Riding a crescendo of encouraging cheers from fans packed into every nook and cranny of the Devon showgrounds, McLain Ward won the $250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix last night for a record 10th time with a bravura performance from his latest brilliant mount, Clinta.
Devon loves McLain, and he returns the compliment.
“This crowd is always in my back pocket. They’re for me. It feels very special to win here,” he said.
“How can you beat the atmosphere?” McLain asked, then answered, “I’ve always said this is a very special place, it’s an iconic location, a crowd that’s second to none. I don’t think there’s an atmosphere even in the world that’s better.”
The class is named after McLain’s Olympic gold medal ride, Sapphire, who topped the Devon grand prix twice and appropriately had her retirement ceremony in the Dixon Oval six years ago. The announcer jokingly suggested that perhaps the class should be called the McLain Grand Prix of Devon, since he has won half of the renewals since 1999. Yes, McLain has become known as the king of Devon, and there’s no doubting that rank.
Clinta, an 11-year-old Oldenburg (Clinton-Last Flight/Lord Pezi), serves as a worthy backup to McLain’s current number one, HH Azur. Sensitive and talented, Clinta requires a special ride and insight, but McLain seems to specialize in mares and has a great understanding of them.
(Click here to watch a video in which McLain talks about Clinta and how he handles her.)
There was a time a few years ago when top show jumpers started going elsewhere rather than making Devon the “must” on their schedules it always had been before big grands prix started popping up all over the place. But a decision to increase prize money and have the show FEI (International Equestrian Federation) recognized so riders could get ranking list points turned the tide, along with improvements in footing and stabling.
Devon “has reinvented itself,” said McLain. “It really is a world-class show jumping event and the course and caliber of riders reflects that.”
The list of 31 starters included all the members of both the USA’s 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2016 Olympic squads, but riding different horses than their championships mounts. McLain was joined by Beezie Madden, Lucy Davis and Kent Farrington, who recently returned to competition after breaking his leg during the Winter Equestrian Festival.
None of them except McLain made the five-horse jump-off. The route laid out by 2016 Olympic designer Guilherme Jorge was so difficult that early on, it almost seemed there might not be a tie-breaker. Four of the first eight riders retired after their horses were struggling with the challenges before them.
When McLain’s student, Adrienne Sternlicht on Cristalline, had the first clean trip as the ninth to go, the stands erupted with a joyous roar. These spectators are really into show jumping at Devon, even if they don’t attend another grand prix all year, and they can appreciate a good round.
In all during the evening, seven riders would retire and two were eliminated for refusals. When I spoke with Gui before the jump-off, he didn’t look happy. He underestimated the X-factor of Devon on grand prix night under the lights, which seems to make the fences look bigger and more demanding to some contenders (I think that applies both to equine and humans). The word often used to describe this syndrome in the horses is “impressed” and many of them certainly were.
But the tie-breaker had just the right number. McLain and Clinta really flew to produce a fault-free trip in 36.91 seconds, eclipsing Adrienne’s lead-off time of 40.20 that would be good enough for second.
“She’s been incredible,” McLain said of Clinta. “We’re very excited about her.”
“The whole beginning of the jump-off worked out well. The turn on the double (a vertical to an oxer) came up really good. That was the only thing I was a little concerned about. She’s such a careful horse I was worried she would go too high,” said McLain.
After he slowed down at one point, he tried to make up time heading toward the last fence.
“To be honest,” he said, “she could have chipped or stopped at it. It showed for me where the horse is mentally that she believes in what I’m asking her, because it was a little bit of a dicey distance. It wasn’t so well done on my part. The horse saved me there.”
He gave credit to Clinta’s previous rider, Phillip Ruping, “who took this horse as a horse who was thought to be possibly too careful for the big sport and really developed her over the last year and half to have the confidence to be able to go and do what she’s doing with me now.”
Adrienne, who is on the short list for September’s WEG, is the least experienced of the riders who made the jump-off but has been gaining in expertise.
“I try to trust myself and stick to my plan and I have become more and more confident in the jump-off, she said, then after a bit of good-natured prodding from McLain, added with a smile, “so I try to execute according to my trainer’s plan.”
Devin Ryan, a perennial in the top three at Devon, dropped two rails as he rushed to beat McLain’s clocking with Eddie Blue, on whom he was second in April’s Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping Finals.
His hunger for victory can be seen plainly on his face.
“I tried to win it too much,” conceded Devin, who is also on the WEG short list, “I took maybe a little too much of a shot into the double. He has such a big stride sometimes he gets away from me a little bit and he just dragged me a little bit past it and got underneath it and it wasn’t my night.”
Devin complimented Gui’s course, agreeing it might have been a little scary for the designer in the first part of the class, but noting the size of the jump-off and the fact that there were four-faulters down to 15th place were signs of a good layout.
Todd Minikus also had two rails with Chaventyno, but was slower than Devin to come in fourth, while Brianne Goutal-Marteau ran into trouble with Viva Colombia and retired to finish fifth.
Adrienne, Devin and McLain will be heading to Europe for competition leading up to selection of the team that will represent the U.S. in the WEG this September. McLain is a lock for the team if he and his horses stay well, but Adrienne and Devin are still proving themselves.
“It’s always been my dream to represent the United States at some level,” said Devin. “I’ve started doing it a little bit and it would be nice to continue doing that. I’m excited for it and you know, you give it a shot.”