Thursday night at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair once again belonged to the “King of Devon” McLain Ward of Brewster, New York, who surpassed 25 contenders to claim the $250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon CSI4* for a record 11th time in his career. Ward, who is ranked fourth in the world on the Longines Rankings, rode the 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, HH Azur, owned by Double H Farm, around the famed Dixon Oval in front of a packed crowd, consisting of diehard show jumping fans to Pennsylvania locals, hoping to witness some of the greatest names in the sport of show jumping go head-to-head for the most coveted trophy in the Devon collection: the Celeste McNeal Harper Perpetual Trophy.
Winning at Devon has always been very special for Ward, especially since the grand prix is named after his legendary Olympic mount Sapphire, who died in 2014 due to complications from colic and who he also won the prestigious class with two times in 2007 and 2009. Even after claiming the title time and time again, Thursday’s 11th grand prix victory marked an incredible milestone in Devon Horse Show history.
Course designer of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Guilherme Jorge built a technical first round course consisting of 13 obstacles, where nine were able to produce clear rounds to ensure a jump-off. Of those nine, six finished double-clear.
Twenty-five-year-old Catherine Tyree (USA) and Mary Tyree’s Bokai led the way in the tie-breaking round with the first double-clear performance of the evening in 41.05 seconds. However, their top finish was soon overtaken by Ireland’s Paul O’Shea and Tequestrian Farms, LLC’s Imerald Van’t Voorhof who followed with another faultless round in 39.41 seconds to move into the first place position.
Throughout the next four rounds, Ali Wolff (USA) and Blacklick Bend Farm’s Casall, who captured their first FEI win together at Devon in 2018 in the $50,000 Jet Run Devon Welcome Stake CSI4*, came the closest to catching O’Shea in 40.14 seconds.
However, Ward and HH Azur, who is affectionately known as “Annie” in the barn, entered through the iconic blue “Where Champions Meet” archway next, going all out and clearing the final oxer in a blazing 38.12 seconds for the lead as the crowd erupted with applause and cheers.
Ward’s time held up through the remaining two challengers, ultimately garnering him his third consecutive win in the class, claiming the title in 2018 with Clinta and in 2017 with Rothchild, while O’Shea settled for second place, Wolff finished in third and Tyree rounded out the top four.
After sustaining an injury in July 2018 while competing at CHIO Aachen in Germany, Annie was given five months off to recover before Ward began bringing his 2017 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final championship mount back into competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, at the end of January. They ended the season back in top form, winning the circuit’s grand finale, the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI5*. With another major victory under their belts this season, Ward and HH Azur have undoubtedly reclaimed their reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Looking ahead, the pair look to redeem themselves in Aachen, where they will return to the famed competition this summer.
To top off an incredible evening, Ward was also presented with the McDevitt Style Award and the Richard E. McDevitt Style Perpetual Trophy.
On what gave him the edge in Thursday’s grand prix:
“My horse obviously! She’s one of the best horses in the world. She came back from a pretty major injury last year and was a little rusty in Florida but finished the season well there. She was able to freshen up a little bit and she felt great here.”
On the crowd at Devon:
“This place is home for me. I love the people and I love the atmosphere — it’s a home field advantage. It gives you a boost and it energizes me. I love to be at our best here. The crowd is incredible and obviously I have a long standing history here. It’s as good of a crowd as anywhere in the world. I’m always proud to do well here and proud that this event is in our country.”
On the pressure of not being an underdog:
“It doesn’t get easier. You get to a point where you either win or you’re a bit disappointed and your team is a bit disappointed. That’s a difficult situation and something we work really hard to master. Sometimes I do it better than other times. I’ve got to keep winning this grand prix so I don’t feel old! Then you have younger people like Ali [Wolff] who are dealing with new experiences and fighting for their chance and their opportunity. Everybody has their battle to fight but that’s what’s beautiful about the sport.”
On bringing back HH Azur:
“I have a great team of people behind me, which is well documented and known. It’s the same group of people I started riding with. The veterinarians, blacksmiths — everybody does their part. To be honest, those are the people who actually do the work, not me. What I do is the final product and for sure I manage the idea and the program but you’ve got to believe that a horse is going to come back. It’s like any athlete coming back from an injury. With a horse like Azur, there’s always more expectation and people expect the same results. We keep working at it and we keep trying to figure out the solution. I think she’s back in top form. She is very hot and that’s something we’re always trying to handle. You have to manage her energy level a lot.”
On Thursday’s course:
“I was a little surprised there were as many clears as there were because I thought it walked quite difficult. The triple ended up jumping a bit better than I expected. I think it’s great to have a decent size jump-off for this crowd. It’s exciting.”
On what’s next:
“I’m doing Upperville next. I think both Devon and Upperville have made great efforts in our country to bring our shows back up to a top international level and I think it’s important that the best riders we have support them so they can continue to grow into top-notch sporting events.”
Paul O’Shea (IRL) – Second place
On Imerald Van’t Voorhof:
“[Imerald Van’t Voorhof] jumped fantastic. I probably could have done one stride less to the last jump but that probably wouldn’t have been enough. It would have just saved half of a second but McLain was way ahead. There’s no shame in being beaten by McLain and Azur, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be trying the next time.”
On the atmosphere at Devon:
“It’s a fantastic show. The atmosphere is definitely very unusual and there’s definitely no other place like it. It’s just a pleasure to ride here. It’s a fantastic show.”
On Thursday’s course:
“I thought it was a perfect course. The time-allowed was very fair. I don’t think anyone had a bad experience, really, so I think [Guilherme Jorge] did a great job with it.”
Ali Wolff (USA) – Third place
On riding against McLain Ward and Paul O’Shea:
“It went the best it could be for me. That’s the best I could have done in this company. I’m just delighted to be sitting here. It’s super intimidating [riding against people like McLain and Paul] but it actually makes me rise to the occasion, so actually they help me a lot.”
On Thursday’s course:
“I was a little bit surprised about the number [of people clear] just because I remember it being so difficult [last year]. That being said, Guilherme is a great course designer and did a great job this year. I thought it was tricky enough. A lot of horses kind of stared through some of the fences, especially with the crowd being right on the rail. The focus was a little tricky at times and that’s where it caught a few people. It was a super exciting jump-off and I think the crowd loved it.”
On her partnership with Casall:
“It’s been amazing. I bought him to be a sales horse at the start of my business but that clearly did not pan out. He’s just been a great partner. He grew into his own and then grew a little bit further than that. Right now, I think we’re really on the same wavelength. I ask the most ridiculous things of him and he just does it no problem. In that aspect, I can trust him and count on him 100%. He was a little bit spooky in the first round and stared through some of the fences but I just squeezed my leg and he focused. I trusted that he was going to be there. That type of trust and partnership is amazing.”
$250,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon CSI4*:
Place / Horse / Rider / Country / Owner / R1 Faults / R2 Faults / Time
1. HH Azur / McLain Ward / Double H Farm / 0 / 0 / 38.12
2. Imerald Van’t Voorhof / Paul O’Shea / Tequestrian Farms LLC / 0 / 0 / 39.41
3. Casall / Ali Wolff / Blacklick Bend Farm / 0 / 0 / 40.14
4. Bokai / Catherine Tyree / Mary Tyree / 0 / 0 / 41.05
5. Fellini S / Erynn Ballard / Ilan Ferder / 0 / 0 / 41.29
6. Robin De Ponthual / Schuyler Riley / Katherine Gallagher / 0 / 0 / 42.06
7. Luibanta BH / Amanda Derbyshire / Gochman Sport Horse LLC / 0 / 4 / 39.84
8. Hadja Van Orshof / Kelli Cruciotti / Kelli Cruciotti / 0 / 4 / 42.69
9. Country Boy / Andrew Kocher / Eye Candy Jumpers / 0 / 4 / 43.32
10. Fasther / Lillie Keenan / Chansonette Farm LLC / 4 / 75.69
11. H&M Carat Desire / Annabel Revers / 4 / 77.85
12. Viva Colombia / Brianne Goutal-Marteau / Rose Hill Farm / 4 / 77.87