“This ring, for me, has really become like home,” said Olympian McLain Ward (USA) after capturing the win the $250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon CSI4*. “I get great energy from the crowd. I love it. And no matter how many places I go in the world and great experiences that I get to have all around the world, I love coming back here.”
Ward bested a field of 20 horse-and-rider combinations aboard his Tokyo Olympic mount, Contagious, in Thursday night’s Grand Prix of Devon. Olaf Petersen’s 13-obstacle course was “friendly” according to Ward, but allowed just seven athletes a spot in the jump-off.
Ward and the 13-year-old Deutches Sportpferd gelding were one of two pairs that managed to go double clear in the jump-off, the other duo being Schuyler Riley (USA) and Robin De Ponthual, who claimed the second place ribbon. Mimi Gochman (USA) and Celina BH had the fastest four-fault jump-off, earning them the third place podium position.
Thousands of spectators watched in eager silence as Ward navigated the “challenging” jump-off, but exploded with cheers as he landed from the last jump with the fastest double clear round of the night at 32.30 seconds. “I thought that jump-off was quite big, funny enough. It was a little awkward,” remarked Ward of the eight-effort course. “That turn to [jump] three and then that vertical (jump seven) was in a funny place and big enough. And [the grandstand] side of the ring is always notoriously difficult.” Nevertheless, the tricky track was no match for Ward and Contagious.
Riley agreed that the jump-off was “tricky to jump clear.” She added that her 17-year-old Selle Francais gelding “was brave and careful.” The duo tripped the timers at 33.57 seconds to secure second place honors. “I went as fast as I thought I possibly could on Robin.”
“My horse is a slower mover than most. He’s got a big step, but he’s a little bit slower in his way of going. So for me, the time will have the biggest concern. But the track, I thought, was built to four-star level, but jumpable.” Riley added that she toyed with the idea of doing six strides rather than seven in the last line of the jump-off, and when she came around the corner and found the distance out of stride, she knew Robin could do it. “As I saw it, I was like ‘We’re going for it,'” which resulted in their second place finish.
The youngest contender in the class, 17-year-old Gochman and piloted her 12-year-old Holsteiner mare to a podium position when she finished the jump-off in 33.12 seconds with just one rail down. “I was really going for a double clear, but I’ve been working a little bit on moving up with [Celina] and trying to find the spacing at the higher heights,” commented Gochman. “I think that’s just something that comes with learning and trying to go that fast, but also giving her room at the jumps.”
An accomplished equitation rider, Gochman has decided to adjust her focus to the jumper ring. “I think the equitation taught me as much as it was going to teach me,” noted Gochman. She attributed her solid position and foundation of communicating with her horses to her equitation training. “I learned a lot and I enjoyed it.”
“I’m definitely going to shift more towards the jumper side and try to jump some of these bigger tracks and learn as much as I can. I’m very lucky to be able to do that.”
“King of Devon”
Ward is no stranger to the Devon Horse Show & Country Fair. “I did the lead-line here,” Ward laughed. “I have a picture of my father leading me in the lead-line.”
After so many years and countless successes, Ward considers Devon home. “For me, this is really a comfortable place. I know the ring very well. I know the little idiosyncrasies of this arena and where the crowd is and things that horses might be distracted by here, which is always a factor.”
An Olympic gold medalist, Pan-American gold medalist, and highly decorated U.S. Team rider, Ward has competed at venues all over the world. But Devon still tops his favorites list. “I think the atmosphere is as good as anywhere in the world. … And there’s a knowledgeable crowd. They know who should win, who maybe shouldn’t, they know when something is a mistake, and that’s very unique.”
A Tribute to Sapphire
In 2020, Ward’s late two-time team gold medal-winning Olympic partner, Sapphire, was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. In 2012, “Sara” concluded her career with a victory in the very class that was to be named for her one day—the Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon. Ward and Sara topped the Grand Prix of Devon twice during their partnership. “It’s an incredible honor that Devon bestowed on Sapphire,” commented Ward. “She was spectacular here and she was in so many venues around the world for so long.”
Ward added that when he’s asked who is the best horse he’s ever had, “I have to say [Sapphire].” He continued, “She might not have been the most talented or athletic, but when you take all the qualities that you look for in a championship and a superstar horse, she had the most of the most of them for the longest period of time, which was remarkable. Eight years at the top of the sport.”
For full results from the $250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon, click here.