Twice Is Nice For Ward During Horseware Ireland Week At WEF

McLain Ward and Contagious ride to victory in the $215,000 Horseware Ireland CSI4* Grand Prix. Photo by Sportfot

U.S. Olympic team gold medalist McLain Ward won his second feature of the week in the $215,000 Horseware Ireland CSI4* Grand Prix during the Winter Equestrian Festival’s Saturday Night Lights at Wellington International on Saturday, March 16.

Ward led the victory gallop aboard Contagious, the 15-year-old Rhinelander gelding owned by Beechwood Stables that also carried him to team silver at the Tokyo Olympics and most recently team gold at the Pan American Games in Chile last summer.

Ward was elated with the seasoned gelding’s performance.

“Contagious has been a great partner, and I’m very grateful to Beachwood and Lise Revers for having the horse be with me for his whole career,” Ward said. “He’s getting older now, and it’s a little more work, but he’s got a huge heart.”

“It was a very hot night and a quick turnaround for us,” continued Ward, who jumped last in both rounds. “I only jumped three jumps in the schooling area because I didn’t want to let him bottom out. He dug in deep, and we were lucky to go last.”

Only three horses jumped clear over Oscar Soberon’s challenging track. U.S. Olympic team silver medalist Lucy Davis led the way with new mount Ben 431 and was later joined by Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts aboard Derby de Riverland and Ward from final draw. Ward’s jump-off time of 43.24 seconds handed him the win over Philippaerts with 44.19 seconds. Davis settled for third after pulling a rail in the short course.

“You can have a little rub, have four faults and be very frustrated, or if that same rail stays up, you win the Grand Prix and you’re a hero,” said Ward of his fight for top finishes at the season’s close. “It’s a fine line, but I’m grateful to the horses and to be able to keep banging heads with these riders.”

Ward is finishing the season strong as he looks ahead to Olympic qualification this spring and sits on a talented string of horses.

“Our focus is on Paris. I think Contagious is getting a bit long in the tooth for another championship, but Callas has a lot still left in her tank, so she’s certainly on the radar,” he said. “We have an exciting new horse, Ilex, that we think can do incredible things. We have a few options and a plan with each of them that leads to Paris in the best form. We hope that we can make the team and bring home another medal.”

Jumping off just before Ward, Philippaerts left everything he had in the ring and was thrilled with Derby de Riverland, an 11-year-old Selle Français gelding owned by Team Philippaerts and Pierre Cimolai.

“He is a fantastic horse,” said Philippaerts, who took over the reins halfway through 2023 after the mount was piloted by his younger brother. Thibault Philippaerts produced the horse up the ranks and won both team gold and individual silver at the 2022 European Championships for Young Riders.

“He’s very careful, and I think he improved a lot this year here in Wellington,” Nicola said. “It helped him to develop on a higher level, and today is proof that he’s ready for some bigger rankings. You always try to win, of course, but McLain is very hard to beat. I tried to give it a go, and he jumped fantastic, but I think the best horse-rider combination won today.”

Davis acquired Ben 431 in December and has been focused on Olympic qualification goals while in Florida for the winter season. Ben 431, a 13-year Westphalian gelding, is owned by Old Oak Group and has collected accolades from around the world with Germany’s Gerrit Nieberg, including a win in the 2022 Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen.

After taking a break from international competition over the last several seasons, Davis was back under the glow of Wellington’s Saturday Night Lights and soaking up the spotlight.

“I’m just happy to be back in it,” she said. “It’s day by day with a new horse, and it started out well at a lower level. I think the beauty of making mistakes is you get to learn and tweak and fine tune. Even though sometimes the scores aren’t always what you want in certain rounds, there’s something you can improve, and I was really pleased that tonight we finally felt like one. I’m excited for the future with this horse.”

Ward also took top call in the Adequan WEF Challenge Cup qualifier on Thursday, March 14 on First Lady, and as a result, accepted the Martha Jolicoeur Leading International Rider Award, presented together with Michael and Wendy Smith. To cap the evening, Ward’s groom and Contagious’ caregiver, Virginie Casterman, was presented with the $500 Grooms Award by Double H Farm.