U.S. rider McLain Ward knows what it is to win the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™. Today the 2017 champion set himself on that path once again when topping the second competition with Contagious at the 2022 final in Leipzig, Germany.
A brilliant last-to-go run with Contagious (Contagio x For Keeps) in the seven-horse jump-off against the clock moved him up from overnight fifth to pole position on the leaderboard. He goes into Sunday’s finale a full fence ahead of The Netherlands’ Harrie Smolders in second place. Young Briton, Harry Charles, shares third spot with first-day leader Martin Fuchs from Switzerland, both just a single penalty-point further behind.
Today’s two rounds were filled with drama. Defending series champion and Fuchs’ fellow-countryman Steve Guerdat produced the first clear with Victorio Des Frotards over Frank Rothenberger’s testing first-round track. But all of the leading four after yesterday’s class and returned with penalties in Round 2. Two of them faulted on the snaking line between Fences 6 and 8 that proved highly influential.
Challenges on Course
Ward explained the challenge. “I thought when we walked the course that was the hardest part. It didn’t line up very well. When you jumped the vertical at six, it was a very awkward line to those big spooky standards [at Fence 7]. And then you threw in the liverpool, and it was on a half-stride, five-and-a-half. So if you let your horse cut in, you got there deep and slow, and they were backing up so the back rail was a problem. It was five and a bit (strides) to the vertical at eight and a few did six. It was just quite uncomfortable,” the American explained.
It was that tricky water–tray oxer at seven that snatched the lead from Fuchs when The Sinner put in a spooky jump and crashed through it. The Swiss rider recovered quickly enough to clear the following vertical, however. Lying overnight second, Max Kühner’s Elektric Blue P skewed over the fence but left it up only for the Austrian duo to bring down the final vertical. Irishman Conor Swail, third overnight, looked en route to a clear with Count Me In only to hit the big oxer at 11 on the 13-fence track. Germany’s David Will, lying fourth as the action began with C Vier 2, left fence six and the penultimate oxer at 12 on the floor.
Guerdat’s chances in the jump-off faltered with two fences down. One of those was the vertical at Fence 8, now the second-to–last obstacle, which proved the undoing of three of the remaining six riders. British veteran John Whitaker was first to fall victim there with Equine America Unick du Franckport when next to go. His nephew Jack, who is a full 46 years younger, then posted the first clear with the brilliant little gray Equine America Valmy de Lande in 48.66 seconds.
Frenchman Gregory Cottard and Bibici also hit Fence 8 before Harry Charles overtook his young British rival to take the lead in 47.14 seconds with Romeo 88. Dutchman Smolders put in by far the quickest round with Monaco who stopped the clock in 41.37 seconds but left Fence 8 on the floor. So when Ward set off, last to go, he looked competitive. The leaderboard was now at his mercy with those ahead of him all out of contention. He capitalized on that with a superb tour of the track that snatched the win without hardly turning a hair. His win left Charles in second and Jack Whitaker in third while Smolders lined up in fourth place.
As Ward said afterward, he knew exactly what he needed to do. “I was able to see enough of the jump-off to know it wasn’t actually very fast and when Harry had the fence down, that really opened the door. So our game plan was to do just enough but not take too much out of the horse, not only for Sunday but also risking having a fence down,” he pointed out after posting the winning time of 44.03 seconds.
Ward said yesterday’s fence down that pinned him back into fifth place was entirely his own fault. “The horse was in brilliant form, I added a stride in a bending line and I put him in not a great spot,” he said. “It was a mistake on me. The horse wanted to win both rounds!”
Comparing Yesterday’s and Today’s Courses
Comparing today’s course with yesterday’s, Ward said, “In the sport nowadays at the top level, there are no easy days. There are extremely hard days, but I’d say yesterday was a friendly speed leg. Today [course designer Frank Rothenberger] ratcheted it up a couple of notches, a bunch of big verticals. The triple combination was big off the corner with two oxers, and we had a great result.
“Frank has a lot of experience, and he knows how to build a competition that brings out the best. And he also challenges riders without making it too hard on the newer, less experienced ones, and people from different regions of the world where the sport isn’t strong. He’s very good at that,” Ward said.
Harry Charles was delighted when he checked the new leaderboard. “I would definitely have taken that at the start of the day considering my position yesterday [13th]. I’m in pretty good company up there [third with Fuchs], more than a fence off McLain, but it’s all to play for on Sunday and I’m pretty happy with that! Even if it wasn’t exactly the day I wanted yesterday, I was very happy with my mare Stardust, and I’m so happy to have made up for it today. It was always my plan to ride Romeo today and Sunday, he’s a big jumper and has Olympic experience behind him,” the 22-year-old rider said.
For 20-year-old Jack Whitaker, today’s result was also something special. He described his handsome little gray horse as “not so big but he has a big heart, he’s a fighter. We bought him from France when he was 6 and my dad [Michael Whitaker] rode him until he was about 10, and I’ve only been riding him for a few years. He’s a nightmare to deal with, in the collecting ring. He doesn’t like the big screen, he’s really sharp, he see and hears everything and he gets silly, like a big kid. But when you go in the ring, he just goes, most of the time. When he gets a bit sharp, it can go a bit wrong, but he’s unbelievably careful, and as long as I’m getting it right, he’s normally clear,” he explained.
Ward’s Very Special 2017 Win
Ward’s title win in 2017 came after many years of trying and was very special, particularly because it was posted on home ground in Omaha (USA). Asked today if he now felt under pressure having the advantage going into Sunday’s last class, he reflected, “I sat at this venue 20 years ago in the lead going into the last day with Victor and blew it on the last line. I remember it very clearly. I sat in this position in 2017 and won. So you take those experiences and you try to use them to help you focus and keep your head right. You need to do your job, your horse has to be in form and you need a little good fortune to win one of these championships, and I’ve been on both sides of that coin. I think understanding that helps keep your head in the right place, but it’s a challenge. As I told Harry [Charles] earlier, don’t think this gets any easier in 20 years! My team will do a great job and I’m proud of my horse no matter how it comes out—we’ll do our best!”
Asked if he had any advice for his younger rivals he joked, “I hope they get a little nervous! They are doing a brilliant job. At different stages in your career, you have different mental challenges and we all process it differently, and that’s part of sport and it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve got to work just as hard at it now in this stage of my career as they do at the beginning of theirs for different reasons. It’s great to be still in the mix, it’s great to see them. I admire both of them their talent and ambition, and it gives me energy and makes me still want it,” he said.
Contagious: A Bit Spooky, a bit Jumping, But a Winner
And he talked about his 13-year-old Zweibrücker gelding, Contagious. “He’s an incredible trier. I would have said at the beginning when we first got him that he was a very careful, nice, level grand prix horse,” he said. “I never thought of him as a championship horse, but he kept developing and he kept building scope. I would ride the scope into him a bit and give him energy, and he ended up jumping the Olympics last year and performing brilliantly and he’s a different horse since then, or maybe I look at him differently now.
“He came out of that a bigger, stronger horse … so he outshines what his natural ability was at the beginning because he’s a fighter with great quality and he’s a bit of a character—a bit spooky and a bit jumpy, but a winner!”
The 46-year-old New Yorker will be hoping that’s exactly what he is again for the final round on Sunday, but it will be another day, another new course and with only a single fence advantage over Smolders and only two fences separating the top 10, there’s still a way to go before the 2022 champion is crowned.
For full results of Round 2, click here.