Postcard: Last day of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final

McLain Ward’s cherished ambition became reality in Omaha as he finally won the trophy he had sought for decades.
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Nancy Jaffer
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McLain Ward’s cherished ambition became reality in Omaha as he finally won the trophy he had sought for decades.

April 2, 2017—The seventeenth time was the charm.

McLain Ward kept after the elusive Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping trophy through the years until he finally was able to kiss it and then hold it aloft today in the CenturyLink Center as a crowd of 7,860 roared its approval.

McLain Ward and HH Azur on their way to the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping title.

McLain Ward and HH Azur on their way to the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping title.

The fabulous mare HH Azur tried her heart out for him, never toppling a rail through five rounds of jumping as McLain led from Thursday’s start to today’s finish.

In the last of two rounds this afternoon, McLain really had no margin for error. Swiss rider Romain Duguet on the uniquely named Twentytwo des Biches had come into the final day with a score of 4 penalties from competition earlier in the week.

World Cup runner-up Romain Duguet of Switzerland and Twentytwo des Biches

World Cup runner-up Romain Duguet of Switzerland and Twentytwo des Biches

If McLain had a knockdown, it would have forced a jump-off, and who knows how that would have come out? But showing the cool demeanor that had taken him to the brink of his goal, he cantered into the arena for his last round totally focused on the task at hand.

In the past, he conceded, he has cracked in similar situations, but that’s behind him now and he knows how to handle the tension.

“I just took a breath and believed in my horse, had a little bit of luck and it came off...It was our day,” he said.

What has impressed me is McLain’s persistence through many setbacks, including close but no cigar in the World Cup. Certain horses are described as triers; McLain is definitely a trier too. We talked about that as he stood beside the trophy that finally became his. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he had to say. 

Romain felt no pressure before his final fault-free trip.

“I said before coming here, if I’m in the first 10, I’m really happy,” he commented.

“It was the first championship for the mare, she’s still really green for this level. For me, there was only a bonus today.”

Oh, and about the 10-year-old Selle Francais mare’s weird name. Biches is a village in central France; 22 appears to be the horse’s foaling date.

Third place went to Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann, whose eight penalties in Friday’s competition couldn’t be erased by two fault-free rounds today on Mary Lou. She completed the trio of mares at the top of this year’s final, which was interesting, but apparently it was just coincidence. McLain for one doesn’t go out of his way looking for mares (which you would think, because he won two Olympic gold medals with the late, great Sapphire) but they seem to come to him.

McLain Ward hoists the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping trophy on the podium with runner-up Romain Duguet of Switzerland and Henrik von Ekermann of Sweden, who took third.

McLain Ward hoists the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping trophy on the podium with runner-up Romain Duguet of Switzerland and Henrik von Ekermann of Sweden, who took third.

He did note, however, that he, Romain and Henrik are “soft, light riders and that suits probably a sensitive mare and allows us to try to get the most out of them.

Course designer Alan Wade had the horses jumping better today than they did when they started out in Omaha. Only one rider in the top 12 had a knockdown in the second round, which was pretty remarkable, since the fences were sizeable. A vertical standing more than 1.60 meters didn’t come down at all, because Alan had it a nice three-stride distance from the oxer before it.

Alan is a favorite of the riders because of the philosophy he puts into action while designing. When I asked him why so many horses had improved in the course of the competition, he offered quite an explanation.

His strategy was to build up the fences in terms of height, but he isn’t a guy who indulges in tricks.

“I wanted them to leave in a good fashion over big fences and head to the next show,” he said.

“My main concern is horses, I look after horses. If riders want to make mistakes, I don’t want to see them get in trouble. I could have jammed them in the double, but it wouldn’t look nice,” and that’s what concerns him.

“I saw a number of horses that jumped that second round better than they jumped all week, and for me, that was good,” he continued.

“The riders will be blaming themselves for the faults they created earlier in the week that put them out of the championship, and not the ground, and not the fences and hopefully not me.”

McLain had the spotlight as he walked into the arena for the awards ceremony while patting HH Azur.

McLain had the spotlight as he walked into the arena for the awards ceremony while patting HH Azur.

McLain’s victory was the first by an American in a World Cup in the U.S. since 1980 in Baltimore, when Conrad Homfeld won second Cup ever held. The competition was in its infancy, obviously and I remember people were having trouble figuring out the scoring system before the winner was announced!

The U.S. has had ups and downs in its Cup experience, and this time McLain’s didn’t have a lot of company from his fellow countrymen. The second-best American finish was Laura Kraut on Zeremonie in 15th place, with a fault-free trip in today’s final round. Right behind her in 16th was Charlie Jacobs on Cassinja S. Charlie really worked hard to get here, and in this company finishing in the top 20 is quite an accomplishment for an amateur rider who has to spend all week at his job. No other U.S. riders made today’s second round.

The wonderful last afternoon of the show brought even more praise from everyone, from the FEI (international equestrian federation) to the people I talked to in the trade fair who were thrilled to be able to attend such a major competition within driving distance of their home. The Midwest hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of dressage, and the show jumping isn’t at the level that we’re used to in the East and California.

Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, knew early on that this competition would be a success. So did I, though I don’t think either of us knew the scope of what we would find here.

He and I talked about it this morning, since we shared the same experience, as you will hear if you click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video. 

This event wouldn’t have happened if it were not for Lisa Roskens, another amateur jumper rider who is the CEO of Burlington Capital and an ardent supporter of her hometown.

Just like McLain, she had a dream that she made come true. Her idea of having Omaha host the Cup came to her while attending the competition when it was in Las Vegas. Her enthusiasm as chairman of the Omaha Equestrian Federation has been the catalyst for the magic that we saw unfold this week.

She reflected on what having such a successful event has meant and will mean going forward for the Midwest and horse sports. Listen to what she had to say by clicking on the right-pointing arrow. 

One of Lisa’s many gifts is getting people involved. Even Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts became a supporter of the concept, and he was here today, loving every minute of the show. Also watching were the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, and his buddy, Bill Gates of Microsoft (whose daughter, Jennifer competed in the non-World Cup class at the show).

I won’t forget what I’ve seen here, and I hope you’ve gotten a glimpse of the magic through my postcards. Go to www.omahaworldcup2017.com/ for more information and results. And check out www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman and www.facebook.com/dressagetoday for lots of photos.

Now it’s time for me to switch gears and go eventing, as the British say. Check back at the end of the month for our extensive coverage of Rolex Kentucky.

Until then,

Nancy Jaffer