McLain Ward and HH Azur keep the Rolex Grand Slam dream alive
The pinnacle class of The Dutch Masters came in the form of Sunday’s Rolex Grand Prix, part of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping. The Brabanthallen’s knowledgeable crowd was full of anticipation, ahead of being treated to unparalleled levels of precision, bravery and athleticism from the world’s best show jumpers. 35 horse and rider combinations, including eight of the top 10, all battled to claim one of the most prestigious prizes in the sport, the Rolex Grand Prix.
First to master Louis Konickx’s expertly designed 17-obstacle course was the World No.1, Henrik von Eckermann, aboard his FEI World Championship gold medal-winning partner King Edward. Next into the arena, France’s Julien Epaillard, produced a faultless round to ensure a jump-off. Rolex Testimonee Martin Fuchs, current Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Live Contender McLain Ward, and winner of the 2022 Rolex Grand Prix at CHIO Aachen Gerrit Nieberg also showed their class to join the elite group of riders going through to the second round. Meanwhile, the Dutch crowd came alive when the winner of the VDL Groep Prize on Friday evening, Willem Greve, rode an immaculate round of jumping.
With 16 riders, including the top four ranked riders in the world, making it through to the jump-off, fans were set for a true spectacle of speed and agility. Sweden’s Henrik van Eckermann laid down the gauntlet with a breathtakingly fast clear in the time of 38.52 seconds, however this lead was soon eclipsed by Julien Epaillard, who came home 0.46 seconds faster. Live Contender McLain Ward then stepped up the pace once again to keep chances his of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping alive. France’s Simon Delestre looked to take the win away from Ward finishing 0.09 seconds faster, but heartbreak came when the final Rolex oxer fell. This left Ward to take the victory and retain his title as Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Live Contender.
Speaking on his extraordinary win, McLain Ward said: “I don’t think it has quite sunk in yet, it was lot of stress having to watch the remaining 12 riders in the jump-off. The level here so high, and I think later tonight I will realise what we have achieved. The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping has truly raised the bar of the sport and winning a Major is one of the greatest moments in a riders career. I am so proud of my team and my horse – and a little proud of myself.”
Commenting on his horse, the Rolex Grand Slam Live Contender said: “She is smarter than everybody else and is truly a queen. I think she understands what is happening and really rises to the moment. She loves her job and the partnership that we have created is truly so special. We will now aim her for CHIO Aachen to try and win the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping.”
Behind the stable door:
Joseph Stockdale's groom Charlotte Attwell
Tell us a little a bit about your journey to The Dutch Masters…
We have been in Holland for the past few weeks, competing at Kronenberg, and then training over here as well, so actually I had a very leisurely drive to The Dutch Masters as we were only an hour away. It was much nicer than having to drive from the United Kingdom.
This is your first time at The Dutch Masters, how are you finding it, and how are the facilities for the horses?
The facilities for the horses are great, this is our first time here and I am really impressed. The show has made sure that the horses’ welfare is a priority and you can really see this in the stables and the arenas.
Do you do a lot of driving, and how do you keep yourself entertained on long journeys?
During long drives, I like to sing, I’m not very good but it keeps me awake. Also having a great selection of snacks helps!
Can you tell us about the horses that you have brought with you and what their characters are like?
We have brought Equine America Cacharel, our best mare. She competed at the FEI World Championships in Herning and has done a lot of FEI Nations Cup™ competitions. We love her, and she has the best character. She is totally spoilt and loves her treats.
The second horse that we have brought with us is Equine America Bingo de Chateau. He is very cheeky, and gets spoilt as well, but maybe that is my own fault! He is a real character and can be quite naughty in the warm-up, but is incredibly talented.
We have also got a new horse with us this year called Ebanking, who is a nine-year-old stallion. The Dutch Masters will be hist first 5* competition so it will be interesting to see how he progresses, and reacts to the atmosphere. Currently, he is looking on top form.
If there is a horse that doesn’t like to travel, what can you do to help it?
We are quite lucky as all our horses have become so used to travelling that they are incredibly well behaved. They all drink, have their hay nets, and are very calm.
How much do you enjoy coming to the Majors – The Dutch Masters, CHIO Aachen, Spruce Meadows and CHI Geneva? In your opinion, what sets them apart from the other shows?
I have attended CHI Geneva along with The Dutch Masters, and these Majors are just a different level compared to other shows. You are just blown away when you arrive in the arena and see all of the facilities. Now, I need to get to CHIO Aachen and CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’.
What has been your proudest moment as a groom?
My proudest moment is definitely winning team bronze at the FEI World Championships – you cannot get better than that. I was so nervous during the whole week, I remember waiting in the back as we found out that the team had won a bronze medal and that was an incredible moment. It is really hard to explain my feelings in words from that moment. It was a such great team effort and one we are all very proud of.
How much riding do you do?
I used to ride but I don’t as much anymore as I don’t have the time. I am quite happy being on the ground looking after and spoiling the horses.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
My least favourite part is the packing and unpacking of the lorry, as it is so time consuming. My favourite part is forming a bond with the horses. I spend a lot of time with Cash and Bingo as they come to most places with me. The bond that you form with them is incredible as you know those horses inside and out. It is really nice as the horses want to spend time with you and see you – it is a great feeling. I do not view this as a job, it is a way of life and I love it .
What is the grooms’ community like? Do grooms support one another?
You definitely form a community with grooms as you are constantly travelling and attending shows with each other. You always ask which shows your friends are attending or where they are travelling on to from a show. It is really nice that people try to keep track of one another. Our team only really started 5* competitions last year, but everyone is really nice and welcoming. It is a really nice atmosphere as everyone tends to go to dinners together as well, and we all share our advice with each other.
What attributes do you need to have to be a top-level groom?
You definitely have to be committed, as if you are not, you will not advance. You have to want to win as well! Anyone can become a groom, as you learn on the job, but it is important to be dedicated and willing to learn. No one is perfect at the start; you definitely work your way up. It is really beneficial to spend time around other grooms, as you learn so much from them and everyone has their own methods. There is no right or wrong method, you have to find what suits you.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
The best piece of advice that I have been given is to not panic. It is important to take your time with tasks, and to ensure that things are done in a correct manner.
What are the three items that you would take with you on to a desert island?
I would take my phone, my dog Otis and finally I would bring crisps with me as they are a great snack!
Rider interview with:
Leopold Van Asten
Why is The Dutch Masters such a special show?
The Dutch Masters is an extraordinary show. It is local to me, my stables are only thirty-five minutes away. This means that my friends, family and sponsors come to support me which makes the show extra special.
How did it feel to win the Rolex Grand Prix here at The Dutch Masters in 2017?
Winning the Rolex Grand Prix here at The Dutch Masters in 2017 is one of my favourite memories, it was unfortunately not considered part of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, as it was the year before The Dutch Masters became part of the initiative. As always with Rolex Grands Prix, it was an incredibly competitive class, and it was indescribable to win in front of the home crowd.
Tell us a little bit more about the horse that you won on here…
I was riding VDL Groep Zidane N.O.P., who is now retired. He is in a field close to my home, and still looks in great shape. I had a fantastic career with him and we won several Grands Prix, but the most special was here at The Dutch Masters.
What are your goals and ambitions for 2023?
I am focusing on the FEI European Championships at the moment. I am also directing my energy on developing and training my younger horses; I have two ten-year-olds here with me at The Dutch Masters. They are both very talented, so I am very much looking forward to this upcoming season.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
The proudest moment of my career would have to be winning the Rolex Grand Prix here at The Dutch Masters in 2017. I have won the Dutch Championships three times, which is something that I am very proud of.
How important is the team behind you?
As a rider, it is impossible to compete without a supportive team. The grooms are the most important people behind the scenes, as they work incredibly long hours and ensure that they are happy and in peak condition. We also have a fantastic team who remain at home with the horses who are not travelling, and they are vital for the training and development of the younger horses.
Who has been your biggest inspiration throughout your career?
Whilst growing up, I looked up to riders such as John Whitaker and Jos Lansink. They have both had inspirational careers and there is a lot that can be learnt from them.
What does The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping mean to you as a rider?
It is an unbelievable opportunity that the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping was created within our sport. It has totally elevated and revolutionised the sport. The four Majors that are part of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping are the best shows in the world, and it is an incredible feeling to compete in them.
Who are you competing at The Rolex Grand Prix on Sunday?
I am planning on riding VDL Groep Nino Du Roton who is still slightly unexperienced at these 5* shows. He has competed at 1.55m but I believe that he has the capabilities to perform well on Sunday despite it being a slight step-up. He had a good show last week, so I will only jump him in the 1.40m class before the Rolex Grand Prix. I am hoping that it will go well.