Bridgehampton, N.Y--McLain Ward could not be denied victory in the $50,000 Douglas Elliman Grand Prix Qualifier at the 40th Annual Hampton Classic. As the seventh of 10 riders in the jump-off, Ward and HH Azur made a tight turn to the third fence that no one before him had attempted, slicing the leading time by more than 2 seconds.
Ward's time (39.88 seconds) even withstood the challenge of lightning-fast Irishman Shane Sweetnam, who, riding right after Ward, made the same turn on Chaqui Z but didn't keep his foot on the gas peddle and settled for second (41.26 seconds).
Ward and Sweetnam had to make that short turn because Daniel Bluman of Colombia, who rode right before Ward, had galloped aggressively throughout the course to wrestle from Ward the lead he'd already taken on Rothchild. Bluman and Conconcreto Believe finished in 42.14 seconds to hold on to third. Ward and Rothchild took fourth (42.56 seconds).
"Very few horses can do that turn, and she did it beautifully. I knew it was an option, and I had walked it. It was definitely in the back of my mind if I needed it," said Ward, of Brewster, N.Y. "She's very special, like nothing I've ever sat on."
Ward and Double H Farm purchased HH Azur, 9, last year, with the 2016 Olympics in their sights. "We set a bunch of benchmarks, and she's not only reached them, she's exceeded them," he said.
But he did have one concern after the Douglas Elliman class-Rothchild had pulled a shoe during the jump-off. Ward noted that they'd have to examine his foot and discern his soundness before deciding if he'll compete again this weekend, in either the $40,000 Longines Cup on Saturday or the $250,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix, Presented by Longines, on Sunday, which Ward has won six times.
Ward said that he'd planned to ride HH Azur on Saturday and Rothchild on Sunday. "But we'll see how he's feeling," said Ward.
The 75 points that Ward earned today toward the $30,000 Longines Leading Rider Challenge vaulted him to second place with 130 points, still 164 points behind Sweetnam, who has 294 points after earning 60 points in the Douglas Elliman class. Irishman Richie Moloney-the 2013 and 2014 winner-is third (127 points).
Even if Ward wins the Saturday and Sunday grand prix classes-the final two classes that count in the contest-and finished with 305 points, Sweetnam would have to be shut out in both classes for Ward to win the prize. But Sweetnam is the only rider, of the 33 ranked by Longines, who's earned points in all eight classes held so far.
Ward isn't surrendering, though. "The Irish have had a great week, but we'll have to do something about it," he said with a smile.
Further information on the Hampton Classic Horse Show is available at the Hampton Classic website at www.hamptonclassic.com