Olympic gold medallist Ben Maher carried all before him at Olympia, The London International Horse Show, when he scored wins number three and four, including a €15,000 prize-pot in the winner-takes-all Christmas Masters.
This class is for the seven leading riders of the show and the prize pot increases in increments of €500 with every clear round; tactics come into it as riders choose which fences they want heightened. A fence down means elimination.
Laura Renwick was first to depart, with an unfortunate fence down in the first round, and the popular Italian, Luca Maria Moneta, left in the second.
The other five lasted until the fifth and final round, which is against the clock. First to go, Ben’s Olympic team mate Scott Brash on new ride Hello Ursula, set a cracking target with a clear in 23.38, but Roger Yves Bost was even faster on 22.50.
Neither Pius Schwizer nor Geir Gulliksen could beat that, and the Frenchman looked to have it in the bag until Ben Maher entered the arena on the mighty stallion Tripple X and produced a vintage display of unflustered horsemanship and power jumping.
“I was in a bit of a dilemma about whether to go for it, bearing in mind that we’ve got the World Cup tomorrow and a pressurised jump-off isn’t the best preparation,” admitted Ben.
“But the jump-off track couldn’t have been better for him and he could easily take out the stride to the double which was needed to win. It’s a great win and it’s given me confidence for the big class to come.”
Ben’s run of form at the show continued when he scored a win in the Kingsland Christmas Tree Stakes with Milena 8, with home he won three classes at Olympia in 2011.
“It was quite a tough course as it was quite big for a speed class,” said Ben, who is currently H&M Leading Rider for the show. “Every stride around the course counted but I took a planned risk to the last. It was riding as a holding six strides or a crazy five and I opted for the five.
“Coming down to it, I was thinking I should have held for six, but, then, Marcus Ehning [who finished second], rode six and said he was thinking he should have gone for five.”
The crowd was thrilled by the performance of riders in the class and got right behind all of the competitors.
“The British riders get so much support here because the crowd is amazing,” said Ben. “They are what makes this the best show in the world.”
The cheerful Irishman Cian O’Connor was back on the winner’s rostrum after scoring a relatively facile victory in the Santa Stakes on Splendor.
The Olympic bronze medallist had 1.32 seconds in hand to beat leading French lady rider Penelope Leprevost on Nice Stephanie. Portugal’s Luciana Diniz, on Fit for Fun 13, opted for a steady clear for third place.
“I was lucky Roger Yves Bost had a fence down or it might have been different,” admitted Cian. “It’s always great to win any class, but hearing your national anthem in London is very special. This little city has been lucky for me this year.”
Cian is competing Splendor for his Egyptian owner/rider, Ahmed Tolba, who is a university student in Cairo. The 13-year-old chestnut by Lester will have a day off tomorrow (Saturday) before jumping in Sunday’s grand prix.
Splendor’s trademark is an explosive buck after the last fence. “When you put your leg on him, he sometimes bucks, so you have to sit tight,” explained Cian.
Teenager Emily Ward produced one of the most thrilling wins of the week in the Team Murka and the World Class Programme under-23 Championship with Michael Whitaker’s Witch.
This class has often been the pointer to future success – one former champion is Olympic gold medallist Scott Brash – and, aged just 13, Emily re-wrote history as the youngest winner.
She gave a textbook display of her exceptional talent to steal the class as the last to go. With the crowd cheering her on, she took Michael’s advice not to make a tight turn into a double which had caused many of her rivals to fault and the tactics worked to perfection.
“She such a fast and flexible horse, so I was able to make time up elsewhere on the course,” said Emily. “And the crowd really helped lift us as well as raising the roof!”
Despite her youth, Emily has become a force to be reckoned with. She is one of Britain’s most successful pony riders and is also now beating senior rivals and enjoying victories in major national horse show jumping classes. However, she remains modest about her skills.
“It was a dream just to come here and jump in this class,” said Emily. “I never expected to win.”
Today the show also hosted the SEIB/British Riding Clubs Quadrille of the Year Championship. The four finalist teams were judged by Jennie Loriston-Clarke, Dressage Performance Manager Richard Waygood and Olympic commentator David Luck.
The exceptionally colourful and well-executed performance of Flight Of Fancy – Another Day In Paradise by Moat View Riding Club clinched this year’s title, ahead of Saffron Waldon Riding Club’s nautical themed A Life On The Ocean Wave.
“The artistic interpretation, execution and costumes worn by the winners stole the show,” said Major Waygood, referring to the team’s brightly coloured feather and fairylight outfits. “We were also very impressed with the runners up.”
A number of leading figures in the equestrian world were honoured in Olympia’s arena. British riders Ben Maher, Guy Williams, Scott Brash and Tina Fletcher received FEI Badges of Honour; Ben and Scott plus Will Connell, Peter Charles, Tim Hadaway, Zara Phillips, Michel Assouline and Andrew McLachlan all received BEF medals of honour, and Alec Lochore and Steven Renoir, directors of competition at Greenwich, were recognised by the international publication L’Annee Hippique.