America’s McLain Ward knows what it is to win the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup, and today the 2017 champion set himself on that path once again when topping the second competition at the 2022 Final in Leipzig, Germany.
A brilliant last-to-go run with Contagious in the seven-horse jump-off against the clock moved him up from overnight fifth to pole position on the leaderboard, and he goes into Sunday’s finale a full fence ahead of The Netherlands’ Harrie Smolders in second place while young Briton, Harry Charles, shares third spot with first-day leader Martin Fuchs from Switzerland, both just a single penalty-point further behind.
Today’s two rounds were filled with drama, defending series champion and Fuchs’ fellow-countryman Steve Guerdat producing the first clear with Victorio Des Frotards over Frank Rothenberger’s testing first-round track. But all of the leading four after yesterdays class returned with penalties this time out, and two of them faulted on the snaking line between fences six and eight that proved highly influential.
Ward explained the challenge here. “I thought when we walked the course that was the hardest part. It didn’t line up very well – when you jumped the vertical at six it was a very awkward line to those big spooky standards (at fence 7) and then you threw in the liverpool, and it was on a half-stride, five-and-a-half. So if you let your horse cut in you got there deep and slow, and they were backing up so the back rail was a problem. It was five and a bit (strides) to the vertical at eight and a few did six, it was just quite uncomfortable”, the American explained.
It was that tricky water-tray oxer at seven that snatched the lead from Fuchs when The Sinner put in a spooky jump and crashed through it, the Swiss rider recovering quickly enough to clear the following vertical however. Lying overnight second, Max Kuhner’s Elektric Blue P skewed over the fence but left it up only for the Austrian duo to bring down the final vertical. Irishman Conor Swail looked en route to a clear with Count Me In only to hit the big oxer at 11 on the 13-fence track while Germany’s David Will, lying fourth as the action began with C Vier 2, left fence six and the penultimate oxer at 12 on the floor.
Two fences down put paid to Guerdat’s chances in the jump-off in which the vertical at fence eight, now the second-last obstacle, proved the undoing of three of the remaining six. British veteran John Whitaker was first to fall victim there with Equine America Unick du Franckport when next to go, but his nephew Jack, who is a full 46 years younger, then posted the first clear with the brilliant little grey Equine America Valmy de Lande in 48.66 seconds.
Frenchman Gregory Cottard and Bibici also hit fence eight before Harry Charles overtook his young British rival to take the lead in 47.14 seconds with Romeo 88. Dutchman Smolders put in by far the quickest round with Monaco who stopped the clock in 41.37 seconds but leaving fence eight on the floor, so when Ward set off, last to go, he always looked dangerous. The leaderboard was now at his mercy with those ahead of him all out of contention, and he capitalised on that with a superb tour of the track that snatched the win without hardly turning a hair, leaving Charles in second and Jack Whitaker in third while Smolders lined up in fourth place.
As he said afterwards he knew exactly what he needed to do.
“I was able to see enough of the jump-off to know it wasn’t actually very fast and when Harry had the fence down that really opened the door so our game plan was to do just enough but not take too much out of the horse, not only for Sunday but also risking having a fence down”, he pointed out after posting the winning time of 44.03 seconds.
He said yesterday’s fence down that pinned him back into fifth place was entirely his own fault. “The horse was in brilliant form, I added a stride in a bending line and I put him in not a great spot. It was a mistake on me, the horse wanted to win both rounds!”, he said.
Comparing the courses yesterday and today he said, “in the sport nowadays at the top level there are no easy days, there are extremely hard days but I’d say yesterday was a friendly speed leg. Today he (course designer Frank Rothenberger) ratcheted it up a couple of notches, a bunch of big verticals, the triple combination was big off the corner with two oxers, and we had a great result.
“Frank has a lot of experience and he knows how to build a competition that brings out the best. And he also challenges riders without making it too hard on the newer, less experienced ones, and people from different regions of the world where the sport isn’t strong. He’s very good at that,” he pointed out.
Harry Charles was delighted when he checked the new leaderboard. “I would definitely have taken that at the start of the day considering my position yesterday (13th). I’m in pretty good company up there (joint-third), more than a fence off McLain but it’s all to play for on Sunday and I’m pretty happy with that! Even if it wasn’t exactly the day I wanted yesterday I was very happy with my mare Stardust, and I’m so happy to have made up for it today. It was always my plan to ride Romeo today and Sunday, he’s a big jumper and has Olympic experience behind him”, the 22-year-old rider said.
For 20-year-old Jack Whitaker today’s result was also something special. He described his handsome little grey horse as “not so big but he has a big heart, he’s a fighter. We bought him from France when he was six and my dad (Michael Whitaker) rode him until he was about 10 and I’ve only been riding him for a few years. He’s a nightmare to deal with, in the collecting ring he doesn’t like the big screen, he’s really sharp, he see and hears everything and he gets silly, like a big kid! But when you go in the ring he just goes, most of the time. When he gets a bit sharp it can go a bit wrong but he’s unbelievably careful and as long as I’m getting it right he’s normally clear”, he explained.
Ward’s title win in 2017 came after many years of trying and was very special, particularly because it was posted on home ground in Omaha (USA). Asked today if he now felt under pressure having the advantage going into Sunday’s last class he reflected….
“I sat at this venue 20 years ago in the lead going into the last day with Victor and blew it on the last line, I remember it very clearly. I sat in this position in 2017 and won, so you take those experiences and you try to use them to help you focus and keep your head right. You need to do your job, your horse has to be in form and you need a little good fortune to win one of these Championships, and I’ve been on both sides of that coin. I think understanding that helps keep your head in the right place but it’s a challenge. As I told Harry (Charles) earlier, don’t think this gets any easier in 20 years! My team will do a great job and I’m proud of my horse no matter how it comes out – we’ll do our best!”, he said.
And asked if he had any advice for his younger rivals he joked, “I hope they get a little nervous! They are doing a brilliant job. At different stages in your career you have different mental challenges and we all process it differently and that’s part of sport and it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve got to work just as hard at it now in this stage of my career as they do at the beginning of theirs, for different reasons. It’s great to be still in the mix, it’s great to see them, I admire both of them their talent and ambition and it gives me energy and makes me still want it”, the said.
And he talked about his 13-year-old gelding Contagious. “He’s an incredible tryer. I would have said at the beginning when we first got him that he was a very careful, nice, level Grand Prix horse. I never thought of him as a Championship horse but he kept developing and he kept building scope. I would ride the scope into him a bit and give him energy, and he ended up jumping the Olympics last year and performing brilliantly and he’s a different horse since then, or maybe I look at him differently now.
“He came out of that a bigger, stronger horse.…so he outshines what his natural ability was at the beginning, because he’s a fighter with great quality and he’s a bit of a character – a bit spooky and a bit jumpy, but a winner!”
The 46-year-old New Yorker will be hoping that’s exactly what he is again next Sunday, but it will be another day, another new course and with only a single fence advantage over Smolders and only two fences separating the top ten there’s still a way to go before the 2022 champion is crowned….