BRAMANT, Netherlands--In a 16 horse jump-off that included many of grand prix jumping's top internationally ranked riders, McLain Ward on HH Azur won the second leg of the Rolex Grand Slam.
Ward won the first leg, with a purse of €1 million, in Geneva, and his win in the €1 Million Dutch Masters in Bramant netted him an additional €500,00 for winning the second leg in a row.
The third leg, also with a €1 million purse, is at Aachen, which runs June 23 to July 2 in Germany.
"She is my queen," said Ward of HH Azure. "She never ceases to amaze me."
The jump-off in the Dutch Masters included the first, second, third and fourth ranked riders, and amazingly those four went first through fourth in the 16 horse jump-off.
As U.S. chef d'equipe Robert Ridland pointed out, it's incredibly rare that all four top ranked riders should go so early in a big international class and then end up first through fourth in the jump-off.
HENRIK VON ECKERMANN of Sweden on King Edward, the combination that won team gold and placed fourth individually in the Tokyo Olympics, and the number one ranked rider, was first in the jump-off.
Going very fast with tight turns back to huge jumps, von Eckermann finished clean in 38.52.
Next to go was world number three ranked Julien Eppaillard of France on Donatello D’Auge, clean in 38.06 to take over the lead.
World number two Martin Fuchs of Switzerland on Leone Jei was next in and finished clean in 38.79 to stand third at the time.
Next came Ward, world ranked number four, and HH Azur, who cut corners even closer to finish clean in 37.86.
Eighth to go in the jump-off, Steve Guerdat of Switzerland on Dynamix de Belheme was fast, finishing clean in 38.53 to eventually place third behind Ward and Eppaillard.
Seven of the remaining 11 to go had rails down while trying to shave time off Ward's 37.86, and the remaining three were not quite fast enough to make the top six, while the last to go, Niels Kersten of the Netherlands finished clean in 39.01 on Hallilea to place sixth.
The first four in the ring were not only among the fastest, they also rode very smart rounds, and each left just a tiny bit on the table for another rider to slip through for the win.
It was a nail-biting wait after Ward's round while the next 12 went, waiting as each horse went to see if Ward's time could be beaten.
There was a long run to the last fence, and 14th to go in the jump-off, world ranked number 12 Simon Delestre of France on Cayman Jolly Jumper was leading by 100s of a second going to the last fence, but he tried to leave out a stride for the win and had it down in the effort.
So Ward won on 37.86. followed by Eppaillard, 38.06, von Eckermann, 38.52, Guerdat, 38.53, Fuchs, 38.79 and Kersten, 39.01.
When Ward entered the ring for the victory ceremony, he walked close to the stands, reaching out to touch the hands of the fans closest to the ring in a gesture typical of Ward's appreciation for fans and his thoughtfulness.
HH Azur is a phenomenal mare, and her ability at age 17 to still win major championships show how well and carefully Ward has campaigned her and maintained her top form.
She was his mount at age 10 to win the team silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and in 2017 Ward and HH Azur won the World Cup Finals.
As Ridland said, "She is one of those amazing horses that can win indoors and outdoors in a huge arena."
While HH Azur can still win championships, at her age she can no longer compete at a top level for three of four days in a row, as horses have to do at the Olympics and World Championships.
For that reason, Ward has to look to another of his mounts to be in the Paris Olympics next year.
But as Ward has said many times, "HH Azur doesn't owe anyone anything. Anything she wins now is just icing on the cake."