An unsuccessful quest to buy Bella Donna highlights just how difficult it is for top riders to find and acquire top mounts.
In September, when Hunter Harrison and I decided we were going to work together again and have some mutual goals as sponsor and rider, we decided to try over the long term to make a very solid commitment on both of our parts to win a few more medals.
Hunter’s a sportsman, and I think he loves to win a medal almost more than my team and I do. That’s what draws us to each other—the competitive passion runs pretty deep. Ever since, we’ve been on the hunt for a top, top horse. We found one we liked last fall and began to try and put a deal together to buy Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s former ride Bella Donna.
We went through several months of negotiations, and we thought we were close to making a deal, but the owners held quite strong to the asking price. I think as late as mid-December, we felt like we were very close. But in the end, the horse sold to Qatar.
I understand that’s how the business goes, but I really wish we could have had the horse here for the United States. I do believe Bella Donna is a horse that can win an Olympic gold medal. She was also attractive because she was 10, so you were looking at the possibility of three, maybe four, championships with her, which is a unique scenario. That was coupled with the fact that she’s a mare, and Hunter and I have had great success with mares before.
That’s what the business is now—I understand that. But it was a little heart wrenching for us. We really thought we were close.
It’s difficult to get that news, but then you have to wake up the next morning and move on. I have a lot of support from my family and my inner core group of friends. So, we’ll go on to the next. At some point we’ll find or develop the right horse, and we’ll put it together.
It’s A Never-Ending Quest
The Bella Donna situation is indicative of what it’s like to try and find a top horse today. It is so hard to find good horses, and so many people with so much money behind them are shopping.
I said to someone at the end of the Bella Donna situation, “I never thought we’d get to a point where you’re offering millions of dollars for a horse, and it feels like you’re doing a back-alley deal.”
You’re there in the dark of a hotel room making a phone call at 3 in the morning to see if you can lock up a purchase on a horse before the news hits the wire at 7 a.m. that the horse might be able to be bought. That’s the reality of it now.
My team and I watch for horses everywhere, all the time. You see some horses you like that you can’t buy, and you see thousands that you don’t want to buy.
We work very much in partnership with François Mathy in Belgium, and he’s looking all the time, and he has people he trusts who look. My wife, Lauren, has been a great asset to me. She scours results and then watches videos of horses that are doing well. If one looks interesting, she points it out to me. She’s on that daily. There aren’t too many horses out there doing anything interesting that we’re not aware of.
The hard part now is that there are 50 other people in the sport doing exactly the same thing. We’re not unique. Twenty years ago, that was unique. Now, there are people who make very good livings doing exactly that.
Mass media is a two-sided coin. There’s a part of me that thinks that the internet and videos and instant knowledge have hurt the people who are really willing to beat the bushes and get on the phone and drive the 1,000 km to see a horse, because every horse that jumps a decent round, or every piece of news that a horse might be for sale, within 15 minutes is around the world. So, even when a horse of stature comes on the market, within minutes every corner of the world knows.
I have wonderful backing and great sponsorship. I would say, in an ideal world, I would own a few of my own grand prix horses, but that’s becoming less and less possible. I still try and have some ownership involvement because I do believe in having a little skin in the game, but the prices for the high-end, top sport horses are going through the roof.
You have to evolve with that; you have to accept it and be able to adjust your game to be able to play ball with that.
But I think there’s a real downside. I think we’re narrowing ourselves out of a greater market and an opportunity for younger people to get started in high-end sport. I think that’s a shame, and it’s something that somewhere along the way is going to need an adjustment.
How Do You Find Top Horses?
I was taught to take a multi-faceted approach to finding high-end horses to try and win medals. It’s no different than any major sports team.
How do the Yankees put a team together? It’s not one way. They have developing farm teams with kids coming up through colleges and farm leagues. They find players from smaller leagues in different parts of the world. They trade players. They’re looking everywhere for talent.
The first approach is that you have to buy and breed the best young horses. While we’re always on the lookout for young horses to buy, we’ve also begun the venture of doing some breeding with the wonderful mares that we have with Blue Chip and Tom Grossman.
Sapphire is at the heart of that process, with foals out of her (by embryo transfer) and clones of her and foals out of those clones, but we’ve expanded to more breedings and are very excited about the results. Blue Chip is a wonderful place for young horses, and they are expanding their knowledge about breeding from Standardbreds to sport horses very successfully. That’s a long-term venture, but obviously we’re trying to tackle finding top horses in every way we can.
As with any talent, some are going to make it, some aren’t. It’s a numbers game. The guys who look promising coming out of the farm leagues to the big-time don’t always make it. And some of the kids who look just OK turn out to be superstars. You have to be very flexible and open-minded.
The second approach is always looking and always being on the scout for talent. There may be a situation where you see that a horse’s talent that isn’t being utilized correctly or you feel you can improve on a particular area. We’ve had great success over the years with taking a horse who maybe had a lot of talent but wasn’t in the right situation or the right hands and trying to get the best out of him. We still really are always scouting for that.
The third approach, just like on a baseball team, is that once in a while you have to have the backing and support to go out and buy a hell of a pitcher. There is a moment to go and buy a proven, ready-to-go superstar. That’s getting harder and harder to do, even with great backing, but I’m a big believer that there is a time, once in a while, to buy the best horse there is.
There’s not one way to find that next great horse, and you have to be pressing on all three ways to find the right horses, and you have to be pressing with a lot of assistance and people around you that are watching. You have to be open-minded to every avenue for a possible horse. You also have to be willing to get in the car and drive to see something. Most of the time, you’re not going to buy it. But if you don’t go, you’re for sure not going to find it.
There’s not a phone call we won’t make or a video we won’t watch. I don’t think there’s any effort that we’re not willing to do to find a great horse.
How Do You Know A Good Horse When You See One?
I love to buy. I go to look at a horse because I want to buy it.
We want to find a great horse, and we want to find good horses for my business that I’m proud to resell and that are going to make happy clients.
We have a line in our business, there’s a group of people who look at a horse and try to find a reason not to buy it. That’s not me. I very firmly believe that people of that mindset typically end up on the side of the ring talking about how if they had my horse, they’d win a lot.
You’ve got to be willing to take some risks. You’ve got to believe in what you see and feel about a horse and rely on your knowledge. You have to be confident enough to not pass the buck off on the veterinarian or the agent. You look to them for advice, but you have to have the guts to make a decision, whether it’s a horse for resale or a horse for the high-end sport.
We’ve bought some very expensive horses without ever sitting on them. Some have been home runs—like Sapphire—but I’ve also made my share of mistakes.
When I first started buying horses, I made some expensive mistakes. My father would let me know about it; it didn’t go unnoticed. But at the end of every lecture about it, the last line would be, “Now go and find another one.” The point was that if you want to have good horses, you have to buy horses. If you sit there and wait for everything to be perfect, this isn’t a good business for you.
So, when you get down to the details, I’m a sucker for technique; I love a pretty jumper. Rothchild isn’t a pretty jumper, and I passed on him and was overruled, and now he’s my top horse.
I love the Antares F/Sapphire jumping style. I also like a horse that has a good canter. Early in my career, I made mistakes believing, particularly with the horses for the top of the sport, that I could make up for a horse’s deficiencies more than I maybe could. So I’ve gotten a little more critical, especially as the sport has gotten more difficult.
But the most important factor is character. Is the horse trying to help me? Or is he working against me?
The most frustrating horses in my career have been horses with a lot of talent who worked against me. The horses I’m most proud of and have had the biggest connection with, and Rothchild is a wonderful example of this type, are the ones who do things maybe not quite by the book, but who try and help me. I go with my gut on that.
I still get excited when I try a good horse, and I get excited when I see something that looks promising. I have great natural enthusiasm for that. I don’t try a horse with skepticism; I try a horse thinking, “This could be the one!”
I think that’s a key to not only finding and buying the great horses, but also to having resilience when you make a few mistakes. There is no rider, trainer or dealer who has bought only the right horses. That doesn’t exist. Sometimes you have to buy a few of the wrong ones to find the really right one.
A member of the gold medal-winning teams at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, McLain Ward, 38, has been jumping at the grand prix level since he was a teenager. He won the USET Show Jumping Talent Search at age 14 and has served on Nations Cup teams for more than 15 years. He also has team silver from the 2006 World Equestrian Games to his credit and jumped on the U.S. team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games. Ward, who serves as vice-president of the North American Riders Group, was second in the 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Final and won the $1 Million CN International (Alberta) along with two wins in the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix (New York). He operates his family’s Castle Hill Farm in Bedford, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla.