McLain Ward (USA) and HH Azur jumped to an electrifying win on Saturday night under the lights at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC) in Wellington, FL. Competing in the seventh week of competition at the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), Ward and HH Azur raced to victory in a four-horse jump-off to win the $380,000 Suncast® Grand Prix CSI 5* over Harrie Smolders (NED) and Apollonia 23 in second, and Doda de Miranda (BRA) and AD Cornetto K in third.
WEF 7, sponsored by Suncast®, concludes on Sunday featuring the $86,000 Suncast® 1.50m Championship Jumper Classic. The 12-week WEF circuit runs through April 3 offering more than $9 million in prize money.
Ward’s victory on Saturday night marked his second 5* grand prix win in three weeks at WEF, after also topping week five’s $380,000 Fidelity Investments® Grand Prix CSI 5* aboard his longtime mount, Rothchild. The two-time Olympic team gold medalist and 2015 Pan American Games individual gold medalist is grooming his young mount, HH Azur, for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The 10-year-old Belgian Sport Horse mare (Thunder van de Zuuthoeve x Sir Lui), owned by Double H Farm and Francois Mathy, continues to exceed expectations and jumped flawlessly to win her first “Saturday Night Lights” grand prix in front of a packed house.
Santiago Varela (ESP) set the course for 44 starters in the competitive 5* grand prix with only four qualifying for the jump-off. Doda de Miranda and AD Cornetto K were first to go in round one and kicked off the class with a clear effort. They were then first to go in the jump-off, completing a second clear round in 45.90 seconds, to finish third. Cian O’Connor (IRL) also qualified his mount, Aden Springs and Ronnoco Jump Ltd.’s Good Luck, for the jump-off and went next with one rail down in 47.58 seconds to place fourth overall. Smolders and Copernicus Stables’ Apollonia 23 were next to go, jumping the second place round, clear over the short course in 45.64 seconds. Last to go, Ward and HH Azur gave it their all, racing through the course in an impressive 42.99 seconds for the win.
Following his victory, Ward spoke off HH Azur’s incredible development this past year and her great effort in the night’s competition.
“As far as her evolution and talent, I have never sat on a horse like this. I have never been around a horse like this,” Ward stated. “If I am within range of the fence, it’s good. In the jump-off, I thought Doda rode a very smart round. There were not too many in the jump-off and there were a couple of careful verticals. I thought it was quite calculated. Then I got to see Harrie go, and he was a touch faster, but I would not say it was a crazy fast jump-off. Sometimes for me, I find that a little more difficult because I try to monitor the speed and I get a little out of the rhythm, which I almost did to the last fence. But the mare has so much ability, it did not really matter, and it worked out great.”
Saturday night was HH Azur’s first time jumping in front of the enthusiastic crowd under the lights at PBIEC, but she handled it like a pro.
“It affected her for sure,” Ward noted. “The atmosphere here is very electric. I worked her a long time today anticipating that. We went last in. It is after the break and they hear the band, and when I went to get on her she was up, and I was a little bit concerned. I thought maybe I did not do enough and I did not know how she was going to handle it. Once we got in the ring, she settled into a rhythm after the first line, and you cannot say enough about the way the horse performed. To be honest, it is a little bit unfair to the other people.”
Harrie Smolders settled for second place with his mount, Apollonia 23, but was very happy with his horse, and said that Ward and HH Azur deserved to win. He has ridden Apollonia, a 12-year-old Danish Warmblood mare (Bogegardens Apollo x Bogegardens x Capello), for 10 months and explained that she is very scopey and jumps well in big outdoor arenas.
Speaking of the night’s competition, Smolders detailed, “I think it was a really tough course today. In the first round, Doda was first to go, and he was very fast I thought. Then the course designer did not decide to change the time, so I knew it was going to be tough. We did not have that many clears. That is why I was very pleased with my horse and that result. You always hope for more, but I think McLain and Azur deserved to win. It is a top horse, a top combination, and it is hard to beat them.”
Doda de Miranda was not even supposed to compete in Saturday night’s class after a tough round in Thursday’s qualifier, but after one rider scratched, he moved into the first position in the order. His mount for the night was AD Cornetto K, a 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Cornet Obolensky x Calido) that he owns in partnership with Victory Equestrian Sport BV, and has ridden for just five months.
“He is a very good horse; maybe one of the best horses I have ever ridden,” the rider stated. “He was doing quite well, but I was not so happy with my round in the WEF (Challenge Cup). I am very happy because I thought I was not going to ride. Today, I made small changes to the bit, and earplugs, and spurs, and he was great. I was very happy with both rounds. In the jump-off, I decided to go fast, but not take too much risk because I do not know him very well. I am very happy, especially to see a combination that deserved to win.”
Ward spoke highly of the course for Saturday night’s competition and praised Santiago Varela on a job well done.
“I thought the course was excellent,” he stated. “Santiago is, I think for the riders, one of the top three builders in the world, if not the most popular. He builds like a horseman; I think he has a super feeling. This is his first time here. In the WEF (Challenge Cup) there were a lot clear, but he tightened the screws today, and in a really good way because you saw problems all over the course. The time allowed made people hurry and caused late rails. For me, it was a brilliant course, and he had four very strong horse and rider combinations in the jump-off. That is great to see.”
With the Olympic Games in Rio on the horizon, Ward will continue as planned with HH Azur’s preparations, and feels great knowing that she is currently performing so well.
“Like my bosses say, just don’t get in her way,” Ward laughed. “We have a plan. This win is great, but if we had a rail down tonight and she jumped well, the plan would have stayed the same. I think I am known for that in my career – to stick to the plan even if things go great or not so great. I have had the plan for a long time. She will show a couple more times here in Florida and then do a few shows in Europe leading up to Rio, and hopefully we will have a little good fortune. I have unbelievable people behind me and they do not make any mistakes. If there is a mistake, it is mine. We will just try to stay on course. You also have to not get too far ahead of yourself in the moment and stay focused.”