McLain Ward (USA) and HH Azur, winners of the $132,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping qualifier in Toronto (CAN), were presented with a Longines watch by Ian Charbonneau, Longines brand manager, Canada. (FEI/Peter Llewellyn)
A heated, head-to-head battle between two experienced, international riders treated the spectators at the CSI4* Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto to the highest level of show jumping competition, but it was ultimately McLain Ward (USA) who claimed the victory of the $132,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping qualifier aboard HH Azur.
Sitting in the enviable position of going second in the jump off, Ward strategised a win that left the rails up, albeit with one time fault, after he had the opportunity to see Dermott Lennon (IRL) and 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare Loughview Lou-Lou (Limmerick x Jack of Diamonds) drop two rails in the final round that recorded a time of 42.04 seconds. This allowed Ward to utilise the scope of his 9-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (Thunder van de Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui) to leave all the rails standing and with a time of 47.58 seconds.
“The course was big and challenging, but I was excited about that,” Ward said. “It suited my mare. She’s a spectacular talent. Obviously, when I saw Dermott going [directly before in Round 1], I could see what could and needed to be done.”
The course, designed by Richard Jeffrey (GBR), was over 13 obstacles with 16 jumping attempts and demanded the precision of both horse and rider at every step. The internationally acclaimed designer first built at The Royal in 1994 but had yet to return since 2001.
“I was very pleased with the course,” Jeffrey said. “I wouldn’t do anything different. I built it as a World Cup qualifier. It’s quite a nice size ring here, and really, if I had to do it again, for once I wouldn’t do anything different.”
King of The Royal
Ward has a long history of success at The Royal, earning the unofficial title as its king. Now with seven World Cup qualifier wins at the historic show, Ward had another successful trip across the border also winning a 1.40-meter grand prix aboard Carneyhaugh Manx (Ard VDL Douglas x Hampton Clover) earlier in the day.
“The Royal is a second home for me,” Ward said. “My daughter and wife are here. My father [Barney Ward] competed here for a number of years, and now for my daughter to come and be part of this, it’s very special and a bit emotional.
“I started coming here in my early years with Tim Grubb and Mark Leone, who are dear friends. I love it here, I love the atmosphere, I love the people we see. I remember asking years ago, if I won four times, if I get a lifetime invitation, especially if my performance goes down. I hope at seven, I can be grandfathered in.”
The iconic horse show is in its 93rd year, and although it has hosted World Cup qualifiers in the past, it is just as honored to be a part of the newly launched Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League.
“It’s a play on the history and heritage of The Royal with the new partnership,” said Charlie Johnston, CEO of The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. “It’s fabulous for this show to put on the ‘Best in Show’ in the ring for audience. To have these exceptional riders here at The Royal really is consistent with our mandate to deliver the number 1 horse show in North America and to continue to strive toward that. We’re honored to partner with Longines and the FEI for this year and for many years to come.”
A second Sapphire
As the only horse in the field to leave all the rails standing after two technical rounds, HH Azur has undoubtedly earned Ward’s praise.
“It’s a bit of a dream,” Ward said. “She’s a horse of a lifetime if I hadn’t had Sapphire, but to get a second one like this is pretty incredible. I hope I do her justice and manage her well.
“It’s kind of an amazing story. I probably missed the horse a few different ways and should never have ended up with her, and somehow she ended up with me anyway. Two very special people in my life own her, Mr. [Hunter] Harrison and Francois Mathy, who are both real father figures to me. And the horse is something unreal. Every time the horse goes in the ring, it’s better, it’s higher, it’s faster – she is incredible. The only time she has a fence down is if I have a terrible error.”
The mare also entered the ring feeling fresh after seeing the hitch horses in the warm-up arena, according to Ward. He also noted that although she jumps big, the most important aspect to controlling her ride is to manage her large stride, particularly indoors.
“We knew after Florida [circuit earlier in the year] that she was everything we thought she was, and she’s only gotten better through Calgary this summer,” Ward said. “For sure, we’ve already started thinking about Rio [Olympics] in the middle of the summer. She’ll jump one more class here on Saturday and then have a good rest, and everything she does starting in the spring will be working backwards from Rio.”
World Cup quality
An international start list of past Olympians and young, up-and-coming talent had difficulties at a variety of the course’s presented questions, but Jeffrey did not doubt that some of the six riders with four faults would go clear given another chance.
“A few of those four-fault rounds could have easily gone clean,” Jeffrey said. “But I didn’t expect more than three or four clean rounds. That’s what I wanted, and basically for once, it worked out that way.”
Rideability played a major role in Jeffrey’s design, with a focus on genuine height and width throughout the course and without an unduly tight time allowed.
“The two oxers on a forward stride then quickly to a plank on flat cups demonstrates the type of course it was,” Jeffrey said. “It meant being able to lengthen and shorten the horse while keeping the horse balanced.”
“I didn’t really have a strategy,” said Lennon, the only rider to travel directly from Europe. “I just came, and the horses traveled well. They jumped good tonight. It was a difficult course for her in the first round so I’m happy.”
Lennon has ridden the mare for four seasons now, getting her at the end of her nine-year-old year and after she came back from an early injury.
“She’s very competitive, she’s not the easiest to ride, and she’s a bit temperamental,” he said. “She came up with a new one this week. She always for the last three years that I’ve ridden her, hung her tongue out the right-hand side. This week, she’s holding it in the back of her month. It’s something to work out. She always wants to try and she’s a nice mare.”
Roberto Teran (COL) and 12-year-old, Dutch Warmblood mare Woklahoma (Sheraton x Calvados) rode to the fastest, four-fault score in the class.
“Toronto is like my second hometown,” Teran said. “And I always want to come here; I think it’s super special. Last year, I made a big mistake in the jump off. And I think today was a little unlucky, but I’m really happy with the result.”
1. HH Azur (McLain Ward), USA, 1 faults/47.58 seconds (JO);
2. Loughview Lou-Lou (Dermott Lennon), IRL, 8/42.04(JO);
3. Woklahoma (Roberto Teran), COL, 4/73.65;
4. H&M Forever D Arco ter Linden (Nicola Philippaerts), BEL, 4/73.95;
5. Breitling LS (Elizabeth Madden), USA, 4/74.65;
6. VDL Wizard (Callan Solem), USA, 4/75.88;
7. Star Power (Jonathon Millar), CAN, 4/78.02;
8. Appy Cara (Erynn Ballard), CAN, 4/78.35.