WELLINGTON, Fla.-- McLain Ward in show jumping and Laura Graves in dressage both had spectacular wins in the early part of week five of the Winter Equestrian Festival, with both winning two classes.
Ward won the $132,000 WEF Challenge Cup on Thursday, Feb. 8 on HH Azur and followed that with a win in the $35.000 1.45m class on Bellefleaur Friday, while Graves rode Verdades to win both the Grand Prix CDI5* Thursday and the Freestyle with a new test on Friday.
On Thursday, Ward rode HH Azur to win over nine fellow Olympians in the $132,000 WEF Challenge Cup.
The WEF Challenge Cup offered the biggest prize money given yet for the Thursday feature, which is also a qualifier for Saturday night’s grand prix.
There were 57 entries in the class, 19 went clear, and 16 chose to return over the short course.
Ward went second to last in the jump-off, and HH Azur showed off her typical lofty jump, but she was fast across the ground on a giant stride to set the winning time at 39.23 seconds.
While aiming for his third WEF Challenge Cup victory of the season, Canadian Olympic Champion Eric Lamaze was just a bit short, finishing in a time of 39.94 seconds for second place on Fine Lady 5, his 2016 Olympic bronze medal-winning partner, and Margie Engle on Royce was third in a time of 40.75 seconds
While Ward did not see Lamaze go in the jump-off, he used Smith’s jump-off ride to make the decision for striding on the turn from the first to second jumps.
"THAT WAS a tough turn for a big horse, because you couldn’t change your mind,” he said. “I was lucky enough to see Spencer go before me and do eight (strides), and I thought I could do eight there. I was able to use my stride in a few places. When things show up for her like that, she is fast. If I have to check up, that’s where a horse like Eric’s can beat me, because it checks faster.”
“We wanted to compete a little bit,” said Ward. “She’s had a nice, long rest. It’s great prize money. I feel that the best way to get her on her game and get her fitness level to where I want it by the end of circuit is to compete a little bit, without doing anything insane. She needs to be in the groove.
“She feels great; she feels strong,” he continued. “I think she’s only going to get better and better as the circuit goes on.”
For their win, Ward was also presented with the Jumper Style Award.
ON THE SAME day, Laura Graves dominated the Grand Prix CDI5* (the qualifier for the freestyle) on a sweltering day at the Global Dressage Festival at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
Graves, who is ranked fourth in the world, came close to the magic 80 percent once again on Verdades, scoring 79.543 percent, 6 percent more than Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfvén who was second.
Graves and Verdades are unbeaten in their three starts this year, all of which have been at the Festival.
Laura Graves is 0.5 percent shy of the 80 percent marker on Verdades in the Grand Prix CDI5*.
“At the last show it was much cooler," said Graves, who trains with Debbie McDonald. "We have to gauge our horses’ stamina when it comes to warmer weather, and I maybe underestimated how fit my horse is. It was warm today ,but there wasn’t even a second where he felt like he was tired. That was nice to know as we’re going in to Tryon [FEI World Equestrian Games] this year, and it’s going to be at least this warm, so knowing he can handle it is a nice feeling.”
Their score was trending over 81percent mid-way through the test and, had it not been for a slightly-less-than-perfect line of two-time changes, it would probably have stayed above 80 percent.
“I felt a bit of a hop behind in the twos," said Graves. "But the trot tour felt amazing and he’s a super fun horse. I’m learning that even when he’s that hot, I still have to put my leg on. It’s amazing to ride a horse every day who never says no.”
“He can be difficult to settle in an atmosphere, but I embrace all these opportunities because we can’t create them at home, so every chance to train in a difficult situation puts you a little bit ahead of the game," said Graves. "We are so lucky to have this atmosphere because otherwise we would always be playing catch-up to the Europeans who have a lot of opportunities to show in these big environments."
Ashley Holzer, who now rides for the US having previously carried the Canadian flag, was third on Havanna 145.
“I’m amazed to be in this company,” said Holzer. “Mine is a green grand prix horse and it was so hot that I had to change the warm-up. But she came out lit up; she’s a goer and a real team player. I think she was a little tired in her body, but not in her mind.”
Olivia LaGoy-Weltz on Lonoir scored 72 percent to win the Grand Prix CDI5* (to qualify for the Special) after the favorites, Adrienne Lyle and Salvino, had a big problem in the first piaffe.
Shelly Francis and Patricia Stempel’s firecracker Danilo scored 72.87 percent to win the FEI Grand Prix CDI3* (to qualify for the special), with Katherine Bateson on Alcazar second on 69.935 percent.
FRIDAY'S $35,000 Bainbridge 1.45m Classic CSI5* marked the second major win in as many days for U.S. Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward, who rode Bellefleur PS Z to the win.
The Classic had 54 entries with 17 going clean, but none were faster than Ward, who finished in 55.88 seconds riding Bellefleur PS Z, who is owned by Ward’s godmother, Susan Heller, and Ward’s daughter, Lilly.
“My godmother bought half of her with the stipulation that my half was owned by Lilly Ward because she thought that maybe that would prevent me from selling – which, who knows,” Ward said. “I absolutely love the mare. She loves her job. She’s a fighter, a trier, just a wonderful horse to be able to compete.”
In second place with a time of 57.88 seconds was Ireland’s Darragh Kenny riding USA Normande, and Karen Polle , riding for Japan, was third on Little Lord in 58.38 seconds.
“She’s a very fast horse naturally,” Ward said of Bellefleur and his winning time, two seconds faster than Kenny’s second place finish. “I actually didn’t do all of the leave outs. Her stride isn’t massive, but she’s just quick across the floor. She’s super careful, so you don’t really have to set her up anywhere.:
Bellefleur’s win also marked a birthday victory for the mare’s youngest owner, as Lilly Ward turned three years old on Friday.
However, while exciting for most, for the 3-year-old Lilly, Bellefleur’s win will likely be well overshadowed by her own birthday party later in the day.
It was a good day all around for Ward and his barn, as Baylee McKeever, daughter of Lee McKeever, who has worked for Ward and groomed for him for most of his life, also won a class.
Baylee , riding Valor, owned by her father Lee, won the Washington International Horse Show Pony Equitation class.
The pair set a high bar to beat in ring 11 as they finished with a high score of 84.
“He will do anything for you,” said Baylee, who prevailed around the challenging turns and through the bending lines in today’s pony competition.
Baylee also won the USEF Pony Medal on Friday.
Baylee said that her winning rounds marked exciting progress for her and Valor in their short time together since the 14-year-old Welsh Pony’s purchase last summer, and that she thought she succeeded in correcting some of the struggles she has been working on.
“Sometimes he can swap leads if I don’t balance him correctly,” said McKeever. “So, if I just balance him, he does it. He was very good today around the turns and over the jumps, and I think I handled it well.”
GRAVES' BRAND new freestyle rocketed her and Verdades to the win in the $35,400 Grand Prix Freestyle CDI5*.
In front of a packed grandstand and VIP pavilions, Sweden’s Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfvén was second, with Shelly Francis finishing third.
“It was the first run-through of the new canter tour of our freestyle," said Graves. "Even though we’re not using the new FEI floorplan creator here tonight, it’s a big part of my preparation for the World Cup Final in Paris as it will be used in the final. We’ve actually taken away a bit of risk as the changes aren’t off a curved line, because you actually don’t gain as many points as you do for doubling up on the pirouettes, so it ended up being a little bit of a math equation."
“Big thanks to Terry Gallo who always steps in when I have a last minute ‘great’ idea," said Graves. "I couldn’t do it without her, and I was super pleased with how the music turned out. We have a couple of little tweaks to work on before our next performance at Global.”
“For once all the judges were in agreement,” said Enzo Truppa, the Italian judge at C. “I was particularly impressed by Laura’s half-passes, and she got very high marks from me.”
Graves and 16-year-old Verdades, who are ranked fourth in the world, scored 84.375 percent.
That was just 0.3 percent lower than their winning score at the CDIW* AGDF show two weeks ago — quite a feat for a brand new freestyle that they had barely practiced.
“I had only actually ridden through it once at home, and that was for Terry to get the timing, so I need to do my homework a little better,” she said.
“There was quite an atmosphere tonight," said Vilhelmson-Silfvén. "It suits him very well to have that kind of surroundings, so he felt the best today that I’ve had him this season. I’m very happy.”
Francis’ horse Doktor was also lit up by the busy atmosphere.
“He was sneezing and snorting when he realized he was doing the freestyle," said Francis. "Things smoothed out, but during a piaffe at one end, the audience started clapping, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, please don’t clap; he’s frightened of clapping!’ But we managed to keep it together. He was so full of energy, really bouncing off the ground.”