Devon, PA - A small but mighty field of show jumping horses lined up to tackle the penultimate USEF Observation Event for the U.S. Show Jumping Team for the 2012 Olympic Games. Thirteen combinations from the USEF Show Jumping Long List headlined the field of 16 in the 2012 $100,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prix of Devon.
The Dixon Oval always proves a tremendous venue at the Devon Horse Show and with improvements made over the last few years, the storied competition, though steeped with history, continues to evolve into the modern age. Another chapter in its history was written this evening as McLain Ward scored his seventh Grand Prix of Devon title. The win was full of emotion as Ward (Brewster, NY) battled back from a shattered kneecap in January to fight for his spot on his third Olympic Team.
"Obviously it feels great," said Ward after his win. "I haven't jumped jumps that big in awhile. It's nice to be back - it was a really hard four months."
Riding Grant Road Partners' Antares F - Ward rode like a man on a mission and after an exuberant start in the first round, the 12-year-old Pan American Games veteran settled down to business. He bested second place finisher Margie Engle (Wellington, FL) on Indigo by a second when he crossed the finish line at 34.32.
"Thankfully he's a great horse, Antares - he's a good jumper sometimes a little tough to ride but he always gives you a lot when he gets to the jump. I say it over and over and over again, I have incredible people around me."
Ward reckons he is at about 75% of his full ability as he continues to recover from the injury. He isn't riding as much as he is used to, and has been resting his leg for the competition. "I don't feel uncomfortable in the ring and I don't feel like my timing is off," said Ward. "I don't feel as tight as normal but not far off."
Ward dedicated his victory to Dr. Craig Ferrell, who died on Monday as a result of injuries sustained in a polo accident. Dr. Ferrell put Ward's knee back together after his fall in Florida. Dr. Ferrell was the chair of the FEI Medical Committee and the U.S. Equestrian Team Doctor.
There were five clear in the first round over Michel Valliancourt's course in a jam packed Oval - of those, Beezie Madden chose not to return on Coral Reef Via Volo for the jump-off. Madden had three horses in the class, and elected to jump Simon and Cortes 'C' for prize money - Coral Reef Via Volo was only in the class for the purpose of the Observation Event.
Engle and Griese, Garber, Gladewinds and Hidden Creek's 12-year-old Dutch gelding gave it all that they had but one extra step to the last fence made the difference between first and second. "I needed to do one less (stride) to the last jump," said Engle. "He felt really on it tonight, he was a little wild in the first round but he felt really on it in the jump-off, I just needed to do one less there."
Charlie Jayne (Elgin, IL) led the class off with a stellar clear round on Chill R Z and his effort made the course look easy. It wasn't a surprise to Jayne, Pony Lane Farm's 9-year-old Zangersheide Chill R Z has been super consistent all year - but he missed the Trials because he had a laceration that needed a little time to heal.
Jayne hasn't written anything off, not even a shot at the Olympic Games, he came to Devon under Chef d'Equipe George Morris' instructions - which was to jump clear rounds. His time was good enough for third place.
"I think he's an Olympic caliber horse," said Jayne. "But I think I am behind the eight ball because I didn't do the Trials... I had the unfortunate position of going first... there were some big fences and there were some options in the lines - he loped around like he's been doing it all his life."
Ward's Gold Medal-winning teammate from 2008, Laura Kraut (Wellington, FL) rode Cherry Knoll Farm's Cedric to fourth, a rail in the double combination of the jump off kept them out of the top three.
Ward also scored the Richard E. McDevitt Style Award for his epic performance, with this win he also won the first leg of the Taylor Harris $200,000 Triple Crown Challenge. Wins at the Hampton Classic and the Alltech National Horse Show would secure Ward the inaugural title.
The second class of this Observation Event is Saturday at 4 PM.
Ward's night began with emotion as he retired the mighty Sapphire, the winningest American show jumping horse in recent history in front of a packed house. With Ward she has represented her country with amazing success including winning two Team Gold medals at the Olympic Games and placing second at the 2009 Rolex/FEI World Cup Final by the narrowest of margins. She is a legend and her resume also includes multiple wins at the Hampton Classic, the Devon Horse Show, Old Salem, the Winter Equestrian Festival and the American Invitational. She won the $1 million CN International at Spruce Meadows in Canada.
The gallant 17-year-old Belgian mare owned by Tom Grossman and Blue Chip Bloodstock bid farewell to her fans just before the class began tonight. She has spent her career under the care of Ward and Lee and Erica McKeever. She will be greatly missed, every time she entered the ring she gave everything she had.
"It's absolutely bittersweet not having Sapphire anymore to go to these great competitions with any more but it's not a tragedy, it's a great story," said Ward. "I keep saying to Erica (McKeever) who has been crying nonstop for two weeks. 'This isn't a tragedy. She had a great career she has a great life'. When I was walking out of the ring, I was thinking to myself, I really feel that this horse that kept giving to me I treated with 100% respect and care and I'm really proud of that."
For live streaming, news, photos and to follow the 2012 U.S. Show Jumping Team visit: http://www.usefnetwork.com/featured/2012Jumping/ The USEF has created this video as a tribute to the great champion Sapphire. Please enjoy it, share it, and wish her a long and happy retirement.
Per the USEF Selection Procedures, in order to remain in consideration for the U.S. Olympic Show Jumping Team, these athlete/horse combinations are required to compete at two of the following Observation Events listed below:
The Del Mar National Horse Show
Del Mar, California May 1-6, 2012
Kentucky Spring Horse Show
Lexington, Kentucky May 8-13, 2012
The Devon Horse Show
Devon, Pennsylvania May 29-June 2, 2012
Calgary, Alberta Canada June 13-17, 2012
Following the completion of these observation events, FEI Nominated Entries will be submitted to the FEI on June 17. Twelve athlete/horse combinations can be named to the FEI Nominated Entries. The USOC Final Entries will be submitted no later than July 6, 2012.
Photos: McLain Ward and Antares F (AK Dragoo Photography) and Sapphire and McLain Ward share a moment. (AK Dragoo Photography)