McLain Ward and HH Azur. PC: Cara Grimshaw/FEI
Omaha audiences are going to have a bit of a reputation after Friday night – not only for being the most raucous show jumping crowd in the world, but for being very good luck. In front of a packed house, McLain Ward and Annie once again rose to the occasion in magnificent form to capture the second leg of the FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final and head into the final night with zero penalties and as the ones to beat.
Alan Wade’s second course ensured that riders had plenty to do, and multiple riders fell victim to tough lines, massive spreads and in particular a looky liverpool at the end of the course which undid otherwise perfect rounds, including Laura Kraut, Sergio Alvarez Moya, Nicola Philippaerts, and Leopold van Asten.
Numerous riders were able to bounce back from jumping faults in the early go only to fall victim to the time: Keean White of Canada, Lorenzo de Luca (ITA), Denis Lynch (IRL) and Maikel van der Vleuten all took a time fault home by the slimmest of margins.
Even those at the top of the leaderboard were not spared in the first round, as Leopold, Steve Guerdat, and Henrik von Eckermann struggled with the course to end up out of contention for the remainder of the night. Gregory Wathelet (BEL) & Forlap. PC: Liz Gregg/FEI
Those who did thrive in the technical landscape of night two? Marcus Ehning opened the double clear door after the halfway mark of the night, and coming in behind him was 21-year-old Guido Klatte, Martin Fuchs, Romain Duguet, Gregory Wathelet, and last in the ring, Mclain Ward, all of whom were able to maintain their focus despite a crowd so enraptured by the moment they were clapping or audibly gasping at nearly every fence.
Jump-Off Doesn’t Let Up
Alan Wade didn’t take his foot off the pedal for the jump-off ensuring his pairs had plenty to get done, and the jump-off saw 2 rails from Marcus, a stop and a rail from the young Guido, and a more cautious, slow, but ultimately clean round from Martin.
Romain Duguet came in looking for blood and stopped the clock at 40.46 seconds to ensure the last two riders wouldn’t get off easy. Gregory Wathelet and his stunning Forlap, who are having a fairytale weekend in their own right, kept his own fairytale alive by edging Romain with a clean round and a 39.39.
McLain and Annie came in looking the picture of strength and poise and were positively ferocious in their final go, leaving no angle, stride, and turn with room to spare and finishing on top with a 36.87 – a time McLain says was actually a bit faster than he intended, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.
“It was faster than I would have planned – you try to just do enough, I’m a big believer in that – but you also have to go into this competition knowing the level is so high and you have to do the best you can every night and be in the fight to the very end.” Mclain said of their finish.
As to whether or not they’re feeling the pressure of the event, the crowd, and the desire to win, McLain was remarkably candid in the press conference, his daughter Lilly on his knee as he spoke.
“I think any rider at this level who wants to do as well as these riders do, you feel tension,” McLain said. “Anybody who says they don’t, I don’t think they’re telling the truth. I think the pressure is there, but the home crowd support always makes it a little bit easier. It’s the moment we all work for and the people behind us work hard for and you carry that on your shoulders a little bit.”
Mclain perhaps feels the yoke of his team and his owners even more poignantly this weekend, as HH Azur is really the living embodiment of some of McLain’s most important connections in his career.
“This situation with Azur is very special to me because of her owners Hunter (Hunter Harrison, owner of Dougle H Farms) and Francois Mathy. Both of these men are huge father figures to me in my life. I went to work for Francois back in 1992 – He was my father’s partner – and I started riding for Hunter in 2002.
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both of them and I think much of who I am is because of them, and to have both of them own what I think is the best horse I’ve ever sat on in my life, it’s emotional enough. In different ways, both have done incredible things for the sport and for many riders. Both have helped many riders – Hunter in particular in North America has brought sponsorship to a new level. I’m in great debt to them as I think many in the sport are.”
As for Annie herself, it’s clear that McLain means it when he speaks of her as his best ride.
“She’s a strong, independent woman. I don’t think she needs me very much!”
The scores from the first two night are multiplied by a co-efficient to determine penalties for the final on Sunday afternoon, and McLain and Annie go in with a sparkling record, but little room for error.
Gregory Wathelet and Forlap are having a sensational reunion, and leave only three penalties of breathing room between them and Mclain. Romain Duguet is hot on their heels just a rail out from the lead.