Friday, Jun. 7, 2024

Germans Pull Ahead While Suzy Stafford Aims For U.S. Gold

The Germans proved their domination of pony driving continues as they extended their lead at the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships at Catton Hall in England on July 16.

Two of their reigning World Champions, Steffen Abicht and Dirk Gerkens, now lead the pair and team divisions, respectively, and the team's 413.12-penalty score is well ahead of second-placed the Netherlands, with 430.72.

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The Germans proved their domination of pony driving continues as they extended their lead at the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships at Catton Hall in England on July 16.

Two of their reigning World Champions, Steffen Abicht and Dirk Gerkens, now lead the pair and team divisions, respectively, and the team’s 413.12-penalty score is well ahead of second-placed the Netherlands, with 430.72.

The U.S. team, which had stood second coming into today, dropped out of the medals when singles driver Sara Schmitt lost her groom in the nemesis hazard 2, The Hill, and team driver Lisa Stroud had problems in hazard 7, The Splish Splash. In contrast, superb driving from Great Britain’s drivers, allowed them to pull ahead of the U.S., for third place with 442.63 penalties to the U.S. team’s 450.38 for fourth.

Suzy Stafford, who finished third in yesterday’s single horse dressage phase, now leads the way after her strong marathon today. With a ball in hand, the U.S. contingent is hoping to celebrate the team’s first pony driving medal tomorrow.

The singles driver led off this morning under overcast skies. But no rain fell again today, as the country’s dry spell continued and made for hard and slippery footing. Adding this factor to a challenging course designed by Wolfgang Asendorf, and there were thrills and spills aplenty.

Schmitt, the highest-placed U.S. driver in the 2003 World Championships, had bad luck early on when her groom was flung off the carriage around a turn. High Country Doc was going strong when they entered hazard 2, which featured a very steep hill descending into gates set on the side of the hill. “I didn’t even know she was off,” said Schmitt, “until the end of the hazard when I went to talk to her.”

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Likewise, Yvonne de Ruyter of the Netherlands, who led after dressage, ran into difficulty and bad luck. She missed a gate in Hazard 4, The Pine Grove, and was eliminated.

Stafford continued writing her fairytale story with a fifth-placed marathon drive with Bouncer.

“Today couldn’t have gone any better,” said Stafford smiling. “He’s not an extremely fast pony, but he’s steady, and that’s what did well today. The footing was slippery. People who went for the speed sometimes did get into trouble.”

Pairs dressage winner Ewoud Boom of the Netherlands is just such a driver. He turned over at The Hill when attempting a difficult turn, but he recovered and continued to scream through the remaining hazards. If not for his 60 penalties for a turnover, he would be holding court well into the lead.

U.S. pairs drivers Katie Whaley and Tracey Morgan finished the day safely in seventh and 12th, respectively. After a disappointing dressage test yesterday, Whaley put on the afterburners in the hazards, posting excellent times throughout the eight long obstacles.

Morgan described the hazards as well designed for a championship. “It really had questions everywhere. There wasn’t a hazard there that didn’t have something unique about it,” she said. “This wasn’t my best marathon. I had a few little bobbles, but my ponies were tough and brave and finished with lots of pep.”

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The sun was out for the team drivers in the afternoon, and the Germans shined the brightest. Reigning World Champion Gerkens flowed swiftly through the hazards to take control of the team division with second place in the marathon. Tobias Bucker, the reigning singles champion who has moved to teams now, placed fourth in the marathon to stand second overall.

But the many spectators enjoying the day at Catton Hall cheered hardest for the smallest equines at the competition-wo teams of pinto Shetlands driven by father and son, Aart van de Kamp Snr., and Jr., of the Netherlands. The elder van de Kamp just rocketed through the hazards, taking routes none of the other larger ponies could tackle. And in the end, their tiny equines finished first and third in the marathon for an impressive finish.

Stroud’s hope for a strong marathon score ended when she dropped her two grooms to untangle her ponies after her carriage became caught on a post. Her 154.05 penalties left her last of the teams that finished the marathon.

After Stroud’s difficulty, Boots Wright stepped up to the plate for the U.S. team. With her flashy chestnuts, Wright drove a steady and consistent marathon for 14th place. Her score keeps the U.S. team within striking distance of the British, so all hopes for a team medal aren’t yet gone.

Lone Canadian driver Jennifer Matheson, who is partnered with Danyloo, the World Champion single pony formerly driven by Bucker of Germany, also had marathon problems. Like Schmitt, she lost a groom on The Hill and dropped from medal contention with 29th place today.

Individual U.S. drivers Jack Wetzel and Wendy Ying were 28th and 32nd today with slower times through the hazards.

Tomorrow’s final cones phase begins at 9 a.m., with drivers competing in reverse order of merit.

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