Ben Maher sealed the 2018 Longines Global Champions Tour title by racing to his third victory of the season in Rome.
The Briton and his young Dutch horse Explosion W were the last to go in a five-man jump-off at the scenic Stadio dei Marmi.
With his immediate rivals for the overall title, Italy’s Alberto Zorzi and defending LGCT champion Harrie Smolders of the Netherlands, failing to qualify for the jump-off, the pressure was on in the 15th leg of the 16-leg tour.
But Explosion W, a nine-year-old chestnut gelding, did not disappoint his rider. The pair overhauled leader Henrik van Eckermann of Sweden on the final stretch – a long gallop to a tricky 1.60-meter vertical – to clinch victory in a time of 37.45 seconds.
“I’ve been on the Tour for a long time and I have never come close,” Maher told LGCT TV after winning the overall title. “To finally win is a dream come true.”
Maher, who also won in Madrid and Saint Tropez, took the title with one leg of the season still to come, in Doha in November. He will also be competing at December’s inaugural LGCT Super Grand Prix in Prague, which will see the winner of each of the 16 legs battle against each other in a lucrative season finale.
Maher, 35, started riding when he was eight years old. After competing in pony classes, he learned his craft with fellow British rider Liz Edgar, before moving to Switzerland for two years to work at the stables of Swiss show jumper Beat Mandli.
But top show jumping horses don’t come cheap. Maher relies on backing from horse owners and sponsors. For a few years after clinching team gold for Britain at the 2012 London Olympics, he struggled to hang on to his rides.
“I had a couple of years where I didn’t have the horsepower,” he told CNN Sport last month, “but then these couple of younger horses have come through very fast this year. There were tough and quieter times but they make you stronger when you come through them.
“There’s those head in hands moments on a flight home that seem even worse when you’ve lost badly. But I never doubted I’d get back up to the top.”
Jan Tops, the LGCT president and founder and a former Olympic champion himself, was impressed by Maher’s consistency and dominance this season.
“There is no one who deserved it more than Ben this season,” the Dutchman told a news conference. “He has two great horses in super shape…He managed his horses well, he had a real goal to win this.
“For me, it’s the most difficult to win of everything, to win over 16 legs against all the best horses and riders in the world, you have to have a really good plan, good horses, great management and of course a bit of luck. He had everything.”
Maher paid tribute to his horse.
“Explosion is phenomenal for his age,” he said. “To finish the championships one show early and to finish in style like this, last to go in the jump-off, is something I will remember for a long time.”
And this may only be the start for Maher.
“I feel fit myself, I feel confident, and my team and my horses right now are in a different league, and for me to be a part of that is really something special,” he said.
Springsteen wins team event
With one more leg to go, the Global Champions League team event is going down to the wire after series leader the London Knights, with Maher and Belgium’s Olivier Philippaerts, finished in fourth place in Rome.
Jessica Springsteen, the daughter of US rock star Bruce Springsteen, and Ireland’s Denis Lynch each produced a double clear to clinch the two-day Rome team event for the Miami Celtics, which climbed to third place on the overall leaderboard with 244 points.
“This was a really important win for us today and we did well to sneak back into the Top four,” Springsteen told the Tour website. “It is great.”
The Knights remain the overall leaders with 323 points, just 23 points clear of Valkenswaard United, which finished in eighth place in Rome.
The all-female team of St Tropez Pirates, with two-time LGCT winner Edwina Tops-Alexander and Greek shipping heiress Athina Onassis, finished second in Rome with a total of two penalties, followed by Czech Anna Kellnerova and Sweden’s Peder Fredricson of Prague Lions on six penalties.
The course, designed by Italy’s Uliano Vezzani, featured a tricky Romulus and Remus designed wall, which looked like a wolf and spooked a couple of horses, including Fredricson’s Hansson WL’s, who initially refused to jump it.
“It was an amazing competition, these two rounds,” Tops-Alexander, of Australia, told a news conference. “I’ve never seen so many faults, and cricket scores, you could say.”
The next edition of both the LGCT and the Champions League will be staged in Doha, Qatar between November 8 and 10.