Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2024

U.S. Team Rides Rollercoaster At World Singles Championships

For U.S. team members Eleanor Gallagher, Fred Merriam and Scott Monroe, the hills of Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy, provided a rollercoaster ride, beginning at the top in dressage and plunging to the bottom during the marathon. Just when their dream of standing on the medal podium at the World Singles Driving Championships was coming into focus, it quickly faded.

It took a little longer for individual driver Sterling Graburn's dream to fade. The highest placing U.S. driver, finishing 18th, he had a fantastic marathon but lost a top placing in the final cones phase.

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For U.S. team members Eleanor Gallagher, Fred Merriam and Scott Monroe, the hills of Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy, provided a rollercoaster ride, beginning at the top in dressage and plunging to the bottom during the marathon. Just when their dream of standing on the medal podium at the World Singles Driving Championships was coming into focus, it quickly faded.

It took a little longer for individual driver Sterling Graburn’s dream to fade. The highest placing U.S. driver, finishing 18th, he had a fantastic marathon but lost a top placing in the final cones phase.

The story was much different for the British drivers, who earned double gold, Sept. 20-24. Team members Di Hayes, David Matthews and Ian Bertram combined their talents for the team medal, while individual driver Paul Sidwell came away with the individual gold.

The all-female team from Sweden was expected to do well, and they did, earning team and individual silver. Cecilia Qvarnstr�m the dressage competition with a score of 33–and was still leading after the marathon but lost the gold in the cones phase–to take home the individual silver. Marie Kahrle and Lotta Palsson joined her on the team.

Germany is always competitive in driving, although they haven’t had the same history of driving singles as Great Britain, Sweden and the North Americans. This year their scores tallied up to double bronze medals for Dieter Lauterbach and his teammates Reinhard Burggraf and Thorsten Zarembowicz.


A Great Start
The U.S. team met in Milan after flying out from New York to Amsterdam, where they trained with coach Chester Weber until it was time to move into the competition stabling.

Pratoni del Vivaro is a well-established equestrian facility, the site for the driving competition at the 1998 World Equestrian Games and home to the Italian Equestrian Federation. The weekend before the World Singles Cham-pionship, 600 jumpers laid claim to the facility and held their competition in a pouring rain. When FEI Steward David Saunders arrived on the scene on Monday morning, he told Technical Delegate Ge Koenig he didn’t see any way that the grounds would be ready to welcome the drivers. But the sun appeared quickly, drying the soil, and the Italian organizing committee managed to do what they had to do.

Merriam, from Paris, Ky., was the first of the U.S. drivers to go before the five-member jury, presided over by Pierre De Chezelles (France), and joined by Elvezia Ferrari (Italy), Franz-Josef Vetter (Germany), Joszef Borka (Hungary) and Diana Brownlie (Great Britain).

Driving Gaitwood Lightwing, a Morgan gelding owned by Connie and Bill Willey, Merriam led the field after the first day of dressage with a score of 41.

“He was dead-on,” said Kelly Valdes, a member of the silver-medal team at the first World Singles Championship. “It was a great test that came along at the right time.”

After the second group of drivers finished on Friday, the pair stood in fourth place in the field of 74.

Merriam was not alone during the prize giving ceremony for the top 18 dressage drivers. He was joined by Graburn (13th place, 47.2), Gallagher (15th, 47.8) and Monroe (16th, 48.0), making the U.S. team the only nation to have all its drivers on the podium.

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Gallagher, of Southern Pines, N.C., driving her own Gelderlander gelding, Kashmier, had reason to be doubly pleased with her score.

Although consistently earning top scores in dressage, as a member of the U.S. team in Conty, France, in 2002, Gallagher and Kashmier received a terrible score when Kashmier took exception to seeing his reflection in the glass of a building just behind the judge at C and refused to cooperate for the remainder of the test.

This year’s performance squashed any doubts about Gallagher’s ability to stick a solid landing in dressage in international competition. The icing on the cake was a perfect score of 10 for the presentation mark from all five judges.


The Course Takes Its Toll For The U.S. Drivers
The marathon course was set in rolling hills or “mountains” according to drivers used to relatively flat tracks. Swiss course designer Christian Iseli made all eight obstacles the maximum distance of 250 meters and used all the letters allowed for FEI gates–A through F.

The question to be answered was whether the larger horses would fare better, having the strength and stamina to handle the difficult terrain, or if the course would favor the smaller, handier, horses that could negotiate the tight, technical obstacles.

Standing fourth, the U.S. team began the marathon in high spirits. Team strategy sent Merriam off first. Chef d’Equipe Hardy Zantke was the one to break the news to him at the finish of Section E. He had missed gate F in the fifth hazard–elimination. Nevertheless, the two solid dressage scores of Gallagher and Monroe would still be counted.

Gallagher’s waterloo also came in the fifth obstacle, wooden triangles set on the side of a hill. As she made the tight, off-camber turn to the final gate, the one that Merriam drove too wide and missed, the carriage rolled. Gallagher’s navigator, Bill Long, was able to grab the reins, release Gallagher’s belt and prevent her from being seriously hurt. Within seconds they were upright and continued on course, but the 60 penalties incurred for the turnover squashed any medal hopes.

Known to be an aggressive marathon driver, Monroe, of Sharon, Conn., was to be the team anchor. Competing in his second World Singles Championship, he drove his own Morgan gelding, Bethesda After Dark.

Monroe proved to be very competitive in the obstacles–second fastest in the second obstacle and the fourth fastest in the fourth, the first of two water obstacles–until the last gate in the sixth obstacle.

A series of mogul-like hills, this was an obstacle that commanded respect from every driver. Monroe didn’t hit anything, but fate and gravity combined to add 60 penalties to a score that otherwise might have put a medal in his sights.

Without the pressure of being an official member of the team, Graburn, Bonifay, Fla., set off on the marathon with confidence. Knowing he had a strong horse capable of handling the challenges of the course, Graburn lived up to the expectation that he would drive aggressively and successfully.

With experienced navigator Marc Johnson on the back step, Graburn steered the Belgium Warmblood, Quincy, owned by Alexander Hewitt, to a fourth-placed finish in the marathon and fourth place overall when combined with his dressage score.

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“It was a blast!” said Graburn. “I was a little worried that Quincy might not be fit enough because he’d been [out of work] during the summer, but I still had to hang on to him at the end of the marathon.”

According to Johnson, “Quincy is an amazing animal. He managed to propel us through the last hazard [which they won], and he will pull through Section A because he knows what’s ahead.”


Further Disappointment
With team hopes dashed, the U.S. drivers rallied behind Graburn as he prepared to drive what was turning out to be quite a difficult cones course.

The 750-meter course had to be driven in 180 seconds. The elements included two zigzags and a “ladder,” four pairs of cones set out in a straight line, but offset at a 30-degree angle.

Merriam hit two balls and had 13.27 time penalties. He no doubt was remembering the same day four years ago when his bronze medal was clinched in the final moments of the final competition.

Monroe managed to complete the course without course penalties but failed to make the time. Gallagher crossed the start line at a canter and kept up that pace. While Kashmier knocked down one ball and they had only 4.43 time penalties, they stood in first place for the entire first half of the day and ended up 11th, quite an achievement.

“Kashmier was not the marathon horse, but he was very good in cones. He responded well,” said Gallagher modestly.

Graburn was fourth from the last to drive and was well warmed up by Weber. The U.S. team members held their collective breath as cones had been Graburn’s nemesis throughout the selection process. While he had only 1.08 time penalties, seven balls down dropped him from fourth to 18th place.

“If I’d driven a clear cones course, I would have had a gold medal,” he lamented. “It wasn’t the hard ones we hit; it was the easy ones.”

Even with two balls down and his time penalties he could have secured the gold. According to Graburn, shortly before he was due to start, Quincy heard the roar of the Italian crowd as one of their own completed their round, which definitely had an adverse effect on the temperamental gray gelding.

Hayes was the only driver to prove that it was possible to drive the course without penalty. Her carriage, one of only a few with delayed steering, helped to achieve victory for the British team, stealing the gold medal away from the Swedes.


Ann L. Pringle

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