In honor of today’s return of the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) after a two-year, COVID-19 hiatus, we’re rewinding to the show’s 2009 edition, where the phenomenal Sapphire and McLain Ward notched the second of their two wins in the class, then called the Grand Prix of Devon, that now bears her name. (Ward would go on to win the grand prix again in 2012 (Antares F), 2013 (Rothchild), 2017 (Rothchild), 2018 (Clinta), 2019 (HH Azur). This article originally was published June 11, 2009.
It’s a measure of just how good McLain Ward and Sapphire are that their competitors consider it an accomplishment to even come close to beating them.
“I was thrilled to be in the same second [in jump-off times] as McLain and Sapphire. I don’t think I’ve ever come that close!” said Hillary Dobbs, who claimed second behind Ward and Sapphire in the $100,000 Grand Prix of Devon.
As they do every year, fans packed the Dixon Oval to watch the grand prix on Thursday night of the Devon Horse Show, May 25-31 in Devon, Pennsylvania. Ward is a hot crowd favorite, and he didn’t disappoint, riding Sapphire to the top check and claiming fourth aboard a new star in his string, Rothchild.
“We all know what Sapphire is. We brought her here because this is a very important show in our country, and it means a lot to me to win this grand prix,” Ward said. He’s won the Grand Prix of Devon six times in 11 years, on five different horses. Sapphire also won in 2007.
Winning at Devon was also preparation for Ward and Sapphire as they head to Europe to compete on the U.S. Nations Cup team at Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany) this summer. “She’s in the prime of her life, and even though I plan her career sparingly, it’s hard to leave her in the barn every week,” he explained.
“She jumped the first round, and it felt like she was jumping around an equitation class,” Ward said.
For the jump-off, however, he definitely picked up the pace, leaving strides out everywhere he could as Sapphire’s massive gallop ate up the ground.
As Ward came down the last line, he was directly facing the scoreboard, which was counting the seconds. “The eight strides to the last jump got very tight for me—I was having to pull all the way,” he said. “It was hard because I was watching the clock at the same time, and I knew it was going to be close, so I spurred her through the timers a little bit.”
Ward knew the time he had to beat—it was the 42.56 seconds that Dobbs had posted on the rapid little Quincy B. As Sapphire crossed the finish timers, the clock stopped at 42.51 seconds—a hair faster.
“They were all fast horses, so I knew I had to take a shot right off the bat,” Dobbs said of going first in the four-horse jump-off. “I’ve struggled with going fast on this horse, and this was one of the faster clean jump-offs I’ve had on him, so I’d say this is a good step for us.”
Callan Solem was third after a quick round on the veteran Allison, with a rail in 42.88 seconds.
“I had watched McLain and saw how he had to slow down in the last line, so when I jumped into the last line, I slowed down early. I ended up a little too far off the last oxer, and we had it down,” Solem said.
“I thought she was great. She felt fresh, and she loves this venue,” Solem added. “She’s 17 now, so it’s just an honor every class I get to do with her. She obviously said tonight that she wants to keep doing this. She feels as good now as she did when she was 8. Any time you get to ride that horse in a class, it’s a good day, even if you make a mistake or she has a rail down. It’s always fun.”
Ward finished the jump-off on Rothchild, whose quick pace brought them home in 43.12 seconds, but a rail put them fourth. “I ended up standing off the last jump a bit too far and he had it down, but he’s an amazing animal,” Ward said.
Two nights later, in the $50,000 Idle Dice Open Jumper Stakes, Rothchild was unbeatable, topping a six-horse jump-off for the top check.
“I’m very excited about Rothchild,” said Ward. “Sapphire jumps like a hunter, and he jumps a little bit funky. But his heart’s in the right place, and he’s unbelievably talented and athletic.”
When Ward first tried Rothchild, 8, in Belgium at Francois Mathy’s, he passed on the horse.
“I didn’t like him; I thought he was too hot,” he said, laughing. But his father, Barney Ward, did like the horse, and had the Sweeney family of Sagamore Farm buy him for McLain to ride. “Father knows best, I guess,” Ward said wryly.