Proving that he hasn't forgotten how to win, McLain Ward made his return to the show ring count over the last two weekends at the Old Salem horse shows, taking the $40,000 grand prix on Antares F and topping the $75,000 grand prix last Sunday aboard Zander.
Despite a layoff after fracturing his left patella in January, McLain showed he is definitely a player in the Olympic stakes by making such a strong statement at the New York competitions near his home in Bedford. Dealing with the healing injury complicates things to an extent, of course.
"It definitely hurts, I have to be on top of the icing and the stretching and all the other things I can do to make up for the pain level right now," said McLain.
"Functionally, I'm more than close enough," he added.
"My situation right now is to be as good as I can be, and it will be obvious whether I should go (to the Olympics) or not. My focus is on that."
But he noted, "Actually, particularly with the horses I know well enough, it's functioning fine. It's maybe not the most pleasant feeling in the world, but you have to get through that and come out the other side."
What has to hurt more than his knee, however, is not being able to count on Sapphire, his team gold medal ride in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
She will be retired May 31 in formal ceremonies at the Devon (Pa.) Horse Show, where McLain will be riding Antares in two Olympic observation events.
"She's always been great there," he said about his choice of Devon for Sapphire's departure from the spotlight. And she'll be sure to have an audience paying tribute. The retirement is scheduled before the Thursday night grand prix, which always draws a sell-out crowd.
Once the decision was made that it was time for the 17-year-old Belgian-bred chestnut mare to end her illustrious career, McLain wanted her to make her last bow quickly so she could move on to the next stage of her life, as a broodmare. She had two foals as a young horse in Europe, and her next also will be a live birth, though a stallion has not yet been selected. After that, it's likely there will be embryo transplants. She already has two clones, so it's guaranteed there will be something of Sapphire well into the future.
Sapphire strained a check ligament early in 2011 and was kept out of competition after that with an eye toward having her ready for the Olympics. A third Games would have added more stars to an already illustrious record. Sapphire earned nearly $3 million over her years in arenas around the world. Her resume includes both $1 million grands prix (at Spruce Meadows and HITS), the American Invitational and the grands prix at the Hampton Classic and Washington International Horse Show (all twice), a second-place in the 2009 World Cup Finals and victories numerous foreign fixtures.
Although she jumped at the beginning of the 2012 FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival, plans were massively derailed following McLain's accident. While his team at Castle Hill kept Sapphire and his other horses in shape, he concentrated on physical therapy. Both Antares and Sapphire got byes from the March selection trials, since McLain wasn't ready to ride. Antares was ranked eighth; Sapphire, tenth on the long list for London.
But as the time for McLain to start showing again drew near, small physical problems kept cropping up with Sapphire, and it was obvious she wouldn't be ready for the Games. McLain saw no reason to push the issue.
"It's a loss not having Sapphire, no question about that. I've always done right by that horse and the horse has rewarded me greatly for it," McLain said, explaining the decision.
"I wasn't going to change that and ask her to do something I didn't feel she was fit to do. That's horses; that's careers, they have lifespans, they have ups and downs I'm lucky to have the gray horse (Antares) and still have a shot, and I obviously also still have some really exciting horses for the future."
As always, McLain gives credit to others for his success, particularly through what has been a difficult time.
"I have good horses and good people. The horses were ready to go," he said about their preparation for Old Salem.
Antares toppled a rail at the first jump in the $75,000 grand prix. But that was just one of those things.
"He feels very good. I went early; I wanted to do something up the first line, I got to the ingate and changed my plan and I went very slowly to the first jump and had it down. The horse jumped very well after that," said McLain, who is looking ahead, not back, as he tries to make the Olympic team with Antares.
"He's in good form," he said. "Some of the horses are a little harder and some are a little easier to ride for me right now. He's quite comfortable. I'm quite pleased about that.