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McLain Ward: “In HH Azur we found something very special”

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

McLain Ward and HH Azur. Photo (c) Catie Staszak / Chronicle of the Horse.
"She is something special, something brilliant," says McLain Ward of HH Azur. Photo (c) Catie Staszak / Chronicle of the Horse.

He bought Sapphire over the phone, un-tried and un-vetted. He repeatedly told himself not to buy Rothchild, but was out-smarted by his father and François Mathy. He passed on Azur when she was green, wild and five-years-old, only to be called back when she had reached eight – and found what he refers to as ‘something special, something brilliant’. World of Showjumping meets US super star McLain Ward, who believes every great horse carries a special story.

Having competed at no less than sixteen World Cup Finals, three Olympic Games and three World Equestrian Games, Ward is one of America’s most successful riders. Known world-wide for his outstanding performances aboard the legendary Sapphire and the delicate Rothchild, it seems like Ward now has another legend in his stable: The 10-year-old mare HH Azur.

Both McLain’s parents were professionals in the horse business, so riding is in McLain’s blood. “My father was a top Grand Prix rider who competed in World Cup Finals, Nations Cups and won major Grand Prix competitions all over the world. Next to that, he was a horse dealer. My mother used to ride hunters and also had a business with that,” McLain Ward explains.

At the age of 14, McLain was the youngest rider ever to win the USEF Show Jumping Talent Derby and the USEF Medal Finals. Although his talent showed early on, McLain claims that in the very beginning he was not all that good. “When I was very, very little I had two small brown ponies which I started showing in the pony hunter classes. And I was terrible! Really, there are the funniest stories about how bad I was,” McLain laughs. “But when I got on horses, things were going into a better direction and it all worked out in the end. For many years, I was trained by my parents and as a young rider I was also trained by Paul Valliere. Paul is a big equitation and young rider trainer in America and I for sure owe a lot of my riding skills to him.”

As McLain’s father Barney Ward had not only been a successful Grand Prix rider, but also a horse dealer, he had a lot of connections in Europe. The almost life-long relationship with Belgian trainer and horse dealer François Mathy has played, and still plays, an important part in McLain’s career. “My father started doing business with François back in 1979-1980. They were in the front at importing horses from Europe to America, which was really a new thing back then. Thanks to my father’s connections in Europe, I had the opportunity to go there at a pretty early age. I went to ride with horsemen like François Mathy, Paul Schockemöhle and Albert Voorn. For many years, I was exposed to some of the best in the world on a daily basis.”

Although modern riding in North America and Europe does not seem to differ that much from each other anymore, back in the days it used to be another story. “Even though my father was a self-taught rider, someone who rode by the seat of one’s pants, he was a great believer of the classical system and the classical way of riding. That also reflects in the people he sent me to, to learn from – and I hope you can see that in my riding and the way I do things,” McLain tells. “I was probably right on the cross when the world got a bit smaller. Where at one point every country rode and trained very different, let alone the continents of Europe and America, the world got smaller over the years and ideas have been able to get exchanged. The modern riding style is really a blend of the American and European way, and I hope that I am an example of that.”

McLain’s first participation in a major championship was back in 1995, when he competed the Selle Français bred gelding Orchestre at the World Cup Final in Gothenburg. McLain was only 19-years-old at that time. Only four years later, in 1999, Ward was the youngest rider ever to pass the 1-million-dollar mark in Grand Prix winnings. “Getting to that level is one thing, but then you have to try to get very competitive on that level and stay there. It is a constant battle, but it is a well-spent life if you seek that and that is your challenge,” McLain reflects. 

McLain Ward and Sapphire. Photo (c) Molly Sorge / Chronicle of the Horse.
The horse that changed his career: McLain Ward with the legendary Sapphire, his team gold medalist from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Photo (c) Molly Sorge / Chronicle of the Horse.

At the end of 2003, Ward would cross paths with the horse that would change his career: the 7-year-old mare Sapphire. “All of history’s great horses have a special story attached to them. It is never like: ‘I went out to buy the best horse in the world and it turned out to be’,” McLain smiles. “When you think of horses like Hickstead, Milton, Authentic, Sapphire and Nino des Buissonnets there is always a bit of a fairytale story attached to how their riders got them. And with Sapphire it was the same,” McLain continues. “I had two very good friends, the brothers Mark and Peter Leone, and they tried Sapphire before me at François Mathy’s. One of the brothers tried to buy her first, but ended up not buying her and then the other brother tried to buy her too but could not get the money together. One evening a bunch of us had dinner together, and I heard them talking about the horse. I ended up buying her over the telephone: No trial, no vetting. And we all know the end of the story,” McLain smiles from ear to ear talking about his gold medalist from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

The way Sapphire got her name is another funny story: “The lady who runs my stable – still today – asked for the horse’s name when she arrived. Her name was Safari, but she thought it was Sapphire, so that is how she got her name.”

Since Sapphire retired in 2012, and very sadly passed away two years later, McLain has carefully built up a new string of horses. His best-known mount over the recent years is probably the now 15-year-old stallion Rothchild but as of last year everybody has their eyes on McLain’s new superstar HH Azur.

“I have to say I am thrilled. With HH Azur, HH Carlos and Rothchild I have three horses that can be great campaigners in any Grand Prix anywhere in the world. Besides those three, we have some nice horses developing – like HH Best Buy and Tina la Bohem. So we have some exciting horses coming along which we try to build up for the future, and we will always try to keep an eye out for the next superstar,” McLain says.

François Mathy still supplies McLain with most of his horses. “I would say 99 percent of my horses come from, or through, François. We have an incredible relationship and he really is like family to me. Like I said, my dad had been friends with him for many, many years and when my father passed away a couple of years ago, the friendship between me and François continued. Even though we have quite a large difference in age between us, I would say it is really a special and important friendship to me.”

Not only Sapphire came to McLain’s stable with a special story attached to her, the same applies for Rothchild. “I was over at François to try some horses for a client, and he presented Rothchild to me. He said he thought it was a very careful horse, but a little bit difficult. I rode him and indeed, he was very careful – but I did not like him at all. I mean, really, not at all!” McLain emphasizes. “I remember all the way to the airport, François kept saying: ‘I need a partner on this horse. My partner wants to sell.’ Because I always would like to please François, I sometimes can get talked in to something – but I kept telling myself: ‘Don’t buy the horse, don’t buy the horse!’”

McLain managed to stick to his plan, did not buy Rothchild and got on the airplane to New York. “When I landed, I called my father to say I made it home. And he said: ‘Oh, by the way, I bought half of that chestnut horse. François says you don’t know what you are talking about!’” McLain laughs. “Rothchild started winning right away and every time I showed my father a video of him, he would say: ‘Aren’t you glad we didn’t listen to you?’”

The story illustrates that even a true horseman like McLain Ward cannot always tell what a horse will turn out to be. “I obviously did not know that Rothchild would be like this in the end, so always when I make a judgement on a young horse I say to people: ‘I have been wrong plenty.’ It is always a bit of a guessing game, since like people, horses develop differently. François for sure saw something in Rothchild, and later on my dad saw something in the horse. For me, it took a while to appreciate him. But I must say, that of all the great horses I have had he is certainly one of those that I am the most proud of. Not only for what he has done, but also due to the relationship we have. Because, it was not easy! Sapphire was easy, Azur is easy, but Rothchild has been a challenge and we got rewarded by meeting the challenge.”

McLain Ward and Rothchild. Photo (c) Catie Staszak / Chronicle of the Horse.
"Of all the great horses I have had he is certainly one of those that I am the most proud of," McLain Ward says of Rothchild. Photo (c) Catie Staszak / Chronicle of the Horse.

Since last year, one of the hottest topics in the showjumping world has been HH Azur. The only 10-year-old mare recently ended up second in the CSI5* Rolex Grand Prix in Wellington, after winning the CSI5* Suncast Grand Prix in February. At the end of last year, HH Azur won both the Grand Prix and the World Cup in Toronto within one week. Last summer, she won the CSI5* Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows and finished fifth in the CP International Grand Prix during the Spruce Meadows Masters.

“In HH Azur we found something very special. I can only hope that I can do her justice and manage her well, so she will have a long and very successful career. In December 2014, Hunter Harrison of Double H Farm bought half of her and the other half is owned by François Mathy. This is a great partnership for me. I really think the world of these two men, and it is a great honor for me to ride this horse for them as they both appreciate the sport for all the right reasons.”

For 2016, HH Azur will be McLain Ward’s number one mount. “She would be my number one pick for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. We obviously still have Rothchild in the wings, but since he is 15-years-old you want to be careful with how much you ask. We have to keep the options open, but certainly we try to work towards the Olympics with Azur and attempt to have her peaking at the right moment,” McLain tells about his plans for the 10-year-old mare.

The moment McLain first met HH Azur goes back to the time when she was only 5-years-old. “She was with a Brazilian gentleman who is based in Belgium, and I tried her. I thought she was an incredible jumper at the time, but I did not buy her since she was very green and a little wild. It is a bit of a long story, but a couple of years later, François Mathy ended up buying her and developed her for a couple of years.”

Brazilian rider Pedro Nolasco produced Azur, originally called Azur Du Garden, up to international level until François Mathy’s rider Diego Perez Bilbao took over the reins. Perez Bilbao developed Azur up to 1.45m Grand Prix level, and when she was eight McLain got the ride on the wonderful mare. “François called me and said: ‘You need to come back and see this horse again.’ I went back during the show in Paris and tried her. From day one, I thought there was something different about that horse. When you watch that mare walk out of the barn, there is something about her. When you see her jump, there are no words. She is something special, something brilliant. If you appreciate horses and showjumping, you have to appreciate what is in her. I obviously hope she will win what Sapphire has won, I even hope she will win more. That is the nature of being ambitious. Although they are very different horses in their way and it their model, there are some similarities. They are both really intelligent horses and there is just something different about them than others,” McLain says about Sapphire and HH Azur. “My job is to give Azur the best ride possible, stay out of her way and try to manager her career. So far we are okay!” 

Not only McLain’s partnership with François Mathy has played an important role throughout his career. The partnership with Hunter Harrison of Double H Farm has also been immensely valuable for McLain. “I started riding horses for Double H Farm in 2003, and continued to do so for about six to eight years. After some years apart, I asked Mr. Harrison if he was interested in doing some horses together again. He was right away on board, and this is our third season back together.”

Besides riding Double H Farm’s horses, McLain runs his own business. “Double H Farm has a large operation with Hunter’s daughter, and his son-in-law Quentin Judge also doing Grand Prix competitions. I now have about four of their horses in my stable and we do a lot of interacting. I try to help them in whatever way I can. I would say, we are two trains going in the same directions. I like to think we are an asset to each other.”

McLain and his wife Lauren Ward run a sport and dealing stable together with their long-time stable managers Lee and Erica McKeever. “We don’t have a huge amount of horses, mostly between twenty and thirty horses at any given time. My wife competes in the amateur division and we have a couple of young riders working for us. We have a nice size dealing operation, but not so large that we cannot focus on sport. The sport is my first love and it always will be!”


Text © Peter van der Waaij for World of Showjumping // Pictures © Catie Staszak and Molly Sorge for Chronicle of the Horse

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