He steals the show from several repeat champions and takes his second victory at the World Equestrian Festival in Germany.
British-based Australian Boyd Exell is no stranger to the Aachen CHIO, having won the individual four-in-hand driving competition there in 2003. But even with that experience at the famed German venue, his chances of capturing victory again this year on July 1-5 seemed slim compared to those of 11-time winner Ijsbrand Chardon of the Netherlands.
Chardon, who had won the title the past three consecutive years, undoubtedly gave Exell a challenge, but six years, four horses and one broken leg later, the Aussie was finally back on top at the Aachen CAI, continuing the winning streak he’s carried through the past several months and besting his Dutch rival from start tofinish.
“Since I broke my leg at home five weeks before the 2006 World Champion-ships at Aachen, I’m much more determined and focused than before,” said Exell, Leicestershire, England. “After I won Aachen for the first time in 2003, maybe I was a bit too relaxed. When I broke my leg, I was so sad to miss the World Equestrian Games. When I came back, I had a lot to do to catch up with the top [drivers] again.”
Exell’s three strong performances at Aachen put an exclamation point on the winning season he began last year. The five-time British national champion took the individual bronze at the 2008 World Championships (the Netherlands), topped two World Cup qualifiers, the British national championship and five major combined driving competitions. This year he scored a huge win in the FEI World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, and tucked two more international victories under his belt before making the trip to Germany.
From the very beginning of his dressage test at Aachen, Exell, 36, left no doubt about his ambition to continue his newfound streak of success. With a team of two 6-year-olds, one 9- and one 11-year-old gelding, he achieved a dressage score of 37.63 points and took over the lead ahead of Chardon (40.32) and his Dutch teammates Theo Timmerman (44.67) and Koos de Ronde (47.87).
Exell and Chardon had entered the first additional dressage test class, but they eventually both withdrew and only competed in the combined phase.
“I didn’t want to do too much with my young horses,” Exell said. “I didn’t want to get them tired. I think one dressage test is enough for them, and the Aachen week is very long anyway. I even had extra horses to drive in the prize-giving ceremonies so that I didn’t have to use my competition team too much.
“With these horses, I don’t need to get them used to the dressage ring,” he continued. “But I think if we have this second dressage test, the drivers should have to compete in it, and it shouldn’t be optional. After we had the draw, Chardon and I would have been competing one right after the other. I liked it, but Chardon didn’t. Obviously, he had some tactical things in mind and withdrew. After he withdrew, I did also, since I preferred not to go in the first place for the above-mentioned reasons.”
At last year’s Aachen competition, Exell never made it past the marathon phase, having overturned his carriage at the notoriously troublesome obstacle 7 on the marathon course. But to the relief of many, course designer Wolfgang Asendorf redesigned the hillside hazard this year, smoothing down the grade. Nevertheless, he still asked for intelligent driving in his course.
“The 8,500 meter-long track is a demanding course, which separates the wheat from the chaff,” Asendorf explained. “The drivers really have to use their brains and contemplate exactly how they set the pace so that their teams don’t tire too early.”
All 24 teams finished the marathon course of eight hazards without any major accidents.
Four-time Aachen champion Tomas Eriksson of Sweden was best in the second phase (97.38), and he also won the Top Score Obstacle Driving the day before. Eriksson led ahead of Germany’s individual driver Ludwig Weinmayr (102.8) and Exell (100.54), who had replaced one of his 6-year-olds with his 17-year-old veteran, Bill.
“I have good old horses that look after the young ones and lead them well,” Exell said. “[The majority of my team is] very young, but they’re very good in the brain. After I won at Aachen in 2003, I sold that team to a man in Spain, and Koos de Ronde is driving them today. After that I had to build up a new team. I really know now what sort of horses I want to make me more successful.”
Exell’s marathon result was good enough to stay on top of the provisional leaderboard. With a fourth-placed finish (101.17) in the marathon, however, Chardon managed to stay within 3.32 points of the leader.
But Exell was able to breathe a bit easier when Chardon added 3 penalty points to his score on Sunday with one ball down in the final phase. With room for two mistakes, Exell drove confidently around the course, leaving every ball untouched and scoring the seventh clear round in time. His luck didn’t last through the drive-off, in which he placed sixth with one ball down, but his score held strong for the overall win.
“I’ve lost enough competitions to learn how to win them,” Exell said. “I’ve been in the lead in many competitions, but still lost. You have to learn why you lost them, and then you can learn how to win them. I had to learn to get used to the pressure. Now I tell myself, ‘When you’re in the lead, and a cone comes down, coming in second isn’t so bad either!’ ”
The experienced, reigning champion Dutch team, comprised of Chardon, de Ronde and Timmerman, topped the Nations Cup competition with a score of 296.08. Germany came in second ahead of Switzerland. No drivers from the United States competed at Aachen this year.