June 1, 2012 -- The measure of a true champion is the ability to soar above adversity and emotional turmoil while achieving a goal, which McLain Ward did in spectacular fashion last night, winning both the Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon and the hearts of the capacity crowd packed in around the Dixon Oval.
He had the fans with him even before the $100,000 class started, as he wiped away a tear or two during a heartfelt tribute to his great mare, Sapphire, who retired in style after a historic career that included two Olympic gold medals and a number of other double victories, among them the Devon grand prix, the Hampton Classic and the American Invitational.
Sapphire souvenirs were big sellers at the Devon Horse Show on Philadelphia's Main Line. Admirers snapped up her Breyer horse models and T-shirts listing the mare's accomplishments ($40 if signed by McLain, $22 unsigned).
The 17-year-old Belgian-bred, who will go on to a new career as a broodmare, looked fit and ready to jump as she toured the ring with her rider one last time. I wonder if she was puzzled after her saddle was removed during the ceremony and she hadn't cleared a single one of the jumps. When McLain led her from the arena, he had trouble holding her as she bounced against the wave of applause that accompanied her departure.
Then McLain mounted Antares F and gave Olympic selectors a demonstration of the determination and guts it takes to be a winner in every sense of the word. The Olympic "observation event" was the biggest test for McLain since he shattered his left patella during a competition in January, an accident that put into question what practically had been a given--that he would make the team for this summer's London Games.
"It's nice to be back," McLain said in a masterpiece of understatement following his victory gallop, the seventh in his career at this grand prix.
U.S. team physician,Dr. Craig Ferrell, an orthopedic surgeon, was key in helping McLain recuperate to the point where he could ride competitively in a test that was the caliber of the Devon feature. Yesterday was Dr. Ferrell's funeral in Tennessee; he died Monday after suffering severe injuries in a fall from a polo pony last week. That complicated things for McLain, who was as much a mourner as any of the more than 1,000 people who attended the church service. It was not only Dr. Ferrell's professional skill, but also the comfort and counsel he offered on a personal basis that enabled McLain to recover. The grateful rider dedicated his victory to Dr. Ferrell, the consummate healer.
After the class, we talked about Sapphire and the tragic loss of Dr. Ferrell. I asked how McLain manages to control his emotions so he can perform at his best, no matter what turbulence he is encountering in his life.
Though McLain rides through pain as his injury continues to heal, you would never know it judging only by the style in which he and his gray Pegasus tackled an exacting course designed by Michel Vaillancourt, with the assistance of Anthony D'Ambrosio and Robert Ridland. who takes over next year as U.S. show jumping technical advisor. Robert is filling in at the observation trials for the current technical advisor, George Morris, who was sidelined by a cancer operation.
Michel was pleased with the way things went.
"To me, the outcome was wonderful. I don't think any horses really struggled. Trials should not be there to eliminate people who could be in contention; it should really be a training ground in order to get these horses ready to really do their thing at the Olympic Games. I don't think the result could have been any better. It shows the quality that's here." commented Michel, who won an individual silver medal for Canada in the 1976 Olympics.
He commented on the caliber of the competitors, citing the iconic sign over the ring that reads, "Devon Horse Show. Where champions meet." Said Michel: "We're not kidding."
Antares had something to prove; while McLain's injury meant he got a bye from the March selection trials in Florida, his mount was ranked eighth in the post-trials standings, and he needed to move up on the roster. Devon was his ticket.
There were only 16 starters in the class, but 14 of them were on the Olympic long list and eager to prove their mettle. Charlie Jayne started things off with a magnificent trip on Chill RZ, who missed the selection trials when the horse needed stitches the day before the competition began and required medication that kept him out of the ring.
George had encouraged him to keep going in the process "and put up clear rounds," despite being ranked last in a four-way tie for 35th on the long list. So Charlie followed instructions on the mount he regards more highly than any other he's ridden.
"I've had a lot of great horses in my life. I don't think I've ever had a superstar," said Charlie, who believes he now has found one, comparing Chill to an equitation horse in his smooth way of going.
Going first in the four-horse tiebreaker, Charlie understandably played it conservative and was paid off with a fault-free trip in 39.93 seconds.
"There were some big fences, there were some options in the lines, and he rolled around like he'd been doing it his whole life. I think he's an Olympic caliber horse," said Charlie, but added, "I think I'm behind the eight-ball because I didn't do the trials."
McLain bettered Charlie's mark by more than five seconds, as Antares simply flew over the fences in sync with his rider, coming through the finish in 34.32 seconds.
Laura Kraut, who had been given a bye from the selection trials with third-ranked Cedric, toppled a rail at fence 8B, the second part of a double in front of the grandstand and a wall of people.
She blamed herself for the knockdown in the jump-off.
"I saw McLain go and I just got really greedy. I came too fast into the double and he jumped so far in I didn't see B, and I don't think he (Cedric) did either," she said after her fourth-place finish.
Laura, who spends so much of the year in England that it sounds to me as if she's getting a bit of a British accent, rode in 2011's Olympic test event at Greenwich Park, where the equestrian competition will be held this summer. Noting the similarity of that venue to Devon, she decided to participate in the observation event here. Riders needed to do two observation events, with a choice of Del Mar, Calif.; Kentucky, Devon or Spruce Meadows in Canada.
In the enviable position of going last, speedster Margie Engle had a great shot at victory with Indigo. But she fell short, clocked in 35.28 seconds.
"I needed to do one less (stride) to the last jump. I felt like he was really on it tonight in the jump-off. He was a little wild in the first round" said Margie, second on the long list with her intrepid gray.
Reed Kessler, the amazing 17-year-old who is ranked number one with Cylana and fifth with Mika, skipped Devon and instead went to the Kentucky event. She will finish at Spruce.
Victory at Devon is always sweet, but in this case, it was even more so for McLain. We discussed the importance of what he achieved here at one of his favorite shows.
Beezie Madden, McLain's teammate on the last two U.S. Olympic gold medal squads, had three horses in the class. She went clean on Coral Reef Via Volo, her best Olympic prospect, who got a bye from the selection trials and is fourth on the long list. However, rules require that only two horses be eligible for the jump-off and those designated were her other rides, Cortes C and Simon, each of whom had a rail. But it worked out for Beezie, since Via Volo could save her energy for tomorrow afternoon's second observation event.
The final set of observations is set for two weeks from now at Spruce Meadows. The short list of horses being shipped to England for training before the Games will be announced June 17.
As of this minute, the best prospects for the top of the short list look like World Cup Finals winner Rich Fellers with Flexible, ranked seventh before his Cup triumph (the first in 25 years for an American); McLain, Laura, Margie, Reed and Beezie with Via Volo. But you never know what the future holds when it comes to horses; let's see what happens tomorrow. Mario Deslauriers will have another chance with Urico, ranked sixth, who had two rails last night. He also had a rail with American Invitational winner Cella, another horse tied for 35th because she missed the trials due to a medical issue.
Check back tomorrow evening for my update.