Tucker Johnson has his sights set on this summer’s World Equestrian Games. And in order to give himself and his fellow four-in-hand drivers the best preparation possible, Johnson hosted the inaugural Cedar Lane Farm CAI on his family’s farm in Oldwick, N.J.
Johnson, who resides in Hobe Sound, Fla., may have had a slight home field advantage during his victory in the advanced four-in-hand division, April 28-30, yet this final U.S. selection trial for the Aachen, Germany, WEG team benefited everyone. The advanced single horse competitors, who will also contest a World Championship this summer, counted Cedar Lane as a selection trial too.
Picture perfect springtime weather set the tone for the weekend, a mood that was carried through by gracious hospitality, a world-class course and some of the best driving in North America. When the competition was over, Johnson reflected on the weekend.
“We’ll see how it went this year. If people like what we’re doing we’ll probably have it again next year, maybe in the fall,” he said.
Starting with obstacles that have been in place for years, FEI course designer Richard Nicoll designed four new obstacles and rebuilt three. “It’s a nice cross-country course, uses quite a bit of the farm,” said Nicoll. “And we’ve got the technical delegate and much of the jury [here that will also judge at] the WEG.”
The course was beautifully landscaped as well as technically challenging, set in stream-laced meadows and graced by flowering trees and gently waving grasses.
“We’ve set the gates at 2.8 to 3 meters, which allows for more speed and plenty of options. [This placement] allows the driver to decide how to save their horses while doing the course,” said Nicoll. “The last is a technical hazard, and the question is, ‘Do you still have enough horse left to finish?’ “
Johnson took an early lead in the four-in-hands, posting a dressage score of 54.66 with his team of dark bay warmbloods. He then narrowly edged Jim Richards in the marathon.
Richards, Atlanta, Ga., has come on strong in that phase this season, aided by the intense and forceful trainer Jeromy Smith on his carriage. The team risked shortcuts in several obstacles with great success, only being caught and incurring costly time penalties in the last obstacle, the Cedar Lane Puzzle.
Richards was in second place to Johnson going into Sunday’s cones phase, but veteran driver Jim Fairclough, still recovering from surgery in March, drove one of only two clean cones courses of the day and was able to slip ahead of Richards.
In the end, Johnson topped the field with 149.71, followed by Fairclough with 160.94 and Richards with 179.09.
Chester Weber, one of the nation’s top four-in-hand drivers, wasn’t able to compete when several of his horses contracted shipping fever on the way up from Florida.
“My right wheeler, Senate, came off the van with a temperature of 103, and within three hours it was 105,” said Weber. “By the end of the day, Jamaica
and Palle had low fevers, and then Snoopy. Fortunately, Brendan Furlong’s clinic is just down the road from Tucker’s, so the horses went there. We monitored them constantly and decided that fluids weren’t enough, and in the interest of the horses we had to medicate. So I was out of the competition.”
Taking top honors in the highly competitive single horse class, Scott Monroe, Sharon, Conn., clinched an important selection trial victory in his bid for the
World Single Horse Championships in Italy this summer.
The single horse class, the largest of the show, had 14 entries. Monroe put all his eggs in a small basket, in a sense. He chose not to contest the Florida circuit, and Cedar Lane was his first selection trial of the season.
His dressage score was second to that of Sterling Graburn, Bonifay, Fla., whose gray warmblood posted a 48.6. Former World Championships individual bronze medalist Fred Merriam was right there in the hunt as well: his dressage score was 49.8, while Monroe’s was 49.4.
Merriam, having won at Live Oak (Fla.) in March, chose to save his horse for the mandatory selection trial at the Garden State CDE the following weekend in Allentown, N.J., and drove only section A of the marathon.
But it was the superb performance of Wendy Ying that won the crowd’s attention. Her black Cob, agile and awesome in each of the obstacles, won four of the six hazards and finished on a score of 52.77.
Graburn was turning in an impressive trip through the obstacles; he looked marvelous in the water, cantering through it with ease. Unfortunately, he missed a gate among the huge tanks there and was eliminated.
The cones course was set on a pretty patch of grass in the middle of the marathon obstacles and immediately in front of the hospitality tent. While attractive, it was tricky too. Drivers had a hard time negotiating a smooth trip.
Monroe had a secure lead, but the entries of Ying, Sara Schmitt and Bill Peacock were only a few points apart.
Peacock developed a case of nerves, however, and he incurred 18.15 costly penalties. Ying knocked down two balls for 6 penalties, while Schmitt, who has been successful in the pony division and was competing for the first time with a horse, had a clean round and moved into second place.
Monroe knocked down one ball and easily won the selection trial on a score of 106.22.
In the advanced pair horses, California’s Fritz Grupe was light and elegant performing the complex FEI dressage test No. 8 and took the lead with a 48.13. He used a new horse in the marathon and won there as well, fastest through three obstacles and smooth and forward throughout.
But the cones phase has bedeviled Grupe at times, and his disastrous seven balls down and 5.99 time penalties dropped him from first to second.
With second places in all three phases, Keady Cadwell kept her consistency throughout to clinch the win over Grupe by 3.83 penalties.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation selection committee met following the Cedar Lane Farm CAI to rank the short list of four- in-hands. Chairman Ed Young reported that it was the unanimous feeling of the committee that they had clear front-runners for the first and second positions.
Despite his inability to compete at Cedar Lane, Chester Weber has been virtually unbeaten in the United States for the past two years, has won four consecutive USEF National Championships, and has won the FEI North American Challenge for the past five years.
Tucker Johnson has consistently been only a step behind, and he’s ranked internationally.
Deciding on the ranking for third and fourth places was more difficult. Jim Fairclough was unable to compete in all three selection trials due to a medical problem, giving the committee limited data. Although Jim Richards has been more consistent and has made considerable improvement in the marathon phase since the first selection trial at Live Oak (Fla.) in March, he’s always placed last.
Currently, the ranking is Weber, Johnson, Fairclough and Richards. The teams will now travel to Europe and compete in selection events in Breda and Beekbergen, the Netherlands, and Riesenbeck in Germany. The teams will be ranked again in June, and then in August three four-in-hands will be selected to compete on the WEG team.