Team GB’s Ben Maher soars to Olympic showjumping gold
Great Britain’s Ben Maher produced a fast and fearless performance to secure showjumping gold on Explosion W in a jump-off at Tokyo Equestrian Park on Wednesday.
An astonishingly quick round by Maher and Explosion – they finished the course in 37.85sec – pipped the Swedish rider Peder Fredricson to the top spot by 17 hundredths of a second. The Netherlands’ Maikel van der Vleuten finished in bronze position.
The 38-year-old retained the title for Team GB in the six-rider jump-off, following in the footsteps of Nick Skelton, who won the title aged 58 in Rio in 2016 and became Britain’s eldest Olympic gold medallist since 1908. It is Maher’s second Olympic gold medal, after his success in the team jumping event at London 2012.
All smiles after the medal ceremony, Maher said that Explosion’s form in recent weeks had increased pressure and expectation on the pair. “It’s not so easy. We’re riding horses and anything can happen but this horse is just in a different world,” he said. “I don’t even remember what I was doing in the jump-off, to be honest. I had my plan, I just went and he just gave me everything and really I gave everything to him.”
Maher’s teammates Harry Charles and Scott Brash failed to make the jump-off for the individual showjumping, with Brash agonisingly close, going clear on Hello Jefferson but finishing 0.45sec out of the time limit. Ireland’s trio of Cian O’Connor, Bertram Allen and Darragh Kenny also missed out.
The jump-off course at Equestrian Park proved difficult for even the world’s greatest riders, with world No 1 Daniel Deusser of Germany and Switzerland’s Martin Fuchs failing to qualify. To the home nation’s delight, 43-year-old Japanese rider Daisuke Fukushima, ranked 600 in the world, defied expectation to reach the jump-off.
A tense affair, Maher had to watch Fredricson, a favourite to win this competition, perform a beautiful round in 38.02sec. It looked unbeatable but showing all of the bravery, controlled adrenaline and technique required, Maher rode Explosion right to the edge of the horse’s ability. In a sensational round, with clearance on jumps to equal Pegasus, Maher pushed Explosion just milliseconds faster.
Maher later revealed that after Explosion had not taken the second and third jump as fast as he wanted, he had taken a risk speeding up across the middle of the course.
“We read each other’s minds, we’re very in sync and he did question me,” said Maher. “I felt a moment of hesitation and he kind of grew wings, he can do that, that’s what sets him apart from the rest of the horses.”
It comes after a strong showing from Team GB’s equestrians, who have taken five medals including two golds in this Games. On Monday the eventing team of Oliver Townend, Laura Collett and Tom McEwen won gold – an event they had not won since 1972. On the same day McEwen added silver in the individual eventing. That was after a team dressage bronze and Charlotte Dujardin’s historic individual dressage bronze – equalling GB’s best medal tally in equestrian at London 2012.
The medal will be the pinnacle of a miraculous recovery for Maher, who was beset with injury for years after a series of bad falls, struggling at times to even put on his riding boots.
The Enfield-born equestrian began riding when he was eight, had serious back surgery in 2020, and may have been unable to compete in the Tokyo Games at all if they had not been postponed.
He has been paired with Explosion – widely considered to be one of the best horses in the world, and known affectionately as the BFG – since 2018.
Maher has spoken of the steed’s powerful intelligence. Due to get married to the US showjumper Sophie Gracida, Maher acknowledged that he already has one life partner. “Yeah, she knows she has to share,” he said.
The jumping team finals are on Saturday with qualifying taking place on Friday.