Lexington, Ky.—Nov. 3
McLain Ward’s winning jump-off ride in the $250,000 Alltech Grand Prix CSI-W wasn’t just a masterful display of riding. It was also an incredible feat of mental fortitude.
Just a week before, Ward’s father, Barney, passed away after a long fight with cancer. In the ring, there was no hint of McLain’s grief. He rode impeccably. He celebrated in the victory gallop and waved to the crowd. He signed autographs afterward. But in the press conference after the class, he showed what a toll his father’s death has taken.
“Obviously, this has been the hardest week of my life. My dad was my world,” McLain said softly. “My dad certainly had some flaws in his life, but he sacrificed an unbelievable amount for me and our family to live our dreams. And this is our dream. I owe a career and a life to what he provided for me in giving me the opportunity to do this and teaching me how to do this.”
McLain is an accomplished and polished public speaker. In interviews, he’s quick with a thoughtful quote, insightful and eloquent. This is the first time I’ve seen him at a loss for words. For a few moments, he wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist or a slick top show jumper. He was just a son who lost a father, a father who was his best friend and mentor. McLain was incredibly close with his father, who despite being unable to witness most of McLain’s biggest triumphs, was the touchstone for his career, personally and professionally.
McLain admitted that Barney’s death had affected his performances at the Alltech National Horse Show. “I had a horrible week; I wasn’t riding well,” he said.
But in the grand prix, he was back to his old self. “I think one thing is that I know the horse very well, and there’s a certain level of confidence he is going to bring to me at the event," he said. “I have an unbelievable team; my ground crew has been with me 25 years. We know each other. My wife [Lauren], I don’t know how she is with me, she’s so much a better person than I. I said to her last night that I always worry that I’m going to wake up on the morning of grand prix day and lose my touch. She told me to stop the nonsense and do what I do. That is the mind game we all play as professionals. It’s a struggle, but it’s what we do.”
McLain wept as he spoke of honoring Barney. “I didn’t know it would happen today, but I knew we would go on and do well, because that’s what he taught us to do,” he said. “All I can say is that I think everybody knows how much I love my father and how very much I miss him. I rode with a heavy heart today, but I and the people he put around me will forge on and live his dream.” All week long, his fellow riders showed McLain support and sympathy with encouraging words and hugs.
After a brief respite when Alltech sponsor Dr. Pearse Lyons spoke, someone asked McLain about his jump-off ride. He had composed himself and was instantly back to his old self, smiling as he described a crucial turn. “The turn to 6A didn’t feel like a joy to watch!” he said. “It felt a little rough. It was a very difficult jump-off course, with a lot of tricky turns. I had strong people coming behind me; I knew I had to put the pressure on.”
McLain had the unenviable task of going first of a seven-horse jump-off, with the likes of Beezie Madden, Lauren Hough and Christine McCrea included. But from the moment he galloped into the ring, it was clear he was there to win. McLain’s no-holds-barred jump-off ride on Antares set a pace no one could match. “Antares is an incredibly brave horse, so if you get in range, he’s going to make a good effort. The rest of the jump-off suited him. I could get on a bit of a gallop and let his stride take me home,” McLain said.
Watch McLain and Antares' first-round ride...
They all chased McLain and Antares, but no other rider could catch him. In fact, McCrea was the only other rider to put in a faultless round, but she was still more than a second slower on Romantovich Take One. “I could have maybe done one less to the last jump, but he was at the end of his stride, so I decided to be safe and pull and do one more stride there. I don’t think I could have gone too much faster!” she said.
Madden pulled off the slickest turn of the night aboard Simon, making the crowd gasp with a rollback that was more like a pirouette, and it looked like McLain’s time was in jeopardy. But the back rail of the triple bar came down, and her time was still a second slower than McLain’s; she’d finish in fifth.
Candice King was second to jump off, and she made it clear that she wasn’t going to chase McLain. She cantered the young stallion Whistler, 9, around to a cautious but educational round, leaving all the rails in the cups but picking up 1 time fault. In the end, it was good enough for third place. “I was thrilled with his performance. He’s a young and upcoming stallion. It’s been a little bit of a process for me to get to this point with him,” King said.
King was scheduled to ride the more experience Kismet in the class, but a minor injury incurred two nights before caused her to put Whistler in her place. “I discussed it with Whistler’s owners, and we decided that I’d walk the course and see if we should take a shot. It worked in my favor, and I’m quite excited,” she said.
Saer Coulter also chose the conservative approach on her Springtime, picking up 2 time faults on her way around the jump-off, which netted her fourth place. Madden and Simon were fifth with their fastest 4-fault round, and Lauren Hough came in sixth with 4 faults as well. Hillary Simpson rounded out the field in seventh with 8 faults.
Check out all of the Chronicle's online coverage of the Alltech National Horse Show.