Devon, Pa.—May 30
As soon as the crowd saw the first footfall and heard Peter Doubleday announce “McLain Ward,” the stands erupted. After all, Ward is their rider—the one whose famed 2008 Hong Kong Olympic gold medal-winning horse Sapphire gave the grand prix its name. The one whose first Devon grand prix victory came in 1999 on a horse he owned with Philadelphia-area horse legend Harry Gill. The one who won the $250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon 10 times prior to the 2019 running. The one they rely on each year to show up for them.
All of these emotions echoed in the cheers as Ward walked into the Dixon Oval with HH Azur. And Ward understood them; he felt the sentiment too. It’s a relationship built on through the years and a love story told many times.
“This place also for me is home, you know,” said Ward. “I love the people; I love the atmosphere. And you know it’s home-field advantage. It gives you a boost. It energizes me. I love to be at our best here.
“I try to block it out a little bit—not be distracted,” he continued. “But you know, you feel the energy. I think this is as great a crowd as anywhere in the world. I think the atmosphere is as good as anywhere in the world. I’m always proud to do well here.”
But heading into the nine-person jump off, one person was notably silent. Crouched on the bleacher steps—not even sitting down—Virginie Casterman didn’t look around to see who was nearby cheering her famed charge. With a backpack strapped on and a towel in her left hand, her only focus was “Annie.” As the 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood (Thunder Van De Zuuthoeve—Sion Van De Zuuthoeve) cleared fences and eliminated strides throughout Guilherme Jorge’s course, she gripped the towel more firmly until the clock hit 38.12 seconds, faster than Paul O’Shea and Imerald Van’t Voorhof’s 39.41 seconds. Then Casterman quietly exhaled, loosened her grip on the rag and quickly rose to the in-gate to give “Annie” her devotion. Her mare had done it.
As Ward’s 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final (Nebraska) winning horse, a lot of weight loads onto Annie’s name. And after a serious injury kept her out of competition for several months, Ward, Casterman and the Castle Hill Farm crew have been working to not only return to winning form but to stay there.
When the remaining pairs failed to touch Ward’s time, the pair entered center ring only to detour to the rail’s edges and give a giant line of high-fives to their fans. This win at his “home,” coupled with their $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix victory during week 12 of the Winter Equestrian Circuit (Florida), marks the return of Azur.
“She’s one of the best horses in the world,” said Ward. “She came back from a pretty major injury last year and was a little rusty in Florida and finished the season well there. She was able to freshen up a little bit.
“You always got to believe,” he continued. “You always got to believe a horse is going to come back. And it’s like any athlete coming back from an injury. With a horse like Azur, with all this more expectation, and people expect that same result, we keep working at it and keep trying to figure out the solution. I think she’s back.”
Press Room McLain Outtakes:
On his 11th win, but third consecutive victory: “One year ‘Bongo’ [Rothchild] spooked.”
On not doing Devon leadline with his daughter Lily: “We’re doing walk-trot, crossrails. So we have moved on,” said Ward. “I know the politics around it. I’m from New York. You don’t win Devon leadline from New York!”
On future plans: “My two students show tomorrow, and my wife and daughter are coming down—so trying to avoid Sesame [Place]. It’s a theme park for the kids. And she’s dead set on it; I’m going to try to get out of it.”