Chester Weber led from start to finish at the Budweiser Live Oak International Combined Driving Event in Ocala, Fla., March 16-19, to win his fourth consecutive U.S. Equestrian Federation National Four-In-Hand Championship.
“This one was tougher,” said Weber, whose family owns the Live Oak farm. “A lot tougher. I like to immerse myself in the competition at an event, but that’s not easy to do when the show is held at your own place. It’s a constant distraction.”
That said, Weber surely seemed focused. FEI Dressage Test 8 calls for fast and frequent changes of pace and requires horses’ and drivers’ constant attention. Of Weber’s stunning score of 40.96 penalties, international judge Diana Brownlie said, “Chester was in a class by himself.”
Tucker Johnson of Hobe Sound, Fla., came second in this phase with a score of 50.82.
Jim Richards, first of the fours on the marathon course, looked to be stealing the lead early on. He set a fast pace in the first three obstacles, including Miller’s Crossing, the water complex that drew a large crowd, whose cheers could be heard all over the course. But the last obstacle, The Eagle’s Nest, a series of tight concentric circles with a small triangular gazebo perched on a mound in the middle, cost Richards precious time when he tried to loop the gazebo and was caught on a post.
But Weber’s team of mixed bay warmbloods were always moving smoothly in the obstacles and always forward. They appeared to take a slightly different route from the other drivers. He had the fastest time in three of the seven obstacles to maintain the lead, with Johnson still second. Their respective scores were 107.18 and 112.43 penalties, impressive on this world-class course.
Live Oak’s cones course was deceptively tricky, and penalties mounted up. Johnson’s young horses found a lot to look at in the bridge and the twin serpentines and finished with 28.31 penalties and a final score of 191.56.
Although he had a commanding lead as he drove onto the course, Weber clearly didn’t relax. He drove as he had during dressage and the marathon, asking his horses for the best they had. As his final score of 155.02 was announced to huge applause, Weber at last waved his hat wildly and expressed his appreciation to his hometown crowd.
Live Oak was the first of the spring selection trials for the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, this summer. Also a selection trial for the single horses, the event drew a large entry vying for a place on the team going to the World Championships at Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy, in September.
Drew Callahan of Collinsville, Okla., was the first of the singles to grab the attention of the dressage judges, earning a score of 48.00. “That horse was outstanding,” said Brownlie. “He was beautifully relaxed and never put a foot wrong.”
Callahan’s third-placed marathon, combined with his excellent dressage, kept him in the lead. But this was not to be Callahan’s weekend. His Friesian-Arabian gelding, Robyn Of Friesland, clipped his hoof on a post in one of the obstacles.
“He was OK last night,” said Callahan. “But this morning, there’s heat in the hoof and it’s bruised.” He withdrew Robyn from the competition.
Still, the stage was set for high drama going into the final phase, with the leaders separated by fewer than 8 points.
Tension was high, and again the course took its toll. With the only clear cones round in the FEI division, Fred Merriam, of Newfane, Vt., captured the win. Eleanor Gallagher drove a fast, smooth pace, incurring only 4.3 points and moving up to second place.
Cadwell Sisters Sweep Pairs
Keady and Miranda (Randy) Cadwell, sisters from Southern Pines, N.C., made a clean sweep of the two advanced pairs divisions.
“We’re working on our dressage,” said Randy of her Welsh Section B geldings and their score of 60.80 in the pair pony division, “and the cones course drove much harder than it looked.”
Randy was just dynamite on the marathon course. Only one entry in the entire advanced division–Sterling Graburn’s single–bested their marathon score.
Keady was driving a new pair of chestnut Dutch Warmbloods, who won the advanced horse class. When asked whether she was happy with their performance, she said with a laugh, “This is their very first show together, only the second marathon they’ve ever done, so yes, I’m very happy! The obstacles were pretty technical, but there were plenty of options so you could make it flow.”
Going into the cones competition, reigning national pairs champion Fritz Grupe, who had one of the better dressage tests in the division with a score of 45.70, was in the lead by a narrow margin. But like all the drivers in the class, Grupe had significant penalties on the difficult cones course, and Cadwell came out on top.
Boots Wright, of Ocala, Fla., came out on top in the pony four-in-hands. Competing against Allison Stroud of Bradenton, Fla., and Munro Russell of Charlottesville, Va., the drivers have very different ponies. Russell drives with the quick-footed Welsh, Stroud with the creamy Connemaras, and Wright with the snappy Welsh Cobs–bay, gray and chestnut. Stroud won the dressage and cones, Russell won the marathon, and Wright placed second in each phase.
Jack Wetzel of Aiken, S.C., has given up competing Harry, his talented gelding, and handed the reins to longtime groom/navigator, Vance Coulthard.
Coulthard placed second in the advanced single pony dressage to Canadian Jennifer Matheson, who won that phase with a score of 49.20. But Harry was awesome on the marathon. His moves are deliberate and precise and he motors through the obstacles like an elegant sports car. That same fluid energy carried him through the cones course, and he won the class on a final score of 132.21.
Three Questions For Chester Weber
What did you think of your team’s performance this weekend?
Weber: I’m hoping this will be my team for the World Equestrian Games. I tried a new horse, Snoopy [a 6-year-old Danish Warmblood] in the right lead in the marathon and cones. He has a lot of potential. Charlie Brown [an 8-year-old Holsteiner] is ready now, but I left him at home. Senate [a 6-year-old Dutch Warmblood] and Mecki [a 9-year-old Warmblood] are my seasoned wheelers, and I sometimes use Mecki in the lead with Rolex [9-year-old Dutch Warmblood] in dressage.
Is there a particular horse that you consider your lynchpin?
Weber: Yes, Jamaica [a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood]. He’s my alpha leader. I’ve had him in the left lead on the marathon since 2000, and I use him in the left wheel in dressage. I’m hoping Snoopy will be the one to take his place. Snoopy is the fastest horse I’ve ever seen. He is amazingly quick to move, but he’s deliberate, he thinks first.
What do you think are the prospects for the American team at Aachen?
Weber: I’m really excited about Tucker [Johnson’s] team. He has a couple of new horses [Nero, an 8-year-old Oldenburg, and Dexter, a 9-year-old Westphalian] that he tried this weekend that are doing very well. Tucker borrowed one of my horses this weekend, Adrian W, put him in the left wheel on the marathon and cones. We are beginning to work as a synergetic team.