Two-time U.S. Olympic team gold medalist McLain Ward charged to a win in the $401,000 Fidelity Investments Grand Prix CSI5* in front of a packed International Arena riding Noche de Ronda during Saturday Night Lights at the 2020 Winter Equestrian Festival on Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington.
Forty of the world’s best riders crossed the timers to Anthony D’Ambrosio’s and Andy Christiansen’s first-round track with 12 posting perfect rounds to advance to a jump-off. U.S. Olympic team silver medalist Kent Farrington and Gazelle sat in the leading position on a time of 39.51 seconds when Ward entered the ring. To the roar of the crowd, Ward and Noche de Ronda broke the timers double-clear in 37.47 seconds.
“That’s about all Ronda and I had to give,” Ward said. “I think for any of us, at that level, when you get to go after the one that sets the time, you have a bit of an advantage. Normally, you come out by winning or crashing, one or the other. It all came off very nice and the horse really performed spectacularly.”
Ward got the ride on Noche de Ronda as part of a dream realized for owner Marilla van Beuren. Ward owns the 11-year-old Oldenburg mare together with her and Bob Russell. The mare was only jumping 1.35m with Ward a year ago when some injuries in his string sent her on a plane to the CHIO Aachen Nations’ Cup, where she jumped double clear and paved the way for herself as a top contender.
“Marilla has been in this game and been an avid fan and follower of the sport for many years, and it was her dream to own a Grand Prix horse,” Ward said. “We found this mare last year with Maarten Huygens that was produced by Manuel Lecuona. It has been a really wonderful story for us and her. It’s nice sometimes when the good guy wins.”
Ward admits that nights like this are still a thrill. “It doesn’t get easier, the stress doesn’t get less, but it’s a little bit like a drug; I love it, and it’s killing me at the same time,” he said. “I’m very excited about these nights. I’m still nervous for the big nights, but I really find great pleasure in the fight.”
Farrington and Gazelle lived up to the 14-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare’s namesake and showcased their footspeed to finish the runner-up. “I got beat today by a top rider on a horse with a giant stride,” said Farrington of his second-place performance. “He pulled out all the stops and took a big risk to win and pulled it off. It was a good win for McLain.
Canadian Olympic champion Eric Lamaze rounded out the podium riding Chacco Kid, owned by Chacco Kid Group. Their time was within a second of Farrington’s on a final tally of 39.69 seconds.
“It was a great class, and I’m so grateful to have this horse,” said Lamaze of his 14-year-old Oldenburg gelding. “He’s a real fighter, and he’s careful. He’ll try his heart out for you. When you feel that underneath you, you can enter a lot of classes.”
Nicole Shahinian-Simpson sat in the lead for a time, but settled for fourth aboard Akuna Mattata for owner Silver Raven Farms in 40.75 seconds. Adrienne Sternlicht earned the Martha W. Jolicoeur Leading Lady Rider title for the first time in her career during a special award ceremony following the Fidelity Investments Grand Prix CSI5*. Her second-place finish in the Equinimity WEF Challenge Cup Round 5 earlier in the week, combined with a top-10 finish on Saturday night riding Just A Gamble, guaranteed her the award.