WEG-bound Sharn Wordley is testament to the old adage that nothing worth having comes easy. As New Zealand’s highest-ranked jumper he’s put plenty of years and tears into being successful at top level however, it took him a long time to crack it on the international stage.
“I was 39 when I first did well internationally,” says the 44-year-old US-based rider who left New Zealand just before his 18th birthday. “It took a while! I wasn’t a very good rider so I had to figure that out, then how to make money and then how to get good horses.”
The 2018 Games will be his first. He rode for New Zealand at the Beijing Olympic Games but says in hindsight his horse just wasn’t ready. “At 10 years old I watched (Sir) Mark Todd win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games and made my decision right there that I wanted to go too.”
But years and experience have slightly altered that view. Over the past two years he has pocketed around $NZ1.5 million in prize money. With this year’s WEG in his sights, it meant changing his programme. “I was conserving my horses rather than aiming for the big prize money so that has put a bit of a dent in the bank balance.”
Spruce Meadows was part of his WEG build-up and while it didn’t all go his way at the prestigious 5* show, he was still very pleased with both Casper and Barnetta.
Sharn was always confident he would be selected for the 2018 WEG team. “Our last couple of seasons have been solid and we have had a lot of top 10 placings at 5* shows. We’ve been in the top 100 in the world for the last three years pretty much – it isn’t easy to maintain and this year I have actually dropped a little because of my WEG campaign and just being focussed on a different programme.”
But he’s still amped to be going to his very first WEG. “I’ve wanted to go for a while but just haven’t had the horse. After the (2008) Olympics when my horse was not really up to that level I decided not to do a championship until I had a good enough horse to at least be respectable. Now I have two.”
It’s very special for this former Wellington lad to be donning a silver fern. “I don’t get to ride with any New Zealanders or in anything that is a remotely Kiwi environment, so it is great to be getting everyone together along with all our supporters.”
As comfortable as it is to have the WEG in his own backyard, Sharn says it would be far more exciting to be “somewhere cool” like Rome or Aachen.
But the local means he can share a little local knowledge. “Potentially it could be really hot at that time of year. Really, it is in the middle of nowhere. It is a very unique facility and in the middle of the woods. When you drive over the hill and see it, it is impressive. We will all have a great time.”
He is quick to remind everyone that Tryon stepped in to host the 2018 Games after Bromont ducked out, meaning far less time to organise everything. “They have been hustling to get it ready and we have to be mindful it has been tough for them. This is an organisation that really tries to do everything to the very best. They have bitten off a lot here.”
Sharn’s horses Casper and Barnetta are very similar. “Casper jumped at Spruce this year and was very unlucky not to be in the top three in the $500,000 5* class – he is a little spooky of other horses and people and unfortunately we had a steward behind one of the jumps that gave him a fright and we had a rail down. As a result we placed seventh which is still pretty good. There were only two clean in the class and he would have been third. Barnetta has twice been second in the US Open in Central Park and third in Toronto last year. They are both good horses.”
Their efforts allow him to be consistent. “For me in the modern sport, doing well is one thing, but to be consistent and win prize money against some of the best in the world over multiple years makes me feel I am doing my job correctly. I feel I am keeping my horses at that highest level consistently and it feels good to be doing that.”
But it hasn’t always been beer and skittles. Sharn grew up in Wellington. His first pony came at five – a stroppy little chestnut mare called Josephine whose mission in life was to buck her equally feisty young rider off.
“I didn’t win any ribbons – I couldn’t even stay on her!” That winning feeling didn’t come until his third pony – Tumbleweed. “We were at a little gymkhana at John Grey’s parents’ place and I won the jumping prize.” The pride in his voice covers the miles between the US and New Zealand as clear as a bell.
It was during those early days he first met his WEG team mates too. “We have some experienced and very good riders and great horses on the team. Bruce (Goodin) always gives 150% and Daniel – well, he has the ability to pull it all out for a championship. He is such a passionate and positive rider. Sam is great too and has a very good horse. With the right mindset, a top 10 team finish is on. I would be really happy with that, but we will be fighting every stop of the way. We are competing with the best in the world. If it is our day, I think we can do well. If not, I know we will give it a good college try . . . the very best shot we can.”
He’s hopeful mum Della Whittaker will side line to watch him compete at WEG.
Looking to the future, Sharn says he has some very exciting young horses coming through in Cobalou and Floyd W. “They will definitely bolster the team in the next couple of years.”
But for him, it is all about doing what he loves. “I just enjoy showjumping and going to shows. It is difficult, but I love the challenge of it.”
He splits his time between his two farms in Wellington, Florida, and Kentucky. With him every step of the way is his “biggest supporter – and not yet my fiancé” Lauren Balcomb, an Australian eventer and showjumper. “I am very happy with where I am at – I have a lovely partner and a couple of lovely farms and a good business . . . life is good.”
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison