Wellington, Fla.—April 2
When the world’s top riders win a big class, the world is their stage. Crowds roar and applaud, hundreds of photos are snapped, hands shook, ribbons and coolers and trophies, all dedicated to highlighting and remembering that moment. That was Ben Maher and the Jane Clark-owned mare Sarena after Saturday night’s $500,000 Rolex CSI***** Grand Prix. All flashing cameras, all smiles and awards.
When the world’s top riders stumble, they do it on the same global stage, but this time, the camera flash catches them hanging a leg and pulling a rail. The crowd gasps as they have a miscommunication with their mount, and there is no one waiting to put a prize winning cooler on them when they finish their round. That was Maher and Sarena for much of the past year.
“I’ve gone home with my head in my hands a few times from shows,” Maher said. “We worked hard. That’s what this sport is. She was always a great horse, I knew she was going to be. It just took a little bit longer to get there.”
Maher is not a rider much accustomed to losing—he had one of the winning-est Winter Equestrian Festivals of any rider in 2013, scoring an incredible five grand prix victories in a single 12-week season. Of the two horses he accomplished those feats on, Urico has since been retired, and Cella is on the way back to the top of the ring following an injury. Maher has been working to build up a new string and has another great mare in Diva II (who’s Maher is targeting for the Olympic Games this summer), but Sarena’s step into the spotlight in the big FEI classes was a long time coming.
“It’s about time [Diva] had some support from the other horses. She’s been on her own,” Maher said. “Hopefully Sarena and Aristo, they’re going to support her. I always find that the horses come good at the right time when they have some support from the team around them. Hopefully things are going to start to look up for us now.”
Maher purchased the mare as an 8-year-old, and what he thought would be a quick hi, hello, let’s get out there and win introductory period became a long getting-to-know-you process.
“It’s been a tough ride. She was bought to jump these big classes; she was young when we got her, and it really took a year to get to know her and for her to get to know me.
“There’s been a lot of hard work and patience from Jane Clark,” Maher continued. “She worked with me the whole way through last year, because we had a lot of disappointing rounds. I told her to stick with me. We worked hard with the whole team at home. This is the first class that she’s won, but she picked the right time. Hopefully there will be many more.”
And Maher was the first to admit at the press conference following the pair’s win in the $500,000 Rolex CSI***** Grand Prix, the journey is far from over. Six horses contested the jump-off round from the starting field of 40 over the Anthony D’Ambrosio designed track, and Maher was the only one to go double clear. He didn’t have to stomp on the gas pedal to out run already solid partnerships like second place finisher McLain Ward and HH Azur (they had a rail coming into a double in the jump-off) or third-place finisher Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Fibonacci 17 (they pulled a pole at a vertical).
“When I tried to go quick in the jump-offs, she starts to actually run backwards a little bit; it’s not always a nice feeling,” Maher said. “She’s got to get more confident and used to running and jumping.
“Had McLain’s turn pulled off, had Meredith left the jumps up, I don’t know if on this night if I could have actually been quick enough to beat them,” Maher continued. “I decided to play a little safe and leave the jumps up. That’s not my nature normally, but I think I played a smart game tonight.”
Along with taking home the biggest chunk of the biggest purse offered for a grand prix at the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival, Maher has himself a brand new Rolex watch. Equestrian Sport Productions CEO Mark Belissimo joked with Maher that he’ll have to add it to his collection of watches won with his other superstar mounts, and Maher laughed saying he’s given most all of them away to friends and family. Saturday night marked Sarena’s very first FEI win, and it will be Maher’s very first timepiece he doesn’t re-gift.
“I’m keeping this one,” Maher said with a grin.
See full results from the class. Want more from the fianl week of the Winter Equestrian Festival? The $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby kicked off today. Check back at coth.com tomorrow to see how it concludes.
To read in-depth coverage of the Winter Equestrian Festival and the circuit champions, pick up a copy of the April 25th issue of the Chronicle.