HH Azur is always a magnificent animal to behold in the arena, but in the opening round in Omaha, ‘Annie’ truly rose above the standards – literally and figuratively – to meet the guiding seat and hands of McLain Ward and take the lead in the FEI World Cup Final.
Even their fellow competitors were in awe, with second runner up and last year’s defending Champion Steve Guerdat admitting that he is “one of McLain’s biggest fans.”
Incredibly gracious words from the Swiss rider who was edged by little more than half a second Thursday night, and has big hopes for the weekend himself. His talented mare Bianca has had a good portion of the winter off with the intention of having her peak for this event, and the gamble seems to have been worth it.
Sandwiched between the two riders was Henrik Von Eckermann of Sweden, who had the distinct advantage of going second-to-last and capitalized masterfully, having one of the smoothest rounds of the night aboard Mary Lou 194.
All three of the top rounds came in the second half of the night, in fact, and early on the clean rounds were hard to come by. Only four riders left the jumps in the cups in the first half as the Ariat combination down the long side of the tight arena troubled numerous pairs. We also saw a lot of trouble across the diagonal, which included a tricky double, the first liverpool, and a tough rollback at the end of the line that cost many the perfect round.
Martin Fuchs and Clooney 51 of Switzerland were the first pair to break the clean round barrier, and then the door was wide open. We saw impressive clears following them from Sergio Alvarez Moya (ESP), Simon Delestre (FRA), and Leopold Van Asten (NED).
Mclain was the second rider back after the break and he started a hot streak of clears that included the youngest rider at the event, Germany’s Guido Jun. Klatte, and Gregory Wathelet of Belgium.
Steve and Bianca went hell bent for leather, looking like they had absolutely nothing to lose and gaining quite a lead on the pack with their performance, slotting just behind Mclain and Annie. They held this position until the second-to-last rider, when Henrik and Mary Lou split the 10ths of a second between Mclain and Steve right down the middle to sit in second going into the next two cumulative rounds.
When asked at the press conference if he would change anything about his round, Henrik was very confident about the spot that cost him the win:
“I missed out from number 2 to 3. It was a nice seven (strides) and I have a very big-strided horse so I thought I can keep out a little bit on the seven and ended up with eight instead; that was the whisker, I think!”
When asked how he prepared for the round tonight, Mclain says he tweaked his formula slightly with the long range goal of the week in mind.
“I gave her a light flat about midday – she’s actually a real blood horse and I didn’t work her as hard today as I normally would before a grand prix,” Mclain said at the press conference. “But at these championships you have to try to work backwards and leave something in the tank for the weekend.”
Time will tell what Annie has left in the tank, but if the first night is any indication, the mare has gears that we haven’t even seen yet.
“She’s an incredible animal, and the biggest thing I try to do is not mess up for her,” added McLain. “I think the world of her and her performance has been great – we’ll just keep digging this week. I feel these two very close behind me so I’ll just keep pushing on.”
The points over the three rounds are cumulative, and as communications director Marty Bauman said of round one, you may not win it in the first night, but you can certainly lose it. There were some heartbreakers tonight, including a retirement by Karl Cook, a tumble by Audrey Coulter and an elimination for Max Kuhner which will bring an early end to their competitive week in Omaha.
For those still in the hunt, course designer Alan Wade will do his best in the next two rounds to keep things interesting for the riders, horses, and fans, and we should expect to see many more changes on the leaderboard before it’s all over.