Ringside Chat: It’s ‘Games On’ For Ward As He Gets Back On The Olympic Trail

May 26, 2021 - 7:59 AM

The nomad McLain Ward is back, and he’s thrilled about it. After being forced to slow down and get comfortable with his sedentary side last year, he’s happy to back on the road at last. On May 23, he took top honors in the $137,000 Old Salem Farm Grand Prix in North Salem, New York, aboard HH Azur. And when we caught up with him May 24, he was en route to the airport, bound for Rome and the CSIO5* Nations Cup where he will continue his journey to earn a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team. Before he jetted off, he reflected on living life despite uncertain times, a pandemic Olympics, and his star mare Sapphire.

I noticed that you’re using HH Azur more sparingly. Tell me about your lead up to Old Salem with her.

She’s getting a little older [Azur is 15 now], and we’ve tried to accommodate that with her schedule and pick events that we thought would suit her. We felt like later in the year, there were also some big events on the horizon that we wanted to keep in mind. She had a great finish in the [Great American $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS] Ocala; it was actually a little bit unlucky not to win it. We thought we would jump her here and probably again at Upperville [Virginia]; two really nice venues for the spring. So, it was always on the schedule.

[Our goal is] not to use her more than it is necessary and that she is always happy to do her job. 

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McLain Ward jumped HH Azur to the top of the standings in the $137,000 Old Salem Farm Grand Prix. SEL Photography Photo

Horse shows stateside have stabilized more over the past few months, but how did you deal with the uncertainty of this last year?

It’s certainly been a challenging year. As I’ve said before, for those of us who are in this sport and industry, to say it has been difficult in comparison to what a lot of people are dealing with is probably pretty inappropriate. We all live and work on farms and are able to be outdoors. Our sport and our business, in some level, has continued. While we lost a lot of the major events over the last year, and that has certainly been [disappointing] from a sport point of view, we need to remind ourselves on the grand scheme of things, that’s not quite the crisis like many have dealt with.

The last year has been a challenge; it has been difficult to make a schedule. It’s been interesting how you’ve managed horses. Some horses have gotten older; some have gotten more miles and had a little time to develop. We look towards—hopefully—a Tokyo Olympics, and we go forward and plan like it’s going to go. I’m actually on my way to Rome as we speak, to take another step in the qualifying process. As far as we’re concerned, we’re going to forward like it’s a go and try to be as ready as we can.

There have been a lot of questions over the Olympics. How has that affected you?

It definitely affects the athletes. We wear a lot of hats as equestrians. You’re managing the athlete, the horse. Myself, I’m very involved with three other Olympic candidates [Adrienne Sternlicht, Lucy Deslauriers and Lillie Keenan], so trying to manage their horses and their careers, it’s been challenging. I’m not going to say it hasn’t. But our philosophy all along has been—and it was the same with the [FEI] World Cup Finals— we’re going to prepare and train and compete as if it’s going. If it doesn’t go, we’ll make adjustments at that point to try to be a little bit fluid.

For myself, I very much hope the Olympics go for many reasons, not just personal sporting goals. We see in other sports—the NBA, golf, football, almost every major sport—have been holding these events in a bubble-type environment where it’s not affecting much outside of that bubble. I do think that’s a very safe way to run it. I think the effects leading up until now, of these types of sporting events in a bubble, have been rather safe as far as the general health issues. And I think it is good for morale. As a world, we need to have distractions and things that take our minds to good places and excite us.

Which horses are you taking to Europe?

Rome, I have Contagious. This will be one of his major observation events. And then I have Kasper [Van Het Hellehof, also in contention] for Tokyo as well.

Those horses will stay there. And then I come back and have a group of horses that competed this past week at Old Salem that will go to Upperville. And, honestly, beyond that … it’s pretty flexible because we have to see how things are going.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve been to Europe—it is our first trip back— so it will be a new experience.

What were some of the positives from the forced slow down?

We got a lot of family time. We would have been on the road a lot more. My family does travel with me quite a bit, but it certainly allowed a lot quieter existence. And, certainly, parts of that were enjoyable. It wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, a terrible experience for us personally. You miss the sport. We’re used to living a nomadic life, and that was disappointing more than bad.

And I saw you had a new addition to your family.

Madison was born in February of last year, so she was a COVID baby. It’s been a very different experience than with Lilly who was going from hotel to hotel her first year. Maddie sleeps in her own bedroom, and Lilly’s still in ours. They’re both doing great.

McLain Ward’s two-time Olympic gold medal mount Sapphire was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame this year. Molly Sorge Photo

What were your emotions on Sapphire being inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame this year?

“Sara” was a spectacular horse. She had a career at the very top of the sport for a very long time. [It] is one challenge to win at the highest level, to win at championship level; it is a whole other thing where a horse does it over an eight-year period. That really is a testament to her greatness. And I think something that’s really been interesting, in years since she retired, was that I realized more and more as the years go on just how phenomenal and talented a competitor she was. Her greatness hasn’t faded with time. It is a great honor for her and all the people who put so much effort and time and were associated with her in one way or another. She was a pretty special lady.

You’ve had so many special horses since her and accomplished so many other dreams since. What does she represent to you after all this time?

She was the first horse that I went to the Olympic Games on. I knew at the time she was great, but sometimes when you’re in the moment, you don’t see it quite in the same way. Now kind of reflecting, I’ve been lucky enough to have several other great horses since, but you really realize that she probably ranks right at the very top for all the factors that you would measure [greatness] by.

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