Caen, France—Sept. 5
Even though he’d just taken the lead, Boyd Exell wasn’t happy with the score he earned during his driven dressage test this morning. He knew who was coming.
That “who” is Chester Weber, a notoriously strong dressage driver. And Weber’s impressive tearm trotted into the ring this afternoon and did what everyone expected them to do, laying down a score of 32.21 penalties for the lead. Australia’s Exell isn’t far behind him on 35.51.
“I was really pleased with the horses,” said Weber. “I couldn’t ask for more from them today; they gave their all. They felt like they were dancing on clouds.”
Weber’s current four-in-hand team of Dutch-bred horses, owned by Jane Clark, hasn’t yet been defeated in the dressage phase. They’re fresh off a major win at the Aachen CHIO***** (Germany). The U.S. team—composed of Weber and two new four-in-hand horse drivers Lisa Stroud and Misdee Wrigley-Miller—is second after the first phase.
“Without a doubt I understood that today I had to take some points away in dressage to be competitive for medals on Sunday,” said Weber. “Lisa and Misdee are up and comers, and I think they have [the 2018 World Equestrian Games in] Bromont in their sights and perhaps the next world championship. It’s great to have growth of the driving sport in the United States.”
While Weber is sitting in the top spot for an individual medal, the Dutch team is eyeing gold. Their three riders—Theo Timmerman, Ijsbrand Chardon and Koos de Ronde—are all in the top five.
“I think we are still the favorites, and we try to do the same thing as always—win,” said Timmerman.
Stroud, a very experienced pony driver with many national championship titles to her name, is competing at her first major world championship for driving horses—and she placed 19th after completing her test yesterday. Exell encouraged her to try the team of horses in January.
“I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m not doing that,’ ” said Stroud. “Then I went and tried them, and I went, ‘This is so much fun!’ When you feel that energy in your hands from the four horses, it’s like magic. They are very dynamic, exciting animals.”
Weber prompted Wrigley-Miller, a former pairs driver, to step into four-in-hand less than two years ago. She’s been working with U.S. team coach Michael Freund—and working out with Weber.
“Everyone was a little concerned because I’m kind of petite,” said Wrigley-Miller. “They said, ‘How are you going to handle those four horses?’ Chester is a maniac about gym training, so we went every day and worked and worked. It’s been a fun summer.”
Some drivers are critical of the marathon track for tomorrow, which crisscrosses the center of La Prairie racecourse in Caen.
“I remember when I went to Beesd [for the 2008 FEI Four-in-Hand World Championships in the Netherlands], I looked at the course and thought, ‘Whew, it’s a world championship,’ ” said Exell. “I thought the same [at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games] in Kentucky. I came here, and I felt that it’s a nice course and testing enough, but it feels like the course builder had his hands tied behind his back so he can’t do what he needs to be able to do. I think he’s done the best he can on the surface and environment.”
For the marathon phase, which begins at 9:30 a.m. local time tomorrow, Exell had his indoor wheels sent to France. The drivers are concerned about a slippery surface, and the indoor wheels are grooved to better handle that.
“If you make speed, the carriage will slide all over the place,” said de Ronde. “Unfortunately we have a few hazards that are too easy, not technical enough, so that you really have to run. Then it can be dangerous.”
But Weber feels the course, designed by Richard Nicoll, asks a nice mixture of questions from the teams.
“The good news is that the track will be consistent from about the 10th driver to the last. It might be a little hard for the first few drivers,” he said. “There are four quite technical hazards and then four more forward-going ones.”
Check out all the Chronicle’s driving coverage here, and follow along with all the news from all the sports at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.