Suzy Stafford dominated the most competitive advanced division at the Gladstone Driving Event, winning the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Single Pony Combined Driving Championship over 10 entries.
She remained in first place from start to finish at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, N.J., Sept. 23-26, winning the dressage and marathon phases.
Stafford works as the assistant trainer to another Gladstone winner, pairs driver Lisa Singer. Stafford, 27, from Bear, Del., has never been defeated with Beverly Lesher’s Courage To Lead, and it was easy to see why. Her dressage score was 7 penalties ahead of Jack Wetzel, and 9.4 penalties in front of Sara Schmitt, who was the top-ranked U.S. driver at the 2003 World Pony Driving Championships.
In the marathon, Schmitt moved up with her Morgan stallion, High Country Doc, but her 74.98-penalty mark was still 3.86 penalties behind Stafford’s smooth and determined drive with her Morgan mare.
Stafford faltered only in the cones, where she had a single knockdown. Muffy Seaton posted the section’s lone double-clear performance, with Sybil Humphreys’ Welsh cob, Cefnoak Bouncer.
Seaton was the runner-up for the title, 13.58 penalties behind Stafford. But despite the wide margin of victory, Stafford was not smiling as she left the arena.
“I really wanted to get a double clear,” said the former eventer, who started driving after a fall left her with a fused ankle that precluded jumping.
Her goal is to make the World Championship team next year, so she views the competitions leading up to that as a chance to improve her technique. “It’s nice to win and nice when the pony goes well. If that happens at a show, it’s even better,” said Stafford.
Gladstone also hosted the USEF championships in the pony pair and four-in-hand divisions. Allison Stroud of West Grove, Pa., secured the four-in-hand honors. Stroud rode in the prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup, which has been won by her husband, Dixon Stroud. But now she’s concentrating on her matched gray Welsh ponies and focusing on the next World Championships.
“It’s really fun,” she said, noting her ponies haven’t even been a team for a year. Stroud resoundingly won the dressage by 8.48 penalties over Boots Wright, but settled for second to Wright in the marathon. Everyone in the division got a piece of the action, as defending champion Katie Whaley won the cones with a double-clear round but finished third overall.
Stroud is involved with the Pony Team USA fundraising effort, which is selling shirts and hats to help fund a team for the 2005 World Championships.
The national crown in the pony pairs was not awarded, much to the disappointment of Tracey Morgan, the defending champion and two-time titleist, who won the division. Unlike the fours, which need only three entries, the rules require four pairs to contest the division in order for a national title to be presented. While five pairs entered the section, two scratched, leaving fewer than the required number.
The advanced horse pairs, won by Singer, and the singles, topped by Andre Paquin of Canada, had their national championships elsewhere this year. The four-in-hands lacked Tucker Johnson, the top U.S. finisher from the summer’s World Championships, as he was competing in Germany. Even so, it was a solid group of three with another member of the championships squad, Jimmy Fairclough, dominating the section as he won each phase.
The Gladstone hazards offered a world tour, with Finn’s Folly and its splash renamed the Bikini Islands, while other obstacles like the Swiss Alps (formerly George’s Gorge) and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (better known in previous years as the water tower) having the appropriate decorative touches.
Though the terrain was said to be a bit rough, a new phase A that got drivers off the roads and onto farmland was universally praised.
Complaints, however, centered around the main ring, where the hard surface had some drivers navigating through clouds of dust in the cones. Only six of 26 advanced entries finished without time penalties in that segment.
“We could have all made the time if we were not sliding so much,” contended Caroline Whittle, third in the advanced pair ponies division.
Next year, course designer Richard Nicoll would like to see the ring dug up before the competition to make a better surface. “This ring, you bless if it rains,” he said. But the lack of showers left a hard surface that meant horses had trouble getting a grip.
“It was a little dicey for advanced speeds,” agreed Morgan, who didn’t want to criticize the management. “They’re trying really hard here. I want to give them credit for the effort.”
It’s been an uphill fight for the Gladstone Equestrian Association, which once had corporate support and financial backing from its former chairman, Finn Caspersen. But now the organization has conquered the financial problems that nearly sank the fall driving event and has turned a corner, according to Peter Gorry, the GEA treasurer and a member of the organizing committee chaired by Bruce and Ellen Ettenger.
“It was our largest turnout in nearly a decade,” said Gorry, noting there is corporate interest again as well. “We’re ratcheting up year by year.”
Sharon Chesson, a former international pairs driver who is the GEA’s chairman, was excited about a new alliance with sharingVillage, an area group for cancer survivors. They’re putting together a driving program for those undergoing cancer therapy that will work on the aspiring drivers’ self-image and building up their body strength.