‘We thought she was in the sunset of her career; she’s been reborn’: 16yo mare helps top rider become new Grand Slam contender

  • USA rider McLain Ward and the 16-year-old mare HH Azur triumphed in the Rolex grand prix at the CHI Geneva horse show on Sunday (11 December) to become the contenders for the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping.

    Shedding a few tears in the aftermath of his incredible first victory in a Major grand prix, McLain said: “This has been 30 years coming. It’s been a long and difficult story, but I think that’s what the sport does for us, it’s the struggle reflected in life, the fight, the perseverance, the trying to do better, and that’s something I’m very proud of. My career has been not all ups – although I’m fortunate to have had plenty – but there have been some very difficult ones, some here in Geneva [where McLain was disqualified from the 2010 World Cup Final], but this has always been a very special place for me and somewhere I’ve wanted to have excellence.

    “This is the mecca of our sport so I’m proud to be here, proud to win.”

    From last draw, McLain just pipped home rider Martin Fuchs (Leone Jei) into second and Ireland’s Shane Sweetnam (James Kann Cruz) into third in a thrilling 13-way jump-off in front of a passionate and vocal crowd.

    A coveted rug for the new Rolex Grand Slam contenders

    The US combination have been in tremendous form this year and came to Geneva on the back of a podium finish in the Super Grand Prix at Prague a fortnight earlier. HH Azur, who is owned by Double H Farms, left Geneva adorned in the coveted green and gold Rolex rug which signals the start of McLain’s next adventure as Rolex Grand Slam contender.

    The double Olympic team gold medallist revealed the pep talks he always gives his incredible partner of the past seven years.

    “At this point in her career I always give her a pat on the neck and say ‘You don’t owe anyone a fence, but if we could jump another clear round today it would be nice,’ he said. “I really have that feeling for this wonderful mare.

    “When I got on her for the jump-off, I actually said to her, ‘It’s only one more round – give me what you’ve got and if you don’t have enough it’s OK too. She jumped out of her boots, which was pretty remarkable.

    “This story is particularly very special – Azur is owned part by Hunter Harrison and his family, who was a great mentor and supporter of mine, but is no longer with us, and Francois Mathy, who is like a father to me and was here today so that’s very special.

    “At the end of last year I thought her career was probably coming to an end, she didn’t feel in great form and it felt like she was in the sunset of her career. But she has been reborn this year. She feels incredibly healthy and has jumped seven major grands prix, three of which were Grand Slam events, and she was clear in all seven – other than a time-fault, which was the rider’s fault! So yes, I was emotional, I wanted to win, to beat these guys is a great feat, to not let the horse down – it’s a great day.

    “For all of us in the sport, we aspire to win these very special events – Geneva, Aachen, Calgary, Rome. These are the events I grew up dreaming of, jumping in my back yard pretending to win. I first came to this show nearly 30 years ago – I still think I’m one of the younger ones, but I’m not! This is our life, this is what we live, this is the dream.”

    ‘I took all the risks to win the hat-trick – but McLain had other ideas!’

    There was a standing ovation for Martin Fuchs, who had bid an emotional farewell to his other great grey Clooney 51 earlier in the afternoon. His dazzling jump-off performance on Leone Jei would be beaten, just denying him a record third win in this class, but the Swiss rider was thrilled nevertheless.

    “It was a pretty emotional day with the goodbye of Clooney,” said Martin. “Leone Jei always jumps great in this ring and I knew that the course suited me well. In the jump-off I tried to take all the risks I could to make the hat-trick, but McLain had a different idea for today!”

    Drawn earlier than the top two, Shane Sweetnam had done all he could with the nine-year-old Irish-bred James Kann Cruz (Kannan x Cruising) in only his first season at five-star level, and punched the air in delight after taking the lead.

    “I got him last year as an eight-year-old,” said Shane. “We’ve had a great partnership from the start. The standard in this class is incredible, but I feel with this horse I can really compete with these guys. In the jump-off I went as fast as I could and I was winning coming out of the ring which is all you can really ask. Then the guys Martin and McLain took another step and took the class, it was great sport.”

    Best of the Brits in the Rolex grand prix was jump-off trailblazer and reigning Olympic champion Ben Maher riding the nine-year-old mare Dallas Vegas Batilly, in the same ownership as Explosion W – Charlotte Rossetter and Pamela Wright. They set off with the mare’s lovely big, swinging stride really covering the ground, but they stalled slightly on the turn back to an oxer at fence three and hit the back rail to post a score of four faults in 42.76sec.

    In the first round we lost British hopes Joe Stockdale (Equine America Cacharel) who was competing in his first ever Rolex Grand Slam and Harry Charles (Romeo 88), both with faults at the tricky double of Liverpools.

    Irish contenders Conor Swail and Count Me In hit the third part of the Rolex treble for a four-fault tally, while his countryman Denis Lynch and Brooklyn Heights also finished on the same score.

    Previous Rolex Grand Slam contender Daniel Deusser finished sixth with a great double clear on Scuderia 1918 Tobago Z.

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