April 1, 2017— He’s been there before. Several times in his 17-year quest for the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping title, McLain Ward came close to standing on the top step of the podium for the final awards ceremony, but he has never reached it.
“For me, that’s a little bit frustrating,” he said, in a masterpiece of understatement.
So even though the New Yorker blew away his competition in Omaha during a spell-binding six-horse jump-off last night, no one knows better than the world’s fourth-ranked show jumper that anything can happen with two more rounds of power jumping to go tomorrow as he seeks a title “reserved for a very special few.”
Only a single knockdown separates him in the Cup standings from Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet, who has three penalties to McLain’s zero total, and Romain Duguet of Switzerland, third on four penalties.
They moved up from fourth and sixth respectively after the speed round that opened the competition on Thursday evening, even as Henrik von Eckermann of Sweden and two-time World Cup winner Steve Guerdat, another Swiss, dropped from second and third into a tie for sixth yesterday.
Talk about tension! McLain isn’t coy, admitting he feels it. Hey, how could he not?
“Anybody who says they don’t, I don’t think they are telling the truth,” McLain observed, as he held his little daughter, Lily Kristine, on his lap during the press conference. She knows what’s what, proudly enunciating the words, “clear round” to produce a big smile on her father’s face.
The supportive U.S. fans at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center got a taste of the pressure as they watched McLain and the spectacular HH Azur, last to go in a six-horse jump-off, rub one fence on the nine-obstacle course before emerging with a blow-the-doors off 2.52-second edge over Gregory and Forlap.
McLain just kept galloping from a vertical in the corner to the last fence, an oxer on the rail smack in front of the crowd, soaring over the poles as the finish line beckoned.
“I was probably a little faster than I would have planned,” McLain observed about his 36.87-second trip.
“You try to just do enough. I’m a big believer in that. But you also have to go to this competition, the level is so high, and try to do the best you can every night and be in the fight to the very end," he said.
He praised Azur with tongue in cheek, describing the Belgian warmblood as “a strong, independent woman. I don’t think she needs me very much.”
But McLain needs her, calling the 11-year-old mare, “what I consider to be the best horse I’ve ever sat on in my life.”
Huh? I puzzled a bit over that statement, knowing how much he treasured Sapphire, the mare he rode to two Olympic gold medals and a host of victories.
So I asked for a bit of an explanation about the comment when we did a video after the press conference. To find out what he said, click on the right-pointing arrow.
Alan Wade, the popular Irish course designer, produced a clever route that didn’t yield a round free of both jumping and time faults until the 18 of 33 riders, Marcus Ehning of Germany, went over it.
“I felt it needed to be difficult enough, but still have room for Sunday (the two final rounds),” said Alan of his layout.
“I was surprised where some of the faults came.”
Even though he adjusted the time allowed from 71 to 73 seconds after the first few riders competed, four of what would have been perfect trips subsequently were marred by a time fault before Marcus achieved that double clear on Pret a Tout.
Knowing they had to beat the clock big time obviously led to some riders dropping rails. The last line in the first round, from the Omaha vertical matched with a liverpool to the Longines oxer, took its toll. One of the victims was another U.S. rider, Laura Kraut, clear until the vertical with Zeremonie.
The fact that the distance between the two fences was a longish four strides seemed to prompt some of the riders to begin pushing before the vertical in anticipation of the oxer, which didn’t always work out well.
Laura is in 12 place with 14 penalties, ahead of Charlie Jacobs, in a three-way tie for 15 with 16 penalties. They are the only two Americans who will be returning for Sunday’s fray.
Gregory is happy to be back on Forlap, a 12-year-old Belgian gelding that he brought to the top level, then lost when the chestnut was sold to a Ukrainian oligarch who assembled a team of competitors from other countries to compete for his homeland.
The horse had a crisis of confidence under several different riders, so Gregory didn’t expect him to bounce back under his program as quickly as he has over the last few months.
“It’s always a horse who’ll fight for me,” he noted. Asked about his jump-off, Gregory said he realized McLain would be faster than he could go, explaining, “I wanted to be quick, but not crazy.”
Romain’s mount, Twentytwo des Biches, is only 10, but after his top horse was injured, he decided to take the Selle Francais mare to Nebraska. He was pleased with her performance on Friday, but noted he is going “day by day” in the final with his rising star.
Melanie Smith Taylor, who won the Cup in 1982 with the great Calypso, stopped by to visit with McLain and me after the class. If you never saw her ride, you may know her best as the Olympic equestrian television commentator who does a great job explaining everything that happens at the Games.
I took the opportunity to do a little video with her, asking for her prediction on who she thinks will win here. Press on the right-pointing arrow to find out what she told me.
Former U.S. coach George Morris is practically on vacation in Omaha, enjoying just watching the passing parade without a rider to train. He’s always an astute observer of the scene, so I asked for his opinion of this show, which has drawn raves from everyone.
Although the Omaha Equestrian Foundation under the chairmanship of amateur jumper rider Lisa Roskens has produced annual shows that attract competitors mostly from the Midwest, moving to an international sporting championship (the first ever for the city) was a big jump, so to speak.
To hear what George had to say, while standing next to a neat unicorn statue in Century Link, click on the right-pointing arrow.
To see more about the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final, go to www.omahaworldcup2017.com.
Look for additional photos at www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman, where you can keep following the Cup action. I’ll be back with another postcard after Sunday’s competition to fill you in about how it all came out.