Devon, Pa., June 1
The crowd packing the stands around the Dixon Oval wiped their tears away and then promptly started cheering. In an evening that no one who witnessed it will soon forget, McLain Ward rode a rollercoaster of emotion right to the top of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon.
As the crystal-clear skies over Devon slowly darkened before the class, the sell-out crowd of thousands focused on center ring. Ward and Sapphire walked in one last time. She cavorted a bit, showing everyone she’s got plenty of fire left. And as Ward rode her around the ring a few times, she’d occasionally pause and gaze out over the crowd. She owned the night and the moment. Children gazed up at her in awe, wearing their commemorative Sapphire retirement ceremony t-shirts and clutching their Sapphire Breyer horses.
Sapphire’s family, Ward’s team, accompanied her en masse, their eyes teary. Sapphire was having none of the sorrow, however. She danced around with each smattering of applause. Her coat gleaming with dapples, she was the picture of health and happiness.
Two Olympic team gold medals. A silver team medal from the World Equestrian Games. Second place at the FEI World Cup Final. Big win after big win in the world’s greatest grand prix classes. Sapphire’s accomplishments go on and on. Fans will miss seeing her wise white face canter into the ring, her effortless jump and her incredible poise.
After Ward dismounted from Sapphire, 17, for the last time, he took the microphone. His heartfelt words took the crowd along with him on Sapphire’s journey. Ward, ever the master of self-control, choked up a bit, his voice cracking slightly. He said his thanks yous and steeled himself for the long walk back out of the ring with his now-broodmare.
See a video of the ceremony…
“As I was walking out of the ring, I was thinking to myself that I really feel she was a horse who kept giving to me, and I treated that with 100 percent respect and care. I’m very proud of that,” Ward said.
“At the end of the day, it’s bittersweet to not have Sapphire to go to these great competitions on, but it’s not a sad story. It’s a great story. I kept saying to Erica [McKeever], who has been crying non-stop for two weeks, ‘This is a great story. She’s had a great career, and she still has a great life.’ So, for me it was a really positive thing,” Ward said.
After Ward walked under Devon’s famous arch one last time with Sapphire, he shook off the emotions of the past and focused on the future.
After shattering his patella in a fall in January, Ward was out of the show ring for four months. He had to sit and watch the U.S. Equestrian Federation selection trials for the team for the London Olympic Games from the sidelines. But given his track record, selectors put him in eighth with Antares F on the long list for the team. But Ward would have to prove himself in four designated Olympic observation events.
Ward got back to showing in May, winning both grand prix classes at the Old Salem Spring Horse Shows (N.Y.), but Devon is his first major test, with the team selectors watching.
“I’ve been mentally getting prepared for this for the better part of four months. From the morning I got out of the hospital to tonight, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can get everything ready that I can control,” Ward said. “I say it over and over again, but I have a fantastic team of people around me who have these horses fit and ready to go. To be able to come back the way we have is phenomenal.”
He acknowledged that he had to consciously put Sapphire’s ceremony behind him when he swung a leg over Antares for the class. “I was actually a little concerned about it, because obviously it’s very emotional. I prepared myself a bit for it, so I didn’t completely lose myself,” he said.
By the time he cantered into the Dixon Oval on Antares, he was all business. Course designer Michel Vaillencourt set a bigger track than normal for Devon, given that it served as an Olympic observation event. Only 16 horses started the class, and just two of those aren’t involved in the Olympic selection process. The stakes were high.
Charlie Jayne was first to go in Round 1, and he turned in a great clear round on Chill R Z. He then also set the pace in the jump-off, jumping clean in 39.93 seconds. He has Olympic hopes for the horse despite having missed competing in the selection trials with him.
“He jumped great over four weeks of Florida, but then he had an unfortunate accident where he had to get stitches the day before the trials started,” Jayne said. “I did the horseman’s thing to do and gave him two weeks to heal. He came out of it and went to Kentucky [in May for the first Olympic observation events] and jumped clean the first day and 4 the second. He’s a consistent horse.” Chill R Z was placed into a tie for 35th, at the bottom of the USEF long list for the Olympic team because he missed the trials.
“I feel like I’m doing a USET course when I go around out there. Those were some big fences. There were some options in the lines, and he went around like he’d been doing it his whole life,” Jayne continued. “I think he’s an Olympic caliber horse, but I think I’m behind the eight-ball [for Olympic selection] because he didn’t jump in the trials. But I’m here. [Chef d’Equipe George Morris] told me to go in there and put up clear rounds, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Just Not Quite Fast Enough
Ward jumped off after Jayne, and he and Antares set a blistering pace to a clean round more than 5 seconds faster than Jayne. “I haven’t jumped that big since probably November, so it looked big to me! The [Alltech] National Horse Show [Ky.] was the last time I jumped a real 1.60-meter track. But I know my horse well, and he never has trouble jumping the size of the jumps,” Ward said.
Laura Kraut stepped on the gas with Cedric, who received a bye from the selection trials, but she paid the price with a rail coming out of a one-stride combination. “I saw McLain go, and I just got too greedy! I came in too fast to that double, and he jumped so far in that I didn’t see B, and I don’t think he did either,” Kraut said. “But I’m very happy with him tonight.” Team selectors named Kraut and Cedric third on the long list before the observation events.
It was up to Margie Engle to beat Ward, and though she made a valiant effort and was heartstoppingly close, she ended up just fractions of a second slower. “I could have done one less stride to the last jump. I felt like he was really on it tonight in the jump-off; he was a little wild in the first round. But he felt just right in the jump-off. I just needed to do one less there,” Engle said.
Engle and Indigo tied with Reed Kessler and Cylana for the lead in the selection trials, and they were placed in second on the long list for selection.
Beezie Madden actually jumped clean in Round 1 of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon abaord Coral Reef Via Volo, but she didn’t jump off or place in the class. Madden has three horses in the Olympic selection process—Coral Reef Via Volo, Cortes ‘C’ and Simon—and the rules of the class stipulated that riders could show only two. Madden got special permission to show her three, but she had to designate one to be inelegible for prize money. She chose Coral Reef Via Volo, who of course then promptly jumped clean while Simon and Cortes ‘C’ had a rail each.
Ward’s night ended with jubilation tinged with another kind of sadness. In the press conference after the class, he stated that he wanted to dedicate his win to Dr. Craig Ferrell, the USEF team physician who passed away on May 28. “He was instrumental in helping me over the last four months, and he was a lifesaver. It’s a great tragedy, and he’s in my thoughts,” Ward said.
Ward’s knee isn’t completely healed. He was stretching it and wincing a bit throughout the press conference. “It hurts for sure, and I have to take care of it,” he said. “I’m not riding as many as I normally do. I don’t feel uncomfortable in the ring, but I don’t feel as tight as usual. I’m not far off, though. I think it will come.”
After the second Devon observation event on Saturday night, June 1, Ward’s next challenge is the last Olympic observation event on June 14-17 at Spruce Meadows (Alberta.). The short list of 12 horse/rider combinations will be named by June 17, and the finalized Olympic team will be entered by July 6.
See full results from the $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon.