The U.S. team has a disappointing finish despite a strong start.
The U.S. team got off to a strong start in Kecskemét, Hungary, placing fourth after dressage in the FEI World Pair Driving Championships.
But as the weekend of Aug. 19-23 continued, U.S. hopes dimmed, and it became obvious that the Dutch would be unstoppable. In the final awards ceremony, not only did the Dutch pick up team gold, but Harry Verstappen—a demolition contractor—pipped Hungary’s Zoltán Lázár in the cones phase to take individual gold.
The team gold for Verstappen, Benny Gosschalk and Mieke van Tergouw was the first for the Dutch since the first Open World Championships in 1983.
Verstappen drove Roelanda Petronella and Tsambikos in the dressage, while Olivier replaced Tsambikos for the marathon and cones phases. All three are strikingly handsome pinto Dutch Warmbloods.
Two balls down for Lázár dropped the individual leader after marathon to the bronze medal, while Swiss driver Beat Schenk claimed the silver.
Larry Poulin posted the best U.S. dressage score (46.08), driving Natasha Grigg’s Wiley and Rivage, to lie in sixth individually. This was Poulin’s final international championships, as he plans to retire from competition at the end of the year.
Poulin’s teammates, Lisa Singer and Keady Cadwell, drove solid dressage tests, too, and the team was in fourth going into marathon day.
Course designer Christian Iseli constructed an extremely testing marathon phase, which was made even more difficult by oppressively hot weather on the day.
Poulin, Singer and Cadwell all drove solid, if slower, marathon rounds. Cadwell claimed 23rd in the marathon, followed by Poulin in 24th and Singer in 46th. Individual driver Miranda Cadwell, Keady’s sister, drove to 36th place in the marathon.
After the second phase, the U.S. team stood in fifth, with Poulin still the pathfinder in 10th place individually. But the cones phase would bring disaster, when Poulin missed a gate and was eliminated from the competition.
“It really is a shame. I wished for a different result for Larry at his last World Championship, but this is the sport,” said U.S. Chef d’Equipe Ed Young. “I’ve been there before, and it’s never nice, but there’s nothing we can do. The only thing Larry could say is that he was sorry, and of course we all accepted.”
Poulin’s elimination dropped the U.S. team to 12th.
Keady Cadwell ended up as the top American driver. She finished the weekend with a speedy cones performance, though she dropped three balls in the process. She drove the French Trotter Finlandio and the Dutch Warmblood Uniek to just .56 time penalties over a very tightly measured cones course. Those time faults and the three balls down put her in 18th in the final individual standings.
Singer and her Morgan pair collected multiple time penalties on the cones course and finished in 37th place individually. Miranda Cadwell, who had competed just a few weeks earlier in the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships, took 48th.
A Difficult Day
Nail-biting drama wasn’t reserved for the U.S. drivers, however. Marathon day dashed many hopes.
The Dutch team seized the lead early in the competition, as van Tergouw won the dressage ahead of Schenk and German driver Sebastian Warneck.
But van Tergouw would fall victim to Iseli’s marathon challenge.
“The course is a true World Championship course,” Iseli said. “It was my goal to give the drivers a brain test. The different possibilities in the obstacles are technically demanding. The victory and the best marathon drives will be decided during the course walk. The marathon will be won by a top, fit pair of horses with a competitor who drives a very well thought through marathon.”
Van Tergouw made a mental slip early, having an error of course at the first obstacle. Though she corrected the errors, the resulting 20 penalties took her out of individual medal contention.
So her teammate, Verstappen, 51, stepped up to the plate and delivered a remarkable marathon performance with his two pinto Dutch Warmboods. With the fastest times through four of the eight obstacles on course, Verstappen decisively won the marathon over Lázár.
“It was a beautiful but heavy marathon,” Verstappen said. “There was little time between the obstacles. My goal was to win the marathon, and I am a happy man, because I succeeded! Two years ago, it didn’t work out for me. To be able to win a marathon in a marathon nation like Hungary makes it extra special.”
Lázár’s second place in the marathon vaulted him into the overall lead, just fractions of a point ahead of Verstappen. His feelings on the day were mixed, however, since his brother, Vilmos, who was in fourth after dressage, fell off his carriage just before completing the second marathon obstacle. His navigator grabbed the reins and halted the horses, allowing Vilmos to remount the carriage and complete the marathon phase for the Hungarian team score. Both Vilmos and the navigator were treated for minor injuries.
“It was the most difficult marathon of my life,” Zoltán said. “I was doubly under pressure after my brother Vilmos’ accident. Before I went into the marathon, I heard about his accident, but I didn’t have any information on his health status.”
Zoltán drives a team of Lipizzan horses owned by the Lázár family, whose members were instrumental in helping organize the championships.
The 1995 World Champion Rainer Pointl was eliminated on marathon after making a mistake of course in the seventh obstacle. And Swiss driver Daniel Wütrich’s groom fell from the carriage at the sixth obstacle. He was briefly hospitalized but released that evening with minor injuries.
A Nail-Biting Finish
The drama didn’t slow down during the cones phase.
Iseli didn’t let up on the drivers when designing the cones course. With two zigzags, sharp and technical lines and a tight time allowed, the course was extremely challenging. Only one driver out of the 67 starters managed to drive the course without faults and within the time.
Schenk, a 37-year-old carriage driving teacher from Seewil, Switzerland, put the pressure on the two leaders. Coming into the cones phase in third place, he felled just two balls to stay in the hunt for a medal.
Verstappen had an 11-point lead over Schenk and assured himself a silver medal even after two knockdowns and time penalties.
The margin between Verstappen and overall leader Zoltán had increased to more than 8 penalty points. After a somewhat hesitant start, Zoltán crossed the finish line with three balls down and time penalties. The scoreboard told the tale, flashing 13.02 penalty points.
“When I entered the arena and saluted, the clock started to count down but I had not heard the bell. I was hesitating as to what to do. The bell rang loud afterwards and I started, but it was hard to concentrate again. I don’t blame anyone else other than myself for knocking three balls down. This is something that I have never done before,” Zoltán said.
Zoltán dropped to the individual bronze, while Verstappen claimed gold, and Schenk silver. Verstappen got to take two gold medals home, since the Dutch team claimed the top spot as well.
“I was very proud that I had won the marathon, and I never expected to win the gold medal,” Verstappen said. “I will fully enjoy being the World Champion for the next two years! It will take some time before I will fully realize it!”