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The perfect partnership: Ben Maher and Explosion W bring the Olympic gold home for Britain

Wednesday, 04 August 2021
Tokyo Olympic Games

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Great Britain's Ben Maher and Explosion W were crowned Olympic Champions in Tokyo, living up to all the expectations ahead of these Games. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.


Text © World of Showjumping 



Just like at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, the individual gold medal went to Great Britain and the silver to Sweden. This time around, it was Ben Maher who stepped to the top of the podium after three outstanding rounds with his incredible partner Explosion W (Chacco-Blue x Baloubet du Rouet – breeder Willy Wijnen) – adding an Olympic gold medal to their ever-growing list of achievements. Impressively, the Vice Champions from the Rio Olympics repeated their feat as Sweden’s Peder Fredricson and All In (Kashmir van Schuttershof x Andiamo Z – breeder Bas Huybregts) took the silver medal yet again. The bronze medal went to the Netherland’s Maikel van der Vleuten and Beauville Z (Bustique x Jumpy des Fontaines – breeder Pascal Habets).

“The short version is there is nothing like him,” an emotional Maher said about Explosion W after securing the gold medal. “Starting from 9-years-old, he was winning five-star Grand Prix classes and then again at 10-years-old. Last year, we had a quite long break – I was in America, had a back operation early in the year and then with Covid we decided to just stay there and not come back to Europe. He competed in one Grand Prix last year, in New York, which he won and then we started a little later this year in order to try to peak at this time. Never again in my lifetime, will I ride a horse like Explosion. I have had some incredible horses and support from some amazing owners, who still have supported me for the last years – but Charlotte Rossetter and Pamela Wright, here at the back at the room, have made it possible to keep him for me for this moment,” Maher said, referring to how Rossetter and Wright stepped in and secured the now 12-year-old gelding for the British rider at the end of 2019. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "Never again in my lifetime, will I ride a horse like Explosion," said an emotional Maher after winning the individual gold in Tokyo. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

All the thirty riders started the individual final on a zero-penalty score, but only six of them managed to keep a clean sheet to move on to the jump-off. The time allowed of 88 seconds also played its part. It kept Cian O’Connor’s magnificent 9-year-old Kilkenny (Cardento x Guidam – breeder Sinead Brennan) out of the jump-off for Ireland – simply because of the time this incredible grey spends in the air – as well as Great Britain’s Scott Brash, who rode a fantastic round on Jefferson (Cooper vd Heffinck x Irco Mena – breeder Bernard Mols) finishing just 0.45 seconds outside the limit. The time allowed also pushed riders to make tough choices: Jerome Guery was among them, with a clear all the way to the final 1.66m upright, the Belgian rider had to hunt the time to make it – which unfortunately caused some communication issues and an unexpected stop at the last fence. 

There were plenty of factors that came into play in Santiago Varela’s track today, which was another masterpiece from the Spanish course designer. With fourteen fences and eighteen efforts – set at 1.65m – there was not a second to breath, everything came fast and with plenty of related distances. The combinations were spectacular, the first at 6ab consisted of the red Shynkio bridge with a wall and a plank where the latter caused plenty of mistakes, then the Traditional Japanese Theatre triple combination at 8abc and finally the Kanto Matsuri combination at 11ab with a triple bar and oxer of a 1.60m spread coming out. Just like yesterday, the design on the jumps was extra-ordinary – with beautiful references to Japanese culture and history throughout. “Yesterday it was tough to get qualified with the new format, so I think that everybody expected it to be big jumping today,” Maher commented. “It is always tough when you get six to the jump-off, I guess in an ideal world it would be nice to have three people in the jump-off – then you are all going home with a medal. It was a big track; he [Santiago] is an excellent course builder and I think it had a little bit of everything today.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping. Vice Champions in Rio, Vice Champions in Tokyo: Sweden's Peder Fredricson and All In. "We were lucky and his peak came just at the right time," Fredricson said about the silver medal. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

The first clear came from Sweden’s Henrik von Eckermann and the lovely 11-year-old gelding King Edward (Edward 28 x Feo – breeder Wim Impens), that jumped better and better throughout the course set for the individual final. Two riders later, a jump-off was secured when the host nation’s own Daisuke Fukushima and Chanyon (Chintan x Cornet Obolensky – breeder Gestüt Lewitz/Paul Schockemöhle) delivered a clear that was nothing short of fantastic – this pair has performed tremendously during these two days of individual competition. 

Sweden really impressed today as all their three riders made it to the jump-off for the medals. First Malin Baryard-Johnsson and the mighty 13-year-old mare Indiana (Kashmir van Schuttershof x Animo's Hallo – breeder W. Vanderlinden-van Turtelboom-Ruys) joined von Eckermann, followed by Peder Fredricson and the little rubber-ball All In – now aged 15. Dutch rider Maikel van der Vleuten was the next to deliver a superb round, joining the jump-off with the 11-year-old gelding Beauville Z. Last to go was Great Britain’s Ben Maher and the 12-year-old gelding Explosion W – the favourites for the gold medal – and they did not disappoint, delivering an outstanding clear round to make it six for the jump-off which would decide the medals. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "It’s a horse that really fights for me, we know each other very well and support each other in the right way," bronze medallist Maikel van der Vleuten said about Beauville Z. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

With lots of stretches to gallop, risk and speed was the name of the game in order to reach the podium and the horses and riders gave it their all. Fukushima and Chanyon were first out, and yet again the two gave the host nation reason to celebrate when crossing the finish line on a clean sheet in a time of 43.76 seconds. Malin Baryard-Johnsson and Indiana were next up, and cut the time down to 40.76 seconds – the new time to beat. That was no problem for Peder Fredricson and All In, who gave it their absolutely everything – pushing the time down to an incredible 38.02. It looked very hard to beat, and the pressure was on Ben Maher and Explosion W as next to go. 

The 38-year-old British rider and the chestnut gelding are crowd-favourites, and have several major Grand Prix wins on the record as well as a silver and a bronze from the 2019 Europeans – but until today, not yet a gold medal. That was about to change as this incredible partnership set off to take on the challenge thrown at them by Fredricson. Displaying zero signs of nerves, Maher delivered the performance of his life – shaving the time down to an unbelievable 37.85 seconds and living up to every expectation there was for him and Explosion W ahead of these Games. 

None of the two remaining riders could catch up with Maher or Fredricson. Von Eckermann finished just outside the medals with a time of 39.71 seconds, while van der Vleuten snatched the bronze as last to go when stopping the clock at 38.90 seconds. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "It was all risk for reward and that’s what we did," Maher said about his strategy for the jump-off, which brought him and Explosion the gold. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“I have twice been second individually, silver medal, at the European Championships on different horses,” Maher said about finally tasting the gold. “It was a small mistake I made on Explosion in Rotterdam, and very expensive – and it took me a little while to get over that mistake there. Everything happened so fast here this evening, and the one thing I told myself was that if I would end up in a position where I was, I would put everything down in the arena and not come out wishing I had done something different. Scott Brash, my teammate, and Peter Charles said to me that it was fast, Peder was extremely fast today. It was very hard to sort of track what was going on in the arena – I can’t remember which one, but they said ‘you have to go as fast as you can go, and as you have done in the past multiple times’. It almost did the job a little bit easier, it was all risk for reward and that’s what we did.”

As to preparing for the Olympic Games through the Covid-19 pandemic, Maher said: “I think it’s been tough for every athlete in every sport, but particularly for the horses it was hard to get some momentum. I spent the winter in Florida, but I did not really compete in many of the big Grand Prix classes. Explosion did not really start to compete until May here in Europe, the plan was always to build him up towards this time – he is a horse that jumps better the more he jumps. That was a little bit why I was nervous this week with the new format, because he can be a bit surprised by special jumps or new fences or with the lights here – but we had a good run in Valkenswaard and the Windsor Grand Prix just recently and he has really hit form. We have come here with a lot of confidence, but at the same time knowing that anything can happen this week.”

The partnership between Explosion and Maher is truly an exceptional one, and the British rider was visibly emotional when speaking about his partner. “It’s just a special bond we have; I really know everything about him, how he is feeling and what’s happening underneath me. There was a moment there in the jump-off to the brown oxer where I am not sure he knew what I was thinking actually, it took me a bit by surprise, but he is just a phenomenal horse, he is more of an athlete than just a horse and the speed that he can go to jumps with is just at another level.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Gold for Ben Maher, silver for Peder Fredricson and bronze for Maikel van der Vleuten in Tokyo. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Silver medallist Peder Fredricson has brought his long-time partner All In back in shape just in time for Tokyo, and told about the pair’s journey towards this silver medal. “I am really happy to have All In back in shape. He was out for one and a half year with no competition, and we had a goal to get him back for this but were running a bit late with Covid and the EHV-1 virus. We were lucky and his peak came just at the right time.”

“I had two horses all into the quarantine, because I did not really know in what way he [All In] would develop," Fredricson continued. "He was really fit because he has been going a lot – road work and in the field – he is out all day and he never gets tired, but he was not really competition fit and that is a different thing, to get jumping fit. We were running a bit late with that, and he had a belly for a long time, it was just now the last month it came up a bit and now he feels in super shape.”

“I was really impressed by all the Swedish horses today, they all jumped great and if the team competition would have been today, we would have had a gold,” Fredricson said. “I am not sure this was the best preparation going into the team competition but it seems like the horses are in good shape and we will for sure do our very best.” 

Van der Vleuten was not at all disappointed to end up with the bronze medal, commenting on his first individual Olympic medal: “To be third now behind these two other horses, I think is not a bad thing. Beauville is a horse that I got when he was 7-years-old, and I started with him in the 1.30m classes and I developed him in a quiet way. His first five-star Grand Prix was in Monaco, the GCT, which we won over there. From that moment the right feeling was there, and the horse gets every time more experience. But, he is still young and I came here with no expectations, but in good shape. It’s a horse that really fights for me, we know each other very well and support each other in the right way. It’s a horse that always fights to get to the other side, and in the end, you get the furthest with these ones.” 

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