In divine retribution that was seven years in coming, McLain Ward, riding his super mare HH Azur to four faultless rounds, won the World Cup in Omaha, Neb, on April 2.
In 2010, when Ward was leading on another great mare, Sapphire, just hours before the final class FEI vets decided Sapphire had a “sensitive spot” on her front leg after tapping it 50 times, during which she raised her leg three times.
In a travesty of justice, the FEI ruled that Sapphire could not be jogged for soundness before the final rounds, thus effectively disqualifying the mare and Ward.
So it was only justice that Ward won on his second great mare, H Azur, before a wildly enthusiastic home crowd that gave him a standing ovation after his winning fourth clean round and again as he stood on the podium.
After his winning ride, Ward hugged and kissed his wife Lauren and daughter Lilly, then ran through the warm-up ring, shaking hands and hugging friends in joy.
"It's amazing,” said Ward. “To win the World Cup anywhere is a dream come true and to win here at home with this amazing crowd is something I have been dreaming about since I was a little kid. I have been the overnight leader a couple of times and messed it up some way or another. I said to "Annie" (as he affectionately calls his mount, HH Azur), 'I need a little help tonight' and she gave it to me."
At the beginning of the competition, Ward said, "It's a bit disappointing that I have been to 17 World Cup Finals and haven't won. I would really like things to go my way. The World Cup Final is considered our indoor championship and having this victory in our career is something we all very much covet. It's reserved for a very special few. It's a big deal."
IN THE first competition on March 30, the speed round, Ward won, but just 100ths separated the top three.
Ward stopped the timers in 59.27 seconds, just fractions of a second ahead of Henrik von Eckermann of Sweden on Mary Lou who finished in 59.58, and two-time defending World Cup Champion Steve Guerdat of Switzerland was third on Bianca in 60.06 seconds.
"I never won a class without a little luck,” said Ward. “There were a few places where I could have been a little smoother, but you have a little bit of anxiety on the first night. I thought the course was big enough for the first night. In reality there was just a whisker between the three of us, I was just a bit fortunate.”
"With a horse like HH Azur you come to the event with high hopes and particularly on home soil you would like to have a great finish,” said Ward. This is a special event. I have quite a few close friends who made the trip here, including my wife and daughter, so I tried to make everybody proud.”
In the second competition, a jump-off class on April 1, six out of the 33 starters made it to the jump-off over the Alan Wade-designed course.
After the first two riders had faults, the last four all went clean, each one went faster than the previous.
"Everything came off well,” said Ward. “I thought my mare jumped really great in the jump-off, and we put ourselves in a good position, but we are only halfway so I need to stay focused. The pressure was there. To be honest, the home crowd support made it a little bit easier and having my wife and daughter here always helps me. From now until Sunday, I will try to stay focused one jump at a time, one round at a time and just do the best I can."
Ward and HH Azur finished in a blistering 36.87 seconds, 2.5 seconds faster than Gregory Wathelet of Belgium and Forlap, who were second in a time of 39.39 seconds.
They were nearly four seconds faster than third place finisher Romain Duguet of Switzerland and Twentytwo des Biches, who stopped the clock in 40.46.
"I went a little faster than I would have planned because you try to do just enough, you want to leave some gas in the tank," said Ward. "But in this competition, the level is so high you try to do the best you can every night to be in the fight to the very end. I am pleased with my horse and I'm excited to be in a position where we're in the mix."
WARD JUMPED clean again in the first of two rounds on Sunday, then in the second round Duguet also was clean, so he finished with four faults.
That meant Ward had to be clean to win – one rail down would mean a jump-off, two down and he’d lose the win.
There was absolute silence from the huge crowd grew silent as Ward and HH Azur faced the challenging Alan Wade-designed course.
But once Ward cleared the final fence, silence turned into deafening cheers and thunderous applause.
Ward threw his arm in the air attempting to make a fist of celebration and lost his reins in the excitement.
"The crowds were so amazing,” said Ward. ‘Two strides going into the final fence I said to myself, 'keep it together, keep it together;' I think they carried us through."
"I'm so grateful not only for the horses that I had over the years but for the people behind me," said Ward. "Lee (McKeever), my groom, has been with me for 29 years, since I did large ponies. So to try to pull one off for them was very important for me."
“Hunter (Harrison, HHAzur’s owner) always said he’d do whatever he could to get me a championship,” said Ward.
Duguet finished in second place.
"Twentytwo did everything,” Duguet said of his mare. “She jumped unbelievably all week, and I am so proud of her. It was a perfect week for me. I came here with no pressure. For me, if I finished in the top 10 I was going to be really happy. I tried my best. Second place was a bonus."
Von Eckermann moved up for sixth to third on Mary Lou.
The World Cup drew the world's top riders and horses from 27 countries, including many Olympic, World and European Champions.
The Finals had an overall attendance of 52,119.