Azur HH ? A true Queen!

For the last eight years, McLain Ward and Azur HH have formed one of the most iconic partnerships on the global circuit. Together they have won a World Cup title (in 2017) and a number of Grand Prix events, achieving success that has led to Azur HH being regarded for many years as the best mare in the world.

For once, we’re not going to save the best for last. Azur HH’s altogether untypical and unlikely guilty pleasure is cheese pizza. The 16-year-old bay just loves it, and it also happens to be her favourite reward after a clear round in a Grand Prix event. “When we’re competing in the USA, we sometimes order pizza for lunch. When she sees the Papa John’s van pull up, she starts pawing at the floor impatiently in her stable,” said McLain Ward’s groom Virginie Casterman, who has been looking after the photogenic Azur for the last five years. And when she hears the word “pizza”, the beautiful bay starts to flare her nostrils and prick her ears up, in preparation for her next titbit. If you didn’t know her, you’d think it was her way of asking why she’s not being paid enough attention.

Love at second sight

v © Soraya Exquis

“She’s a queen and she knows she can get anything she wants,” joked Ward. “I swear she’s more intelligent than any of us. Out in the arena, she’s a warrior. She fights for me.” Over the years, the mare and her rider have built up a long and productive relationship based on trust. However, it was not exactly a case of love at first sight between the two. When the Belgian rider François Mathy presented her to Ward for the first time, she was five and still very much on the wild side, too much for the liking of the double Olympic team champion, who was reluctant even to saddle her up. “The first time I tried her, it was late in the evening and she was completely electric. She had spent a few years perfecting her art with François, and luckily for me he had fallen for her and bought her, despite my refusal to buy her for myself. When she was eight, she was still as talented as ever, but she’d refined her technique. So it was love at second sight for me, which also turned out to be more expensive too (laughs).”

An outstanding mare

b © Soraya Exquis

Tall, beautiful, impressive, gentle, sensitive and playful, Azur HH has it all. Ward’s other groom, Lee, who has been working with him for 35 years, calls her “out of this world”. It’s hard not to fall for her, with that elegant white stripe down her face and her inquisitive eyes. “It’s a privilege to have ridden her for so many years,” said Ward, clearly moved. “She’s definitely one of those horses that’s changed my life and made a mark on my career, along with Sapphire maybe.” Though the US rider has competed with Azur many times, she never ceases to surprise and amaze him. “She was still carrying a bit of an injury last year,” he explained. “It wasn’t serious but I was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t her last year before being put out to pasture. As it turned out, it only took a few little changes here and there, particularly with her shoes, for her to get back into Olympic shape. She was so jealous of her stable mates when we went off to compete, but she’s delighted to be able to join us again now.”

The pair have their own little traditions, which include Ward whispering in her ear before a Grand Prix 5* event, things like: “You don’t owe me a round or an extra obstacle, but it would be fantastic if we could get it right again today.” Could it be that touching little moments like that are the secret of their success? Out of six GP starts this year, Azur has gone clear in five of them, with just a solitary pole going down in Prague.

Two days after this article was written, McLain Ward and HH Azur scored a superb win in the Rolex Grand Prix in Geneva, the US rider’s first Grand Slam title.

CHI Geneve press release by Aurore Favre