Mission Accomplished

McLain Ward and HH Azur Dominated the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Omaha, Nebraska

McLain Ward and HH Azur dominated the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final that took place on March 30th-April 2nd at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Four intense rounds of show jumping were calculated and executed to perfection. The incredibly technical tracks featured the maximum 1.60 meters fence height that Ward rode seemingly effortlessly, reminiscent of an equitation round done in his signature, classical riding style. Ward is as decorated a rider as they come having won gold medals at the Olympics and the Pan American Games as well as a list a mile long of national and international Grand Prix show jumping competitions. But there has been a unicorn in his ribboned career. One accolade has continually evaded him — the World Cup Final trophy — which he was finally able to hoist over his head in front of an ecstatic home crowd in America’s heartland.

The FEI World Cup Final annually rotates host cities throughout the world. Baltimore, Tampa, Del Mar and Las Vegas have been previous host cities for the Jumping Final in the United States. This year, for the first time, Omaha, Nebraska, hosted the World Cup Final for both show jumping and dressage at the CenturyLink Center in downtown to the enjoyment of 60,000 fans from all 50 states and 20 countries. The best riders and horses from qualifying competitions flew in from all corners of the world to compete in the international showdown. Olympic winners, World and European champions all descended upon Omaha to see who would be the winner of the equestrian world’s most prestigious indoor equestrian championship.

“From day one, when I watched Annie walk out of the barn, there was something about her. When you see her jump, there are no words. She is something special.”
McLain Ward, 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final Champion

The format of the FEI World Cup Jumping Final is grueling, making it one of the most difficult show jumping competitions to win. Horse and rider combinations that qualify from over 100 preliminary events throughout the world jump in three competitions over four days. The fences are set to a height of 1.50-1.60 meters (approximately 4’11”-5’3”) with spreads allowed up to 2.0 meters (6’5”) wide. The first competition of the Jumping Final is a speed leg. It is designed to give a rider with a rail down a chance to stay in the running. The second competition is a Grand Prix format that consists of a jumping round where penalty-free rides proceed into a jump-off against the clock. After a day of rest, the third and final competition consists of two separate rounds. The 30 top-placed riders (plus ties) from the previous two competitions are allowed to compete in the first round. The top 20 in the standings following the first round continue on to compete in the second, finale round. The two rounds on the final day are different tracks but contain approximately an equal number of obstacles and an equal course length. The second round, however, typically has an increased level of difficulty. In the event of a tie at the end, a jump-off is held to determine the victor. The winner of the FEI World Cup Jumping Final is the horse and rider with the least amount of penalties after all three competitions. There is much room for error in this long and excruciatingly-testing format.

Most show jumping competitions have a relatively simple scoring system. A rail down or a refusal at an obstacle results in the rider being penalized with faults. Only faultless rounds are eligible to compete in a jump-off. In the jump-off, the lowest number of faults in the fastest amount of time wins. The scoring system at the World Cup Finals is unique. Points are awarded to each rider based on their finishes in each of the first two competitions. The rider with the most points after those two competitions comes back to start with zero penalties in the third competition. For all the other riders, the number of penalties will be calculated giving them half the difference of their World Cup points and that of the leading rider. Fortunately, Ward made scoring easy for spectators by not accumulating a single fault through the entire Final.

McLain Ward had competed in 16 previous FEI World Cup Jumping Finals with a string of incredible show jumpers. He placed in the top 10 six times and placed second in 2009 riding the nationally-beloved mare, Sapphire. This time though HH Azur, or “Annie” as she is called familiarly, got the job done. The 2006 Belgian Warmblood was Ward’s mount for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where they brought home a silver medal for USA in the Show Jumping Team competition. In Omaha, the powerhouse bay mare gobbled up the ground with her giant step yet was catlike in the turns in the relatively small indoor arena displaying the true range of her athleticism. Ward and HH Azur jumped from start to finish with zero penalties to be crowned the uncontested champions. She was simply the best horse at the show, and now arguably the best horse in the world.

The Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final I Speed Round took place on Thursday, March 30. There were 37 starters hailing from 27 countries. This one-round speed leg ran competitors against the clock over 13 obstacles and 16 jumping efforts total set at 1.60 meters (5’3”), the maximum height allowed. The courses were designed by the renowned Irish designer, Alan Wade, and were befitting of a championship to test the best in the world. Ward won this first round with a time of 59.27 seconds, fractions of a second ahead of second-place finisher Henrik von Eckermann (SWE) and his mount, Mary Lou, who clocked in at 59.58 seconds. Just a split second behind them in third place was two-time reigning champion Steve Guerdat (SUI) with his fiery mare, Bianca.

Friday, March 31, continued World Cup excitement with the greatly anticipated Jumping Final II. Of the 34 competitors that started the second competition, only six went clean to move on to the jump-off. Ward was slotted to jump last as they compete in reverse order of their placings from the speed leg. The final four all went clean with no penalties in the jump-off, each one faster than the previous competitor. The bell sounded to start, and Ward picked up a canter to a silent crowd that watched to see if he could pull off another fault-free go as the clock ticked. He did just that and won in spectacular fashion with a time of 36.87 seconds, a full 2.5 seconds faster than second-place finisher Gregory Wathelut (BEL) and his horse, Forlap, who finished in 39.39 seconds. The crowd erupted when HH Azur landed from the final oxer. Ward and his super mare then possessed two of three jewels in the World Cup crown.

Meters (5’3”) obstacles were set, the maximum allowed, in a course designed by renowned Irish designer Alan Wade

Seconds Ward won the first round with, only fractions of a second ahead of the second-place finisher

Seconds Ward finished in during Friday's World Cup Jumping Final II, a full 2.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher

Long-awaited victory in the FEI World Cup Jumping Finals for McLain Ward, after having competed in 16 previous contests

After a rest day on Saturday, the course was set Sunday, April 2, to decide the winner of the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final title in a two-round finale. Fences were set to 1.50-1.60 meters for two separate rounds over a Grand Prix course with a total of 16 total jumping efforts. Twenty-six riders were eligible for the first part of the competition. Ward was clearly a favorite, but there was still not a guaranteed winner. The final line of fences caused problems for several riders that included a vertical followed by a big oxer with a green hedge under it to a bending line that ended at an upright vertical with a water tray. Nine riders answered the questions on course correctly and jumped without penalties, including Ward.

The final course was impressive with 12 fences and 15 jumping efforts total including difficult combinations, huge oxers and trappy verticals. Twenty riders returned for the last round again in reverse order of their placings. Twelve of them were faultless. One rail separated the top three, which kept the competition tight with no room for error. Romain Duguet (SUI) and Henrik von Eckermann (SWE) watched eagerly to see how Ward would do under the tense circumstances. Both Duguet and Eckermann had a guaranteed spot on the podium, but the placing was not a sure thing until Ward was finished. Ward stepped into a pressure cooker of an arena. The air was electric as he and his mare executed yet another flawless course. The applause was deafening when HH Azur landed from the final oxer. Typically, a stonefaced competitor, Ward had emotion clearly written on his face as he had secured his place in World Cup history. After all the sacrifices, the miles to shows, the long days and nights, after the sweat and practice, a long-awaited victory tasted sweet.

Equestrian is not a mainstream sport here as it is in other parts of the world. Besides the Kentucky Derby, when the majority of Americans pause to watch the two minute horse race, the athleticism and hard work that goes into equestrian sports goes mostly unnoticed. Ward has earned every moment of recognition from his success at the FEI World Cup Jumping Final. Wearing the red jacket as a representative of the United States comes with high expectations. Ward prevails as a true ambassador for the sport and as the face of American show jumping. Clearly competitive, he is always well spoken, dignified and searches to always give credit elsewhere. When interviewed, he gives immediate recognition to his horse, his tireless team and supportive family. He is quick to commend course designers and show management. He allows his riding to make the headlines based on his remarkable skill and work ethic. A national hero for equestrian sports is here at a time when America needs one most.

See McLain's Formulas for Success

Emily Smith, MS, Platinum Performance®
  • by Emily Smith, MS, Platinum Performance®