Maher narrowly misses out on a World Championship individual medal

Monday, 15 August 2022

The final day of showjumping at every World Champion has a magical appeal to it. After three rounds of giving it their all, the world’s elite go head-to-head for one of the sport’s most coveted prizes – to be crowned the champion of the world. On this vein, this year’s Agria FEI World Jumping Championship Individual Final dawned with a heightened anticipation.

The top 25 riders after the team honours were eligible to contest today’s final, which is split into two parts. All 25 contenders would tackle the Round A course, then the top 12 would progress to Round B to decide the medals. Ben Maher and the Oakingham Stud’s Faltic HB, and Scott Brash and Lady Pauline Harris and Lady Pauline Kirkham’s Hello Jefferson, had qualified outright in seventh and 11th respectively. Harry Charles and Romeo 88, owned by Ann Thompson, were invited to come forward when there were some withdrawals from the list of those qualified, but the Hampshire-based rider elected to save his horse for another day.

Scott Brash and Hello Jefferson

Peebleshire-native Scott Brash and Hello Jefferson were key players in securing the historic British team bronze and had shown strong form in the build-up to the championship and since arriving. This made them contenders for the individual title, before an uncharacteristic eight faults in the team final left them off the pace. However, anything can happen on the final day of a championships, plus there were vital Longines ranking points at stake, too.

The 13-year-old gelding started well – looking fresh and willing – and navigated the 1.60 metre testing track with ease. They cleared the parallel at seven, then Scott opened the horse out to attack the water, which he also cleared but, in slowing up for the following tall upright, he nudged the top bar and it fell to the sand – it was four faults to add. They were clear the remainder and inside the time to finish on 12.23 penalties.

“I feel that Jefferson is a bit tense today, even on the last line he was getting strong with me,” explained Scott. “There’s a bit of atmosphere in there, so yeah, it’s just the way it goes. One down – it’s not bad, but I think we were unlucky to have the fence. I just felt get him a bit more tense than I would like him to have the best result.’

‘You learn from your mistakes, and I still believe he is a championship horse, and he’s still got more championships in him, that’s for sure. So, we have learned a lot this week and I think we can still go well in future championships,” he concluded.

It was now a case of waiting to see if he’d make the final 12 that would progress through to Round B of the final.

Ben Maher and Faltic HB

Olympic champion Ben Maher may have travelled Oakingham Stud’s Faltic HB to Herning as a late replacement for Explosion W, but the small yet powerful stallion has more than proved he’s a championship horse this week with some vital clear rounds. Going into today’s final, they started with a total of 5.72 from eighth position.

Their first round was an immaculate, well-judged clear, with the stallion listening intently to his rider and putting in maximum effort over each of the maximum height and dimension obstacles. The clear round maintained his eighth place and duly qualified them for the final round. Sadly, Scott and Hello Jefferson just missed out, and finished their trip to Herning in 17th place.

The final round

After an hour break, the course was set for the decisive final round where the top 12 to battle it out. Early clears proved a premium around the tough course, with the leaderboard doing plenty of shuffling. Then, it was Ben and Faltic’s turn. They entered the bustling arena to a rapturous welcome as Ben was announced as the current Olympic champion and world number seven, and quickly set off in that trademark Maher rhythm. The Baltic VDL-sired stallion was really jumping, showing no signs of the rigors of the past few days, but sadly they dislodged fence seven. Ben used his experience to keep the rest of the round on track, and they finished the remainder clear and in the time. So, it was four to add for a finishing score of 9.72.

Further combinations jumped and a number faulted, so Ben made a rise up the leaderboard to sit behind Maikel van der Vleuten and Beauville NOP, bronze medallists in Tokyo for the Netherlands, and the excitement in the British camp began to rise at the prospect that a medal may be in his grasp. It was down to the top three. Jerome Guery and Quel Homme du Hus posted an immaculate clear to go into the lead. Next up was Sweden’s Jens Fredricson and Markan Cosmoplit, part of the gold medal team, but the duo couldn’t keep their form for one final push and it was three down and time penalty to drop them out of the podium placings, promoting Ben to third. It was down to the final pairing, Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and King Edward. The little horse hasn’t looked like touching a fence all week and many were behind them after they narrowly missing out on a medal in Tokyo last summer.

The stadium fell into silence as their round started and many held their breath. By the end of a nail-biting round, it was a clear – not a fence looked like falling and a second world jumping championship gold medal of the week was headed to Sweden. It meant Ben and Faltic finished in fourth place – a massive achievement – and he, and proud owners Oakingham Stud, now know they have a true championship horse in their stables. Faltic has jumped with great heart all week and it’s clear that this partnership will continue to grow – the brave little stallion has proved to be more than a super sub on the reserves bench.

“I’m happy,” said Ben. “If you’d have offered me that result last week before leaving home, I would have taken that. First priority was for the team to get qualified, then to get a medal was a bonus on top of that. I knew on Friday evening that having the first fence down was going to be costly this weekend for the individual. For him to come out when he was a little bit tired – it’s been hot this week and again he jumped incredibly all day. Again we had a very, very foolish mistake – I feel like I rode well the whole week, but could always do better, and in the end it just didn’t go our way.”

He went on to say; “He’s been produced by Oakingham Stud for most of his life and they kindly gave him to me the end of last year, so he’s had a great upbringing. My job was to just bring him to that next level, and we’ve been carrying him on slowly, just building him up through the year. It wasn’t the first idea to bring him here, obviously, but he stepped in and proved that he’s a great horse. A lot of people have been a part of this horse’s career and clearly have done a good job.”

Did Ben have him marked as a championship horse when he took the ride on a year ago? “At the time, I wouldn’t have said that wasn’t possible back then, but these are great horses, and our job is to train and to build them up and get them fit and produce them over months. It’s not a two-month thing, it takes years to produce horses to this level and he’s been feeling good. This weekend, the one thing I learned about him is he has the fight – he tries, he gave it his all this week, and they were big jumps with a small horse.”

And to round off his Herning experience, Ben added; ‘It’s been a great week, to get the team qualified. I have an amazing team of horses and owners behind me, so this gives us a push towards Paris now – we can start to plan and work backwards. It’s very exciting, we have an incredible team of good, young riders and horses, and everyone says how great Sweden is and their team of horses, but we could have also have won this year. There were a lot of silly mistakes amongst us that we can all learn from, so I think what we we can take out from this week is that we have a team capable of medalling at these championships for the next few years now. It’s exciting times.

“Championships are always tough. It’s a long week. It’s a lot for a rider because there’s a lot of waiting around. You have to mentally switch on and off at the right times, but I have a lot of experience now. I know what’s expected when we come here and try to use that to my advantage now, try to help Joe and Harry as well – it’s my job and Scott’s job to help them where we see that they need that, especially on Friday after not a great day the day before. So, it’s a great team environment.”

Much of which to be proud

This week in Herning, two experienced riders – albeit with Ben contesting a reserve horse on his championship debut – paired with two newcomers to senior championship levels, all riding world-class horses, took on the best in the world and brough home a team bronze medal and finished with two individuals in the top 18, so there’s much for the British squad to be satisfied about. This was clearly a team which worked – they supported one another, picked each other up when needed, and just had a sense of determination to succeed about them. Ably backed up by the support staff and practitioners, grooms, coaches and, of course, owners, this group promises to be one that we’ll see more of atop a podium. With under 720 days to go until Paris, it’ll be exciting to see what unfolds in this newest chapter of British showjumping.