Omaha, Nebraska’s playful city slogan is “we don’t coast.”
The same could be said for participation in this sport, and while the new Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Champion would surely argue otherwise, he and HH Azur all but coasted to an epic win on April 2, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
From wire to wire, Mclain Ward led the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final with his eyes focused unerringly on this singular goal. It was 17 years in the making, a championship that he’d come achingly close to several times, but never captured until today.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and felt that I’ve been very close so many times and in one way or another messed it up,” Ward said. “But one thing about sports, is no matter what our challenges are, you have to more forward, and you have to move on. I’ve been a fighter, a digger, and a grinder my whole career, and I tried never to give up.”
So no, Ward doesn’t coast. And he was quick to credit his close-knit team; his manager Lee McKeever has been by his side for 29 years and HH Azur’s groom Kirsty Bond came on board several years ago. The detail oriented, hardworking team have collected a slew of accolades during their years together, and it was clear they shared the satisfaction of this long awaited victory equally.
“To try and pull this off for them was very important to me,” Ward explained. “I just took a breath and believed in my horse, and had a little bit of luck and it paid off. Today is a culmination of a lot of peoples’ hard work.”
This week was the first time Ward began saying that HH Azur was the best horse he’s ever sat on (that honor had always been reserved for Sapphire.) But Azur, the 11-year-old SBS mare (Thunder vd Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui vd Zuuthoeve) owned by Double H Farm proved it through five, foot perfect rounds of jumping to claim World Cup victory.
Ward and Azur won Thursday’s opening speed leg, they won Friday’s second leg with jumpoff, and with his team working like the well-oiled machine they are, they pulled off a flawless victory over two final, full rounds of jumping on Sunday that kept their scorecard on 0 faults from start to finish. They were the only pair of the competition to do so—and they earned the lionshare of today’s $300,000 in prize money today as well.
Ward’s competitors kept the pressure on—if he had taken down one rail in the final round, it would have forced a two-man jumpoff with Romain Duget. And while he carried a score of 4 faults overall, 2nd placed finisher Duget of Switzerland had a dream week of his own aboard the 10-year-old Selle Francis mare Twentytwo des Biches (Mylord Carthago x Kalor du Bocage). She is not his top mount and this was her first championship, yet she jumped a week far beyond her years with just the one pole down over the four days.
“Twenty two started to jump the grand prix one year ago,” Duget said. “Two months ago I told my team at home that I was not riding her well enough, that I have to let her get more quiet and believe more on her own, and that’s what I did this week. I’m really proud of her.”
Close behind Duget on 8 faults was Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann, who rode Mary Lou, an 11-year-old Westfalian mare (Montendro x Portland) to 3rd place. She was one of the first horses that he added to his stable last fall, after starting his own business. She was only jumping the two star, 1.45m level when he acquired her, “and now, you can really see how much of a talented horse she is,” von Eckermann said. “I knew if I rode good the horse would not make a mistake.”
While defending champion Steve Guerdat didn’t have the week he’d hoped for, finishing in 8th place, he has to be satisfied with his young talent Bianca, who jumps with incredible scope and completed the final round on 0 faults.
Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet and Forlap pulled a rail in the last round to finish 7th, falling from their Friday standing of 3rd. And Germany’s Guido Klatte Jr. ended his first World Cup Final in a satisfying 6th. Klatte Jr. was the youngest rider in the competition, and put in two clear rounds aboard the talented Qinghai.
Sergio Alvarez Moya and Arrayan were 5th, and Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs was 4th with Clooney. The top six finishers and 11 riders in total all jumped clear in the last round of the World Cup Final, showcasing the incredible talent of their horses at this electric final.
Omaha itself was another star of the week. Organizer Lisa Roskens and her team pulled off a flawless event at the Century Link Center and were roundly thanked by all within earshot. Squarely in the middle of the United States, Omaha seemed an unlikely place to hold an international show jumping championship, but for Ward it became a fairytale setting to “coast” to the most meaningful win of his career. On the podium, as the National Anthem played, Ward let his guard down, and rare tears appeared in his eyes.
“My father used to say the podium is the last little part, the work is underneath,” Ward said. “I was thinking about all the different people who have influenced me; it started with my parents and Paul Valliere. All the different owners, my family, I’ve been lucky to be exposed to so many people who were willing to help me in small ways and large. I’m typically not so emotional in prizegivings, but as you can see this is a happy day!”