Two-time Olympic team gold medalist McLain Ward (USA) and superstar mare HH Azur jumped to victory in the $380,000 Suncast® Grand Prix CSI 5* for the second year in a row on Saturday night at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, FL. Rounding out an all-star line-up, Eric Lamaze (CAN) and Fine Lady 5 finished second, and Sergio Alvarez Moya (ESP) and Arrayan placed third.
Thirty-nine entries started over course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio’s (USA) first round track on Saturday night, with 12 combinations qualifying for the jump-off. The race over the short course was a showdown of epic proportions, with an impressive roster including eight Olympians, three of the top-ten ranked riders in the world, and an Olympic champion going head-to-head riding their best horses.
Ward, riding Double H Farm’s and Francois Mathy’s HH Azur, jumped the winning round in 39.70 seconds. Lamaze, aboard Artisan Farms and Torrey Pines Stable’s Fine Lady 5, stopped the clock in 40.07 seconds. Moya and Alvarez Moya Horses SL’s Arrayan placed third in 40.10 seconds.
“I am thrilled with the mare,” Ward said of his 2016 Olympic silver medalist mount, an 11-year-old Belgian Sport Horse (Thunder van de Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui). “This is her first big start of the year. We gave her a little bit of a rest with the World Cup Finals in Omaha in mind. We have planned only two major weeks for her here.
“For myself, I have to say I was probably a bit motivated tonight,” Ward continued. “I have been on a little bit of a four-fault run and getting a little frustrated. Eric has been winning everything. Sometimes Eric says I have a look; I think I had it tonight. I wanted it a little bit.”
Commenting on the short course, Ward noted, “I thought it was quite a well-balanced jump-off. Eric and I have very different horses, and there were pros to the jump-off for both horses. There were long gallops at the beginning and the end, which were not that hard with my mare’s stride, and her bravery, and scope. For me, those hairpin rollback turns in the middle were much more of a concern, because with a big horse like mine I knew I was going to lose momentum. It was a fraction between us. I had a little bit of a lucky rub on the second to last fence, but I have been having some unlucky ones lately, so I’ll take it.”
Lamaze, who was the 2008 Olympic Champion, was aboard Fine Lady 5, the 14-year-old Hanoverian mare (Forsyth x Drosselklang II) that he rode to an individual Olympic bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games. The pair has already won big this winter, taking victory in week four’s $130,000 Adequan® Grand Prix CSI 3*, as well as week five’s $130,000 Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup Round 5.
Remarking on his night, Lamaze stated, “She has really jumped fantastic every time out. It was like she gave me all of the effort that she could. McLain was just that much better today. You might say he was lucky, but there was nothing lucky about the round that he had.”
Detailing the differences, Lamaze explained, “From jumps one to two, McLain already did seven strides, which I did eight. Then he did a nice seven (strides), and (then) I believe eight, which for me was really not possible. She does not have the biggest stride. She is very quick across the ground, but I knew that eight was not possible. I tried to be as quick as I could on the rollbacks, but they came a little backwards for me actually. Then I did my best coming home. I think that is where he got me.”
Finishing third, Moya brought his 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Baloubet du Rouet x Grannus) Arrayan to Wellington this winter as he prepares for the FEI World Cup Finals in five weeks. Moya showed in Wellington eight years ago, but decided to return to the event this season to stay on the top of his game competing against many of the best in the world.
“There are great competitors here,” Moya noted. “We have Sunshine Tour in Spain that is not that far from my place, but it is a completely different level. Here is a bit more real competition. You have to go against these guys, and you have to try hard to do well in the grand prix.”
Moya, who also jumped in last summer’s Rio Olympic Games with top mount Carlo 273, purchased Arrayan ten months ago. The Spanish Champion built the gelding up from the two-star classes and was pleased with their night.
“I was super happy when I finished the jump-off today; the way I could ride in the jump-off,” Moya stated. “The turns suited me quite well. The left side is not very good; he gets very strong. I was really happy the way that he went.
“He was really strong when I first got him,” Moya added. “I actually did not take him to a show for a few months because I could hardly ride him. He has gotten better and better. He does not have all of the experience, but he tries. He wants to jump clear.”