she and her rider were honored for pulling off another spectacular win.
Mclain Ward is now the unquestionable star of the show during what’s been a dream week at the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. He and the 11-year-old SBS mare (Thunder vd Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui vd Zuuthoeve) won the opening leg of the Final on Thursday, and returned just 24 hours later to win round two, on Friday, March 31, 2017.
The night prior, HH Azur had spent the prizegiving ceremony under the white hot winner’s spotlight in the middle of the Century Link Center pivoting and rearing (a controlled, levade-like rear, but still…).
“She’s a pretty strong, independent woman!” Ward said. “She tries to give you everything she has.”
Afterwards, Ward joked to friend and official Jon Garner that when he returned for awards the next evening, Gardner needed to bring a mint with a wrapper to distract the horse.
“Well, that’s a bit presumptuous,” Garner commented. However, he indeed brought a wrapper on Friday evening, which worked like a charm when he stood at HH Azur’s head during the prizegiving. Even the most famous horse in the sport can be distracted at the thought of a treat.
Presumptuous or not, this Final, which is Ward’s 17th, is playing directly into his hands.
“For me, having been to 17 World Cups and never having won is a bit frustrating,” Ward admitted. “I try not to focus on what the others are doing. I try to do the best I can do in every situation, and that’s about all I can control.”
Ward is humble to a fault, but the fact is that during two days of electric jumping over Alan Wade’s deftly constructed tracks, Ward and HH Azur have simply owned the night.
Thirty-six riders returned for Friday’s second leg of competition, a one round class with jumpoff. As ever, they were looking for that clear round, but when the dust settled just six pairs would move on to the jumpoff amid a dramatic, thrilling evening that was perfectly scripted.
Thursday’s top three standings shifted dramatically, with both Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and defending champion Steve Guerdat of Switzerland pulling a round 1 rail. The group that returned for the jumpoff included Marcus Ehning and Guido Klatte Jr., both of Germany, as well as Switzerland’s Marcus Fuchs, and the eventual top three: Ward, Gregory Wathelet of Belgium, and Switzerland’s Romain Duget.
Rails fell throughout the track, which featured an oddly shaped wall at fence 3, and a triple combination up the long side of the arena. Several horses lost their confidence when they saw a liverpool under the oxer at fence five, and riders who still had a chance at top standings after day 1 fell down the list with each mistake. The round 1 time allowed of 73.00 seconds was also a factor; four pairs had no jumping faults but picked up one time.
“I think any rider at this level who wants to do as well as these riders do, you feel tension,” Ward said when asked about his nerves. “Anybody who says they don’t, I don’t think they’re telling the truth. And that gets particularly highlighted at championships and when you think you have a shot.”
Ward has a shot with his Double H Farm-owned mount, but so do the other top finishers; this is Wathelet’s first World Cup Final, and the week is defying his expectations. He has a special connection to Forlap, a 12-year-old BWP gelding (Guerlybet Hero x Heartbreaker) that returned to him last year after being under the ownership of Team Ukraine for several seasons. Nybor Pferde GMBH & Co KG bought the gelding back for Wathelet, and his performance so far is proving that it was a wise decision to reunite the two.
“So far, it was a good choice to bring him here,” Wathelet said of his mount. “He is always a horse that will fight for me. Today, it was a tough course, and it was not so easy, I knew Mclain would be faster than me, and I wanted to be quick, but not crazy. I think you need to be a little bit lucky at the right time.”
Wathelet is now the closest rider to Ward in the standings, and the biggest threat breathing down his neck. Not far behind, Duget holds onto the 3rd place classification in overall standings after his own flawless performance aboard Twentytwo des Biches. The top five in overall standings include young guns Fuchs in 4th, and Klatte in 5th.
The World Cup Final is scored on penalty points dependent on difference to the leader, which means that on Sunday, April 3, Ward will enter the third and final round on 0 penalties, and only has to jump clear over two more rounds to claim this championship that has long eluded him.
While anything at all can happen in this sport, Ward has already reminded Garner to bring a wrapped mint to Sunday’s prizegiving. Just in case it’s needed.
See the complete Round 2 results at this link.
Go here for the overall standings after Round 2.
Watch the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final on feitv.org (with subscription). The final round takes place on Sunday, April 3, 2017 at 3pmEST.