McLain Ward continues comeback from broken kneecap with Devon Grand Prix win

McLain Ward, aboard Antares F, clears the final hurdle on his way to victory in the Grand Prix of the Devon Horse Show. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
McLain Ward, aboard Antares F, clears the final hurdle on his way to victory in the Grand Prix of the Devon Horse Show. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 01, 2012

Charlie Jayne and Margie Engle were perfect. McLain Ward just happened to be even better.

All three riders were faultless in the first round and jump-off at the Devon Horse Show on Thursday night, but Ward's 34.32-second run edged Engle in the $100,000 Grand Prix. Jayne finished the second run in 39.93 seconds, Engle in 35.28 seconds.

The victory was Ward's third in as many weeks, but it was much more important than the first two. He missed about four months earlier this year after suffering a fractured left kneecap that splintered the bone into 20 pieces.

The injury was particularly painful during an Olympic year, he said earlier this week. But Thursday night's event provided a statement concerning the health of the two-time gold medalist - and, now, the seven-time Grand Prix winner at Devon.

"It feels great," he said. "I haven't jumped in a show like this in a while. It's nice to be back, it's been a hard four months."

The Grand Prix is the first of two Olympic observation events at Devon this weekend. On Saturday afternoon, the show will host the Idle Dice Stakes.

After selection trials in March, a committee from the United States Equestrian Federation placed 38 rider-horse combinations on the "long list" for the country's Olympic show-jumping team, including all of the riders in Thursday's jump-off. To remain eligible for the U.S. squad, each rider must compete in a pair of Olympic observations. The Devon Horse Show marks the third of four observations.

After the final event - a show in Calgary ending June 17 - a three-person committee will pick the Olympic squad.

As he did in the first round, Jayne began the jump-off with a perfect run. Ward followed with a more impressive run, finishing 5.61 seconds faster.

Ward rode Antares F, the horse he hopes to show in London this summer. But before the race, Ward took part in a ceremony to honor Sapphire, the horse he sat atop in his first two Olympic showings. Sapphire, whom Ward has jokingly referred to as his wife, retired earlier this month after struggling to recover from an injury to her front right leg last year.

Laura Kraut followed Ward, but she faulted on the second half of a combination. Trying to keep pace with Ward's effort, Kraut pushed Cedric too far before the first half of the combination, which made the second jump more difficult.

"I saw McLain going," she said, "and got too greedy."

Riding last, Engle drew roars from the grandstand as her horse, Indigo, galloped through the course and over each jump without a fault. She looked ready to spoil Ward's night, but Indigo's hooves graced the ground about one second too late.

"I just needed to do one less thing," Engle said.

Beezie Madden also finished the first round without a fault while riding Coral Reef Via Volo, but she didn't qualify for the jump-off. Madden rode three horses Thursday, and only two were eligible for the Grand Prix.

But because Madden is on the "long list" with three different horses, she rode all of them at Devon. Her first two, Cortes and Simon, were eligible to win the Grand Prix, but both faulted.

Two pillars proved particularly difficult in the first round. The third jump, featuring a tight rollback, forced riders to drive their horses toward a wall. Then, at the last second, the riders steered right before making the 1.6-meter leap.

The 13th jump also gave some riders fits for a couple of reasons. One, it came at an odd distance. Most jumps are divisible by 12 yards, the average stride for a horse. But riders did not have that luxury in the 13th jump Thursday, and they had to decide whether they wanted their horse to stride forward fives time or six.

Also, the 13th jump came close to the rail, where a crowd gathered. Some horses appeared to be distracted, and four clipped the rail with their hooves.

Of course, some horses didn't have such problems. Some were perfect. And one even more so.

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