“I’d like to win the equitation finals. And go to the Olympics by the time I’m 18. If you set goals outside of your reach, you’ll get farther than you might if you don’t set any.”
That’s what McLain Ward told a Chronicle reporter in 1990 after he won the $30,000 Rolex USET Show Jumping Talent Derby at the Hampton Classic (N.Y.).
At the time, Ward was 14. He’d just won the Talent Derby on Polarized, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred he had only been riding a few weeks.
“Lee [McKeever] and I were on the road by ourselves,” Ward recalled. “We did Ox Ridge [Conn.], Lake Placid [N.Y.] and the Hampton Classic together on our own because my dad had gone back up to Calgary to show. We lived in a camper together—I was 14 and he was 19. I won the equitation classic and the talent derby that day.
“Here Lee and I are still 30 years later,” Ward said as he sat ringside at this year’s Hampton Classic. “We didn’t know a whole lot better then. I’d had good teaching, but it was a little rough around the edges back then. But we learned a lot and had some good moments.”
As for Ward’s lofty goals? He checked off one of those from his list just a month after his Hampton Classic Talent Derby win when he topped the 1990 USET Show Jumping Talent Search—East (N.J.). And then in 1993 he won the WIHS Equitation Classic (Md.).
But of course, we know now that Ward didn’t quite make it to the Olympic Games by the time he was 18. He had to wait a few more years, but he won team gold at his first Olympic Games in 2004 in Athens, when he was 32. And then he added another team gold in 2008, and a team silver at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. And in 2017 he topped the Longines FEI World Cup Final (Neb.).
His mount at the Hampton Classic 27 years ago, Polarized, had come to the Wards because he was from the same bloodlines as Leslie Howard’s talented Thoroughbred grand prix mount of the era, Pressurized. “I think I did one show with Polarized before the Hamptons. My dad was out in Calgary and he bought like six of the people’s horses,” Ward said. “He got sold to Lisa Tarnapol [Deslauriers] after that and unfortunately got injured, so his career was cut short, but he was a very special little horse.”
Polarized was perhaps the only Thoroughbred Ward showed in his youth. “I grew up on warmbloods; there might have been a few Thoroughbreds in there, but not many,” he said. “I think the top riders now can ride a cold horse and a hot horse. And a lot of the warmbloods now have as much blood as any Thoroughbred. Even horses that appear a little heavy, like a Sapphire, can have no shortage of blood in them and can be sensitive rides. The modern sporthorses, many of them are very sensitive and very hot. I think that’s been integrated into their breeding system over the last 20 years and it’s changed dramatically.”