Ben Maher’s a busy man, jetting back and forth across Florida to jump in two grand prix classes within eight hours.
We had to interview him via speakerphone after his win in the $50,000 Live Oak Grand Prix CSI-W in Ocala, Fla., because he was racing to catch a plane to fly back to Wellington, Fla., to ride in the grand prix at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival. (He ended up fifth in that class with Urico after a rail in the jump-off.)
Maher has won four grand prix classes at WEF with his top horses, Cella and Urico, but on March 22 he brought Aristo Z to Live Oak and added another title.
“He’s a great asset to have in the barn along with Urico and Cella. He’s able to come here and jump in this competition and help out, which helps a great team,” Maher said.
Aristo Z, 9, has been in Maher’s barn for four years, and made his 1.50-meter debut in 2012. Maher wasn’t sure what to expect from Leopoldo Palacios’ course at Live Oak. “It was definitely a bit more difficult course than I was expecting,” he said. “Leopoldo is one of the best designers in the world; he had you running a bit early in the course and then used several combinations that could be jumped off an extra stride, which suited my horse.”
The start list for the class included 39 riders from 13 different nationalities and included heavy hitters like McLain Ward (who finished seventh with a 1-time fault round on Cannavaro D), German rider Daniel Deusser, Irish Cian O’Connor, and many more.
In the jump-off, Maher made it look easy, slicing a turn back to a plank vertical designed to look like a black four-board fence with cool confidence. He and the 10-year-old chestnut gelding stopped the timers just a fraction of a second faster than Ashlee Bond Clarke on Agrostar.
And Clarke knows just where she lost the class—she whoaed in a line from an oxer to a vertical in the jump-off, and Agrostar took her at her word, almost halting. “I wanted to wait and he got a little bit confused,” Clarke said. “He thought ‘Oh, you want me to stop,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, go!’ So he jumped the vertical a little funny and it got me a bit jumbled. I regrouped and the rest was a lot smoother.”
After the class, Clarke tweeted “Thanks Ben, it was a lot of fun and I’m honored to be second to you any day!”
Just a week ago, Clarke topped the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix  at the HITS Desert Circuit on Chela LS, and she’s in Ocala to try and score a double in the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Ocala on March 24. She’s got her whole string with her, as she’s on her way to Europe for the spring and summer.
One of the stops on her tour will be the Longines FEI World Cup Final in Lyon, France on April 18-21—her second place at Live Oak clinched her spot. She and fellow Californian Jenni McAllister were battling for the World Cup third berth, and McAllister also came to Live Oak and qualified for the jump-off.
“If she’d been sixth place or better, she was going to beat me, and she was the first one to go clear [in the first round],” Clarke said. “So then, I was like ‘I have to go clear.’ When she had the rail in the jump-off, luckily for me and unfortunately for her, it made my job a little easier. She definitely made me work for it; it was very stressful; I can’t lie, I was sweating it.”
Even though the Live Oak win ensured Maher earned a spot at the Longines FEI World Cup Final in the Western European League qualifying, he doesn’t have it on his schedule. “It’s not in my plans—definitely not with any of the horses that are here in the U.S. now. I think I’ll have a quiet April and start our show season in Europe in May,” he said.
Part of the reason Maher brought Aristo Z to Live Oak is to support co-organizer Chester Weber, the four-in-hand driver who hosts the show on his Live Oak Plantation. Weber drives Jane Clark’s horses, while Maher rides them. “I have to say it was one of the most well organized and with the most friendly atmosphere that I’ve ever been to. It’s one I’ll look forward to next year,” Maher said.
This is the third year that the Live Oak Grand Prix has run; it joined the Live Oak combined driving competition, which has more than a decade of history. The grand prix has gained popularity quickly; this year was the first that it ran under Fédération Equestre Internationale rules and was a World Cup qualifier.
“We’ve always decided that if we’re going to do this, we want to do it at the highest level,” said Weber, who organizes the event along with his sister, Juliet Reid. “That seemed like the next logical step, to try and have a World Cup qualifier. I think having a World Cup qualifier helped us attract riders and I think if we do our job and impress them, they’ll come back.”
Crowds packed the stands at the show; they’d spent the morning watching the combined driving marathon phase, then enjoyed a presentation of the Budweiser Clydesdales in the middle of the day, and the grand prix in the afternoon.
$50,000 Live Oak Grand Prix CSI-W
- Ben Maher/Aristo Z 0-0/42.48
- Ashlee Bond Clarke/Agrostar 0-0/42.73
- Angel Karoyli/Indiana 127 0-0/43.13
- Kaitlin Campbell/Rocky W 0-0/43.21
- Benjamin Meredith/Bernadien van Westuur 0-4/42.70
- Jenni McAllister/Casseur de Prix 0-4/45.30