McLain Ward Reacts to News of Sapphire's Negative Test Results

U.S. show jumper McLain Ward reacts to news of negative test results on his mare Sapphire after her disqualification from the 2010 World Cup Show Jumping Finals.

May 26, 2010 — A terse, two-paragraph missive from the FEI this morning (at right) confirmed what McLain Ward already knew: Leg swabs on his World Cup show jumping finals mount, Sapphire, were negative.

Legs are swabbed to determine whether any forbidden substances have been used on a horse to make it lift its legs higher over a jump, because administration of the substances causes pain if the animal hits a pole.

“No prohibited substances were found,” concluded the statement, which did not mention Sapphire by name, only that all leg swabs for entries at the show were clean. It seemed precious few words in the wake of a disaster for McLain and the U.S. contingent in horse sports’ biggest scandal of the year–at least so far.

The conclusion doesn’t do McLain much good now, after he lost what quite possibly could be the chance of a lifetime to take an individual global championship on the mare with whom he earned two Olympic team gold medals.

McLain and Sapphire, who were in the lead after two legs of the Cup finals in Geneva, Switzerland, last month, were eliminated from the competition after poking and prodding led officials to conclude the mare had a hypersensitive spot on a tiny area of one leg. (Read more in The Jurga Report.) While the FEI said at the time that McLain and his crew were not being accused of any wrongdoing, the tests for the Medication Control Program (MCP) were the final word.

“It’s nice to have it publicly cleared, but we had no doubt of the result,” said McLain, who had been informed last week that all urine and blood tests on his mare were negative.

So now what?

He said he was waiting for a hearing from an FEI tribunal as the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which protested his elimination in Switzerland, pursues the case. No decision, however, will be able to reclaim McLain’s grasp on a title that seemed so near, with just one segment to go in the finals, and yet so far, when he wasn’t allowed to compete in the last phase.

McLain Ward and Sapphire on their way to team gold at the 2008 Olympic Games. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

So, he commented, “We go forward…the equestrian community has really come together and the federation has set an example of how federations should act. It’s important to athletes, which is great, a nice silver lining. I hope this can be prevented in the future, because it’s obviously irreversible consequences. It’s a really tragic situation that this has happened, and it’s obviously devastating to us associated with Sapphire and myself and our country as a whole.”

McLain, who is in Rome preparing to ride in the Nations’ Cup there, showed how well Sapphire is doing by winning the grand prix in La Baule, France, with her earlier this month.

He said the Europeans were “very supportive” following the victory. “I haven’t felt anything but support from fellow riders and the equestrian community in general,” he said.

McLain noted Sapphire showed “the form that she’s been in for at least the last four years, and pretty much the last eight. She does it week in and week out, other than an odd exception when everybody has a bad day. The horse that won in La Baule is the same horse, no better, no worse, than the horse that was in Geneva, or the horse that was in Calgary (where she won the world’s richest grand prix last year) or the horse that was in the Olympics; same horse, same condition.”

McLain has become an activist with his role as vice president of the new North American Riders Group (NARG), which is tasked with improving conditions for the show jumping sport in this country, Canada and Mexico. (Read more in On the Rail: Giving Competitors a Voice.)

He was asked if NARG will take a stand on who should be the next president of the FEI, the person who will set the tone for the world governing body. Princess Haya of Jordan, the current president, is running for re-election this November in Taipei, but two other candidates have also been announced. They are FEI First Vice President Sven Holmberg of Sweden and Henk Rottinghuis of the Netherlands, who has been an amateur dressage rider and involved with international organizational work.

McLain mentioned that work needs to be done “researching and learning the different candidates. It’s all in the beginning stages.”

He added, however, “I think it is more than likely that at some point NARG will take a position, but not before they have all the information, weighing not only what the board feels but also the view of our supporting members.”

NARG, he commented, is “a voice that’s starting to be heard. It’s a little bit of a long road. I hope in the end the most important thing is that this doesn’t happen to athletes again.”

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