Thursday, Jul. 25, 2024

All Hail The Queen: McLain Ward Reflects On HH Azur’s Career

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At the famed CHIO Aachen (Germany) earlier this month, McLain Ward and HH Azur were poised to jump for the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping and its million-euro prize. A win in the Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen would clinch the title, but the quest ended when they pulled two rails in the first few fences on course. Ward raised his hand to retire from the class, and then posted on social media that it was the conclusion of the 17-year-old mare’s career.

Ward’s partnership with the mare, known alternately as “Annie” and “Azur,” started in 2015 with much acclaim, as she (Thunder VD Zuuthoeve—Sion VD Zuuthoeve, Sir Lui VD Zuuthoeve) won multiple headliner grand prix classes as a 9-year-old. In 2016, she helped the U.S. show jumping team claim silver at the Rio Olympic Games. In 2017, she was faultless to capture the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final (Nebraska). And in the years after, as Ward got highly selective about her competitive outings, she scored multiple wins at the CSI5* and CSI4* levels.

In 2022 Annie stormed back into the headlines, starting the year by winning the $216,000 CSIO4* Grand Prix at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), the $200,000 Empire State CSI4* Grand Prix (New York), and the $137,700 Tourmaline Oil Cup CSIO 5* at Spruce Meadows (Alberta). In the fall, she and Ward started their Rolex Grand Slam journey by winning the Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva CSIO5*. This March, they topped the Rolex Grand Prix of ’s-Hertogenbosch CSI5* (the Netherlands), setting them up for the Rolex Grand Slam bid at Aachen.

McLain Ward thanked HH Azur after a spectacular win in the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final. Molly Sorge Photo

What went through your mind at Aachen, first with making the decision to start the grand prix with Annie and then in the ring deciding to retire?

It’s a hard call because she’d been in the sunset of her career for a while, but she seemed to somehow be able in the moment to rise and perform. We’ve always believed in her, but she’s always outshined even that belief in the most extreme way. Maybe we were on a little bit of borrowed time at Aachen.

Going into Aachen, I hadn’t jumped her very much. I knew that’s probably where I was going to end things, following Aachen. I just have so much respect for her. I think that I wanted to make sure that nothing bad happened—more than I was focused on winning, and that’s not a great way to compete at that level. 

We’d gone back and forth on the decision. Callas jumped spectacularly on Thursday [with two clean rounds in the Nations Cup], but Annie was healthy and looked good. I hadn’t done a lot with her, but I made the decision that I was going to believe in her. She’s come through for me time and time again. I rode down the first line a bit too forward and had the second jump down, so all that was left to do was to pat her on the neck and remember all the wonderful moments.

It wasn’t the day that we had hoped for, but I don’t think it also has any reflection on the body of work she did and how magnificent she is.

It’s interesting, because I actually was going to retire her about two and a half, almost three, years ago. She jumped in a big grand prix in Ocala [Florida] and was third, and I have to say she was just feeling old. After the class, I said to Lee McKeever, “I think that should be it. It was a good performance, and I just don’t feel like there’s more.” 

He encouraged me not to retire her; he said, “Just wait, let’s see. There’s no major problems. It’s just little things that maybe will settle down. Let’s just give her a little more time.” And I did. Starting about a year and a half ago, the horse started to feel really well within herself and then obviously she had this run of the last year and a half that was that was pretty spectacular. 

What makes Annie so special?

They’re all special in their own way. They all have pretty unique stories, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some of the best horses in the world. That’s a testament to the people who work with us, who support us, who find these horses for us, who help us acquire them and then obviously those who care for them, the entire team and extended team. 

“There’s something more regal about her than the rest of us, to be honest,” McLain Ward said of HH Azur. Chronicle File Photo

She’s an incredible athlete: tall, lean, long-legged. She has energy. It was endless energy early in her career! She’s just a phenomenal athlete.

I didn’t have Annie right at the beginning of her career, but I don’t think Annie ever stopped. Ever. Not spooked, not shied, not ducked out, not didn’t understand. As far as I’m aware, she’s never refused a fence. She’s brave to the point of somewhat no self-regard. That’s a pretty remarkable characteristic—her braveness and her willing to try.

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Annie was grand from the beginning. They all have different personalities. But from the beginning, Annie had a regal quality about her, an intelligence and a sharpness in her eye. We’ve used that term that she’s the queen, but that’s really how she seems. She has an air about her that could be seen as arrogant, but I see it as more intelligence and knowing and understanding. There’s something more regal about her than the rest of us, to be honest.

Do you think she came along at the right time in your career?

She’s a very sensitive horse, so you needed some maturity to manage her. It’s always such an incredible story how you end up with horses like Annie: I did try her as a 5-year-old and didn’t buy her. 

It was the wrong moment for me in my business setup at that time. She was quite expensive. She was not a horse for an amateur, and she wasn’t that developed. I just wasn’t in the right business moment that I thought it was a smart purchase. Luckily, François [Mathy] really fell in love with the mare and bought her anyway. And then she went to a couple of different riders between then and when I eventually bought half of her. François and I and Double H Farm all own her together. 

Sometimes it’s the right moment and it’s meant to be, or maybe you get a second chance. I’m always amazed by all the things that have to come together for you to end up with a horse like that, and there’s normally some pretty good backstory to it, all the things that have to line up. And you definitely have to have this feeling that these relationships are meant to be. 

Probably there’s many things you missed, because it wasn’t the right moment as well, but I think that’s why we all keep seeking and grinding and digging and believing and thinking that the next superstar is around the next corner or down the next gravel road or in the next indoor ring. That’s part of it.

I was interested to read in your social media post about Annie that you said, “I knew from the beginning you were better than me and that it would take every bit of my ability to not let you down.” What did you mean by that?

That’s about different places in your career, right? I’m a bit more mature, and I realize what a privilege it is to have a horse like Sapphire, Azur or Rothchild at this point in my career—probably more than when I had Sapphire. When I had Sapphire, I expected to have Sapphire. I thought that was the natural course. Twenty-some years later, I think, “Wow, I’m really blessed to have these horses my life.”

As I see the end in sight from a sporting point of view, I think you appreciate every moment you have with them when you have a talented horse. Or for that matter it might not be the superstar horse, but a horse that is giving you all that they have. 

Azur was different, though. She had an air about her and a certain athleticism and confidence that separated her. When I say that I always knew I had to add up to her, it isn’t necessarily on the day-to-day ability to ride well. I think it’s more in the moments that are the difference between being in the game and winning. 

“I think that’s why we all keep seeking and grinding and digging and believing and thinking that the next superstar is around the next corner or down the next gravel road or in the next indoor ring.”

The difference between being close and winning is “Do you keep it together? Do you make the right choices? Do you take the right risks?” It does come down to the management and the riding and the ability to handle the situation and the pressure and make good decisions. 

That’s my reference: I physically know that I can ride well, but these moments come where you can accomplish something big, and you want to deliver. The horse is going to perform the way the horse can perform, but you want to deliver the ride that gives them the chance. 

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I think for a lot of the moments, we were able to pull together, but I have a nature to always look at the moments we didn’t. Azur should have won Calgary twice. She was in the jump-off at Aachen multiple times. Would it have been nice to have those grand prix wins on our resume when she was that close? For sure. But, we’re also human. I’d like to think I deliver enough of the time. But those are the moments that drive me in the morning still today. It’s why I’m still going as strong as I am. 

Compare Azur and Sapphire—what was similar about them and what was different?

The two are similar in that they could rise to a big moment. I think they understood—perhaps not in the way we do as humans—but understood the importance of competition and the specialness of a moment, in whatever way that an animal does. They feel the environment, and some respond to that better than others. I think that they knew they were important and that they knew they were doing something that was appreciated. 

They were very different horses. Sapphire was a quieter personality, fairly predictable, with a very classical front end. She was pretty easy to ride. Azur is probably a little better athlete, with more blood, more energy, but much more sensitive to ride. I think a lot of people could have ridden Sapphire. I think less people could have ridden Azur. While they’re different, but those core qualities of desire to work with you, willingness to work with you, and desire to rise to the occasion are similar.

Annie’s last win was a big one, the Rolex Grand Prix ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March, which earned them the second leg of the Rolex Grand Slam. Arnd Bronkhorst Photo

What’s in Annie’s future? 

We’re going to do a retirement ceremony. Then she’s going to go back to Belgium to François Mathy’s to breed.

We’ll all stay involved, the Harrisons of Double H Farm and myself and François. We’re all very comfortable with her going to his stable, and she’s something very special to the Mathys as well. For a lot of reasons, that area of the world is very nice for horses. So I just feel that’s the right direction to go.

What would you say Annie did for your career?

You know, she gave me two careers really. She won the [$400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Spruce Meadows (Canada)] in 2015. And then won the [Rolex Grand Prix of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands)] eight years later in 2023. That’s pretty remarkable. 

I can’t say one of those brilliant horses did more for me than another. Sapphire, Rothchild, Clinta, her, and quite a few others as well, they were all special in their own ways. Obviously, they’ve given me more than a career, they give me a life. 

They’ve given everybody who’s worked with these horses with me—the McKeevers, the vets, the blacksmiths, the owners, the barn staff—they’ve given us all this wonderful journey, this wonderful experience, this wonderful pursuit of excellence. 

For us personally here at Castle Hill, they’ve provided a very nice livelihood for us. I always say, my kids and Lee and Erica [McKeever’s] kids are enjoying horses and riding opportunities because of Sapphire and Rothchild and Azur. In my dining room here in New York I have a painting of Sapphire and in Florida I have one of Azur on the wall. They have made our careers, but in many other ways they’ve contributed greatly to our lives, not only within the sport and the impact and the moments that they’ve given us. 

For me personally, and for the people around me, the road that they’ve created is long ahead as well. If my kids or Lee and Erica’s kids go on to do something great in the sport down the road, those opportunities and doors were open because of these horses and what we did in the sport. It’s pretty amazing; these horses really create a life around them.

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