When McLain Ward and his horse, Contagious, galloped through the finish line after clearing the final obstacle in the jump-off in Sunday’s $300,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix, the capacity crowd erupted in applause, believing they had just watched the recent Olympic silver medalist win his record eighth Grand Prix at the show.
Ward and Contagious, the horse he rode to help win the United States a team silver medal in Tokyo in July, set a blistering pace while leaving all the jumps up, an effort that seemed like it would be impossible to beat.
But Daniel Bluman wasn’t about to admit defeat.
The 2017 Grand Prix winner, up next in the jump-off after Ward and second-to-last of the seven riders in the field of 23 to advance, was inside the ring with his mare, Gemma W, watching Ward and Contagious, and when it was his turn, Bluman, also an Olympic veteran, was ready.
“I was in the ring watching carefully everything he was doing, and he was going really fast,” Bluman said. “I said, ‘I’m going to give it absolutely everything I’ve got, I’m going to take all the risks, and if it pays off, I’m going to beat him, but I’m not going to be slower than him today.’”
Fortune favors the brave, as the saying goes, and that was true for Bluman and Gemma. Like Ward and Contagious, they put in a clear round, but their time of 34.75 seconds was good enough to push Ward and his time of 36.79 seconds into second place. Bluman, who rides for Israel, took home the top prize in what was one of the more thrilling jump-offs in Hampton Classic Grand Prix history. Schuyler Riley and her horse, Robin De Ponthual, rode after Bluman in the jump-off and settled for third, going clear with a time of 37.42 seconds. Mario Deslauriers, who rode for Canada in Tokyo and won the most recent Hampton Classic Grand Prix in 2019, finished fourth, going clear in 39.43 seconds.
While everyone watching thought Ward had put in an unbeatable performance, the five-time Olympian said afterward he knew he had “left the door open,” saying they had gone a bit wide on the tight rollback turn from the Jaguar vertical to the red and white vertical, the second- and third-to-last obstacles on the jump-off course that came before the gallop to the final fence, the black and white Hampton Classic oxer.
“I knew I had left a little room, but was hoping I put enough pressure on that [Daniel] would make a mistake,” he said. “But he’s a brilliant rider and more often than not, he won’t make a mistake.”
Ward did earn the top honor in the Longines Rider Challenge, earning the most points of all the riders in the open jumper classes throughout the week. He finished with 538 points while Bluman was second with 350 points. Ward became the first American rider to win that title at the Classic; in the previous seven years that the title has been up for grabs, an Irish rider has won it every time.
In the press conference after the show, Bluman, Ward and Riley all took time to recognize their horses for strong efforts that day. Gemma, a 10-year-old mare, is a horse Bluman has had since she was 5 years old, and he said he always knew she would be special.
“She’s very athletic and has a really beautiful thing about her personality,” he said, pointing out that she was “quite wild” at the beginning of her career, but has settled down. Sunday’s victory was her first win at the Grand Prix level.
Ward’s horse, Contagious, a 12-year-old gelding, was coming off a great performance at the Tokyo Olympics, where the U.S. won the team silver medal after a jump-off with Sweden. The fact that the horse was able to compete and remain in top form just a few weeks after being shipped back from Japan was a team effort, Ward said.
“My team has that horse in spectacular form right now. It’s nice he was able to return home in great health and looked fit and ready to go, coming from the other side of the world. It’s a testament to the condition he’s in, and the care our team gives him.”
Riley’s horse, Robin, a 16-year-old gelding, already had a successful show record at the Grand Prix level when she got him from Ward, she said, adding that they’ve developed a strong partnership in recent years.
“He came from McLain, and he knew the ropes,” she said. “Over the last two years, we’ve gotten to know each other so well. He’s just a machine. I love the horse and think he’s one of the best in the world right now.”
While the horses and riders were lauded for efforts after the main event on Sunday, Ward also took time to applaud the Hampton Classic Horse Show staff for making the show a success in the face of several unexpected challenges. Just a few days after having to take down and rebuild the tents and other infrastructure of the grounds because of Hurricane Henri, the Classic team was also forced to rip up the grass Grand Prix field and re-surface it with new dirt footing over the course of 48 hours when it was discovered on opening day that the grass field, newly re-installed in 2018, was not holding up sufficiently to run the classes safely.
The jump-off each year typically features at least one tight turn, a test to challenge the horses and riders, and in this year’s jump-off, the effort from the Jaguar jump to red-and-white vertical that was the highest jump on course, was particularly tough. The elements were the third- and second-to-last obstacles on the jump-off course, respectively, and provided the challenge they were meant to but, most importantly, the new footing in crucial areas like that held up, the riders said. The 16-obstacle course that the field of riders faced before the jump-off included a triple combination, a double combination with just one stride in between, and several rollback turns. Notably missing from this year’s Grand Prix course was the open water jump, typically a feature on the grass surface.
“It was an incredibly monumental effort that was made by the staff to make the event a success this year,” Ward said in speaking about that stretch of the jump-off course, and the overall effort it took to rip up and resurface the giant field in a matter of 48 hours with new footing that would be safe for the horses and riders. “When you have a rollback [turn] to what was the biggest fence, I think all of us were a tiny bit monitoring the risk level on the turn, but the ground held great there, I didn’t see any slipping.
“I wish Daniel had lost his footing a little,” Ward quipped. “But hats off to the [Hampton Classic team] for pulling that off.”