When you see the names McLain Ward and HH Azur and Eric Lamaze and Fine Lady 5 on a class’ start-list, it’s as if the drama of a jump-off battle is already scripted. So it was with $132,000 Equinimity CSI5* WEF Challenge Cup, Round 5, on Thursday, February 8, 2018.
In a style that’s associated with the proficiency of two of today’s most prominent equestrians, both competed their Olympic mounts in their first show outings of 2018 to top two finishes in five-star competition. Ward ultimately stamped his authority in 39.23 seconds for the win with Lamaze close behind in second.
Spectators were delighted at the sight of Ward’s unmistakable 12-year-old SBS bay mare HH Azur (Thunder VD Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui VD Zuuthoeve) entering the International Arena—their last instance seeing the reigning World Cup Final champion pair in action being at the Toronto Royal Horse Show CSI4*-W last November.
“We wanted to compete a little bit today,” Ward commented on HH Azur’s return during Week 5 of the Winter Equestrian Festival. “She’s had a nice long rest and it’s great prize money. I feel that the best way to get her on her game and get her fitness level the way that I want it by the end of circuit is to compete a little but without doing anything insane but she needs to be in the group.”
“We did a couple of training sessions last week just to get her practicing getting her a little bit. She knows this ring very well and I thought this class would be ok for her to be going in,” Ward continued. “She feels great, she feels strong, and hopefully she’ll get better and better as the circuit goes on-that’s the goal at least.”
Ward was one of a large contingent of 19 riders from an original 57, that completed Round 1 without fault. Young Americans, Eve Jobs and Lillie Keenan, impressed early as the class’ first two clear rounds followed by the likes of Belgium’s Olivier Philippaerts, Germany’s Markus Beerbaum, USA’s Kent Farrington, Great Britain’s Ben Maher, and Canada’s Lamaze among others.
Three riders elected not to return for the jump-off (Lillie Keenan, Jessica Springsteen, and Amanda Derbyshire) but the challenge was still set 16-competitors deep.
Tight rollbacks over the second round course deprived more than half of the jump-off ranks of a double clear effort. The first to post their second faultless score was eventual fifth place finisher Philippaerts aboard the 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood H&M Ikker (Ogano Sitte x Up to Date) in 42.05 seconds.
Beerbum, Ireland’s Captain. Brian Cournane, and Brazil’s Santiago Lambre would also post fault-free trips but none could match the initial clear of Philippaerts, that is until, Lamaze and Artisan Farms’ 15-year-old Hanoverian mare Fine Lady 5 (Forsyth FRH x Drosselklang II).
Lamaze and Fine Lady are synonymous with speed and the duo did not disappoint with a fiery performance that shot them straight to the top of the leaderboard in 39.94 seconds.
Lamaze’s student Spencer Smith did his best to top his mentor’s time but jumped the final oxer in 41.41 seconds with Rivale Du Barquet (Adelfos x Iago C) good enough for fourth.
Ward wasn’t able to see Lamaze’s effort but when you know each other and each other’s horses as well as the top riders do, you have a pretty good idea of what you have to beat.
“I know [Eric] and he was clear. It’s a fast, fast horse. But I knew if I could get the turn from 1-2, that’s a tough turn for a big horse because you couldn’t change your mind. I was lucky enough to see Spencer go before me and I thought ok, I can do 8 strides. I was able to use my stride in a few places and when things like that show up for [Azur], she is fast. If I have to check up, that’s where a horse like Eric’s can beat me because it checks faster.”
Last to enter the arena, veteran partners Margie Engle and Royce (Cafe Au Lait x Grandilot) who at the conclusion of their stellar round, finished in third in 40.75 seconds minus one horse shoe that came off as they competed battled for first in the jump-off.
Although a strong international showing and a heavy yield of competitors in the jump-off, Ward thought Thursday’s Challenge Cup course was just what ‘Annie’ needed to get back in the swing of things.
“The course was good. With the number of horses in these five-star events now, it was maybe a little bit friendly but I didn’t mind that for my first start of the year for my mare,” said Ward. “It actually just played into my hands nicely that it was a nice 1.50m track to get going and knock the rust off a little and now we’re going to start to get serious.”
A great start to the week and and a strong precursor for the weekend’s CSI5* $384,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix, Ward and HH Azur look ready to take on whatever the winter circuit has to throw at them!
To see the full results, click here.
All photos ©Meghan Basco for NF.com