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Sep 3, 2018 10:11 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Risk Leads To Reward For McLain Ward In His Seventh Hampton Classic Grand Prix Victory

McLain Ward during the Grand Prix on Sunday.  DANA SHAW
Sep 4, 2018 12:57 PM

Where can a risk be taken with at least a decent chance it will be rewarded?That is the question the five riders who advanced to the jump-off at the $300,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix on Sunday asked themselves as they surveyed the shortened course that would determine the winner.

McLain Ward and his horse, HH Gigi’s Girl, ultimately found the best answer.

The Olympic gold medalist won the show’s premier class, sponsored by Douglas Elliman Realty, for an unprecedented seventh time on Sunday, thanks to his and his horse’s ability to make an extremely tight turn on the rollback—equestrian-speak for a hairpin turn—between the third-to-last and second-to-last jumps on course.

The turn was so tight and so well-executed that it drew “oohs!” and “aahs!” from the crowd that packed the grandstand and VIP tents surrounding the field.

Ward rode second in the five-person jump-off and knew that he had to put pressure on the final three riders, Lindsay Douglass, Lucy Davis and Shane Sweetnam. Sweetnam, an Irish rider who won the Grand Prix qualifier on Friday, is well-known for pushing the pace, and Ward said afterward that he knew he needed to make it as tough as possible for Sweetnam to beat him.

“He’s been on great form this whole week, so I knew he was going to be a threat,” Ward said. “Gigi is a great developing horse, but not so much experienced, and she loses a little time in the air. But she’s brave, so I thought maybe I could risk it.

“It was one of those things where if it shows up, you’re a hero, and every once in a while it doesn’t show up, and the result is different. But it worked out today.”

The tight turn allowed Ward to finish with a time of 39.32 seconds. Sweetnam and his mount, Main Road, went clear and fast as well, but not enough to catch Ward, settling for second with a time of 41.24 seconds.

Sweetnam knew exactly what Ward had done, watching his round on a screen inside the schooling ring adjacent to the Grand Prix field. Sweetnam has won just about every big open jumper class at the Classic, except for the Grand Prix, but while that top prize had so far eluded him, he took another second-place finish in stride.

“If you’re always knocking at the door, you’re going to get through at some point,” he said. “So I’m very happy with the week and happy with the horses.”

Ward took home top honors on Sunday afternoon, but Sweetnam was the most consistent rider of the week in the show’s open jumper classes, winning the Longines Rider Challenge and a check for $30,000 for accumulating the most points in that division.

Davis and her horse, Caracho 14, finished third, while Mario Deslauriers and his horse, Bardolina 2, were fourth. Both riders had clean rounds in the jump-off but were slower than Sweetnam and Ward. Douglass and her horse, Butterfly Tibri Z, were fifth, with two knockdowns.

Davis was showing in the Hampton Classic for the first time in six years and said she was overwhelmingly happy with her finish.

“I’ve been working with this horse since he was 7, and I’ve always thought he’d be special, and he’s proving to be even more special than I thought, so I’m so proud of him,” she said.

Davis, a California native now based out of Old Salem Farm on the East Coast, said she plans to make it to the Classic next year as well. She also rides with Douglass, who made the jump-off in what was her Hampton Classic Grand Prix debut. After the class, she told Hampton Classic Press Coordinator Marty Baumann that it was the happiest day of her life.

For Ward, it was another day to cement his legacy as one of the top riders in the world, and certainly the most prolific winner of the Hampton Classic’s main event. He has now won the Grand Prix—which began in 1977—more than twice as often as any other rider.

Ward’s first win came in 1998, when he won aboard Twist du Valon. The pair defended the title the following year, and he won again in 2003, aboard Hurricane. Ward pulled off a three-peat from 2009 through 2011, with his famous mare Sapphire the first of those two years, and with Antares F in 2011.

Other three-time winners include Rodney Jenkins (1981, 1983 and 1984), and Margie Goldstein-Engle (2000, 2001, 2002).

Asked if he reflects on his legacy and his dominance of the Grand Prix in particular, Ward said, “I think about the few times I’ve been second. I think that’s something you look at, at the end, when you’re reflecting on your career. I appreciate the wins, I appreciate the horses, and I appreciate the good parts. But I try to focus on the goals ahead.”

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