It all started 15 years ago in a quiet country town in Belgium, with a plumber, a 12-year-old girl, and her bike.
When Sapphire’s dam Idjaz C (by Hedjaz) started to foal, young Sofie van Bunder jumped on her bike to find her father, Walter, who was working as a plumber in the nearby village of Sint-Gillis-Waas. Upon hearing the news, Walter, a part-time horseman who bred about three mares per year, jumped on the bike and pedaled furiously to the foaling. But by the time he arrived, a chestnut filly was already on her feet.
“We thought she was a really special foal,” said Walter’s son Bjorn, who was 10 at the time of Sapphire’s birth. “She had a unique blaze, like an arrow pointing up, and we took that as a sign that she would jump high.”
Sapphire’s jumping career didn’t start until she was almost 6, when Bjorn and Sofie took her to small shows. “She was doing well, but often she’d have one or two rails,” said Bjorn. “She always had a good round but was spooky or distracted. She promised a lot and had all the scope.”
They didn’t worry that her 6-year-old year started off slow. After all, she’d had foals (by Voltaire and Ahorn Z) and didn’t do much else until the middle of her fifth year.
But by the time her seventh year rolled around, Sapphire was beginning to show the form that would make her one of the best horses in the sport. Horse dealer Francois Mathy spotted her that spring and called McLain Ward.
It’s no surprise to U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe George Morris that Sapphire, who has two Olympic team gold medals and a team silver medal from the World Equestrian Games, can jump so well. He believes it’s the Darco influence.
“Many of them are heavy horses, but they are like heavy people on the dance floor who can really dance. Looking at them, you wouldn’t expect them to. They don’t look like they’d be like blood Thoroughbred, going horses, but they are,” he said.
The van Bunders still try to keep in touch with Sapphire and attended her first Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. “We go to Aachen [Germany] and Rotterdam [the Netherlands] every year, and it’s good to talk to McLain and know how she’s doing and what the plans are for her. It’s great to still be in her life,” said Bjorn.
Tom Grossman, of Blue Chip Farms in Wallkill, N.Y., has similarly enjoyed being a part of Sapphire’s life. A breeder of harness horses, he joined Ward as a part owner of Sapphire in 2006.
“I think the biggest accomplishment is not getting her to the highest level, because she’s such a talented animal, she was going to get there no matter what,” said Grossman. “But managing her to be there for five or six years and at her best on the days when it matters most is the biggest thing.”
In September, Grossman said he saw “some of the most exciting sports drama I’ve seen in my entire life” as Sapphire won the $818,488 CN International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows Masters (Alta).
“Spruce Meadows took a monkey off her back, because she just missed [winning] Aachen a few years ago,” said Grossman. “As an individual, she had not won any of the biggest shows, and McLain had to shave his head as a result.”
In 2009, Sapphire won consistently all spring and summer but peaked at the end of September, with double wins at the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Spruce Meadows. Morris believes this bodes well for 2010, when he hopes she will be on the U.S. team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September.
“She won both classes in Calgary [at Spruce Meadows], and that is very rare,” said Morris. “She really nailed it. I would have loved for her to be on the Nations Cup team there, but she’s given to the team over and over again. I said, ‘You go for it, go as an individual.’ It was a storybook ending to win both of those classes.”
Morris also approved of Ward’s choice not to show her again for the rest of the year. “She had a great climax of the year,” he said. “She has just grown the world over in everyone’s hearts. She’s consistent, a doer. I can’t say enough about my respect for her.”
Grossman said Sapphire knows when she’s about to be on a major stage and whinnies at the in-gate of the big shows. “She has an innate ability to know when it really matters,” he said. “There’s a difference in her attitude, and she knows when it’s go time. You can see the focus in her eyes, and all the power in her body is in that jump. She’s best when we need her most.”
For Grossman, Sapphire is much more than an investment that is continuing to pay top dividends. “She’s a reminder to me of what’s good in the world and redemption,” he said. “It was a fortuitous turn of events. My business was doing well when McLain and [Sapphire’s former owner] Hunter Harrison parted ways. The Wards have been tremendous friends to me, and they said this was a horse they couldn’t lose, a horse of a lifetime, and I was in a position to help. This partnership was born out of a friendship and is a reminder to me that doing the right thing at times comes back and rewards you.
“The words ‘great’ and ‘best ever’ are way overused, but she’s got to be mentioned in the same sentences as all the good ones,” said Grossman. “And she’s not done yet. She’s 100 percent sound. She owes us nothing. Everything she does from here is gravy. But I think she’s going to have a lot to say about championships in the future.”
Description: 15-year-old, 17-hand, chestnut Belgian Warmblood mare (Darco—Idjaz C, Hedjaz), owned by Blue Chip Bloodstock and McLain Ward.
Home: Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla.
A Second Career?: When Sapphire stops jumping, Ward and Tom Grossman plan to produce embryo-transfer foals, but it doesn’t look like that will be any time soon. “It’s a running joke that she keeps jumping well, so I’m not going to try and harvest any embryos. I don’t want to affect her jumping and have McLain blame that on me,” said Grossman with a laugh.
2009 COMPETITIVE HIGHLIGHTS
1st—$150,000 WEF 8/CN Open (Fla.)
1st—$200,000 WEF 9 Grand Prix (Fla.)
1st—$400,000 FTI Consulting Finale Grand Prix (Fla.)
1st—$100,000 Grand Prix Of Devon (Pa.)
1st—$50,000 Spy Coast Farm Grand Prix Qualifier (N.Y.)
1st—$250,000 FTI Grand Prix (N.Y.)
1st—$82,098 Encana Cup (Canada)
1st—$818,488 CN International Grand Prix (Canada)
2nd—Rolex FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final (Nev.)
4th (team)—Meydan FEI Nations Cup Aachen (Germany): 0-0
2nd (team)—Meydan FEI Nations Cup Rotterdam (the Netherlands): 4-0
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