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Despite Career Full Of Success, McLain Ward Still Hungry For World Cup Win

By Dave Royse | April 13, 2015, 3:25 p.m. (ET)

McLain Ward jumps during the Central Park Horse Show on Sept. 18, 2014 in New York City.

McLain Ward has two Olympic team gold medals, a long list of wins that includes almost every major show jumping grand prix event, and has built a comfortable life as a superstar in his sport.

But Ward still sounds like the hungry kid who exploded on to the show jumping scene as a 14-year-old when he won the United States equestrian team’s Show Jumping Talent Derby and its Medal Finals for junior riders, the youngest ever to win both in the same year.

“I get up every day and think about the things I still would like to win,” said Ward, now 39.

Mclain Ward riding Antares competes in the qualifier of individual jumping at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Greenwich Park on Aug. 6, 2012 in London.

One of those things is the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final, starting this week in Las Vegas. Ward will be one of the most experienced riders at the event — he has competed in the FEI World Cup Final 15 times — but it’s one of the sport’s few big prizes to elude him.

“I’ve banged on the door every which way I could have, but I still haven’t won it,” Ward said. “I appreciate the success I’ve had, but at the same time, the drive is there for much more.”

Ward comes into the Vegas competition as the No. 4 ranked rider in the world by FEI, the Federation Equestre Internationale, and the top-ranked American.

The World Cup Final will draw many of the sport’s top horses and riders, including defending champion and FEI world No. 1 Daniel Deusser and Olympic gold medalist and three-time world cup champion Marcus Ehning, both of Germany. Steve Guerdat, the 2012 Olympic champion of Switzerland, and Americans Beezie Madden (a three-time Olympic medalist) and Rich Fellers (2012 world cup champion and Olympian) are also on a long list of high profile riders who will compete.

Ward’s competitive drive has been especially important over the last few years, as he had to overcome setbacks that might have been career-enders. In 2012, Ward slammed his kneecap into a standard while riding in the Surpass Grand Prix, shattering his patella. There were eight weeks on crutches and nearly four months away from riding — but as soon as he was back on a horse he was back to winning. He even made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, riding in London less than a year after his fall.

That same year, though, Ward’s longtime mount Sapphire, the chestnut Belgian Warmblood mare he rode for his two Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008, had to retire at 17 after lingering injuries. Sapphire died last summer after suffering from colic.

This week, Ward will ride Rothchild, who has been a top mount for Ward for a few years and carried him to victory in last year’s Antwerp Grand Prix in Belgium. After years of working with Sapphire, he takes a professional view to developing a new bond.

“If you’re going to stay at the top of the sport, you’re going to have relationships with multiple horses,” Ward said.

Ward said Rothchild has the necessary speed and athleticism. But like his rider, the horse’s true advantage may be experience. At 14, Rothchild is a veteran.

“Like anything, with time comes experience, and the horse becomes more professional,” Ward said. “He’s a seasoned competitor now.

“He’s a very careful horse, he really doesn’t want to touch the fences, and that’s hard to find,” Ward said of Rothchild.

Ward, too is a learned veteran, but says he’s still a student of the sport, often learning from his horses.

You might think there wouldn’t be much more to learn for a guy who first got in the saddle at 6 months old, and attended his first competition as a “spectator” when he was 4 days old, present at Madison Square Garden as his father, Barney Ward, competed in the 1975 National. McLain couldn’t help but soak up the sport growing up on his family’s Brewster, New York, horse farm, as his father competed. The New York Times called McLain Ward a “pleasant prodigy” when he was just 16.

Ward has said he got his competitive fierceness from his self-made father, but he grew up with training advantages that have allowed him to become known almost as much for his technical form and finesse in the saddle, what’s known in the sport as “equitation.”

In Las Vegas, the competition will be in a smaller-than-usual indoor arena, but Ward said Rothchild should do well.

“I don’t mind it actually,” Ward said. “It suits my horse, he’s a very adjustable horse who handles the small arenas.”

While focused right now on this week’s World Cup Final, the driven Ward has also already started thinking about the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

“I wouldn’t say it’s on the forefront of our minds every day, but it’s definitely on the long-term plan,” Ward said. He said he’s very excited about another horse, H.H. Azur, on whom he rode to a fourth-place finish in the Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup in Florida last month.

“She’s 100 percent being groomed for Rio, everything that she does is with Rio in mind,” Ward said.

Ward also has a new baby, a daughter. While “the tough days are a little easier,” when he gets home and can hold his little girl, Ward said, being a father hasn’t mellowed him, at least not yet.

“I’m still just as competitive and tenacious,” he said.

Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org since 2010 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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McLain Ward