U.S. Falls to Fifth after Driving Marathon

The U.S. four-in-hand driving team fell to fifth after the marathon segment, and Germany rose to first at the 2006 World Equestrian Games.
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The U.S. four-in-hand driving team fell to fifth after the marathon segment, and Germany rose to first at the 2006 World Equestrian Games.

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Aachen, Germany, September 1, 2006 -- I just knew it was too good to last. The excitement I felt when the U.S. was at the top of the leaderboard yesterday after four-in-hand driving dressage evaporated on a warm afternoon during the marathon, where the dream died as Germany took over the lead at the World Equestrian Games (WEG).

It was so refreshing not to see the home side dominating this sport in which they are so strong, but Americans Chester Weber (who won the dressage), Tucker Johnson and Jimmy Fairclough just couldn't keep it together through eight hazards as they went cross-country in front of a crowd of about 38,000 spectators.

As someone who has trouble getting my little car into the garage without coming dangerously close to a wall, I have unbounded admiration for anyone who would even try to take four horses and wind them tight as a spring through some of these twisty-turny obstacles.

Chester Weber, the leading American after the WEG marathon | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Chester Weber, the leading American after the WEG marathon | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

When you stand within a few yards of the hazards, you get a new appreciation of the word "horsepower," and all that it means. The fantastic surge that these animals provide as they go up and down and around and around, all (generally) controlled by their drivers, is amazing. The drivers all have different ways of communicating with their horses. With some, it's a few words of command, with others, it's constant loud communication.

We did have one team of horses make a break for it today. Those things happen. But the Americans were generally in control, though problems here and there in the hazards were costly. The U.S. squad sank to fifth behind Germany, the Netherlands (whose marathon expert and former world champion Ysbrand Chardon is leading the individual standings), Belgium and Hungary.

Driving championship leader Ysbrand Chardon of the Netherlands | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Driving championship leader Ysbrand Chardon of the Netherlands | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

I hope tomorrow's cones course is hard. Maybe we can inch up in the ranks if it is; our guys are generally good at cones. But we probably won't get a medal, and we have to look at how to eleavte our standing in this European-dominated sport.

Our sound byte today is Chester giving his views on what should be done to improve our performance in the sport on an international level.

Chester thinks we could have a bunch of four-in-hand teams on the U.S. scene by the time of the next WEG in 2010. I have to disagree. The sport is simply too expensive and time-consuming at the highest level for the average pairs driver to contemplate, let alone a singles driver--unless he or she has just won the lottery.

At the moment, the three members of our squad are the only game in town. Jim Richards started the selection process, but had to drop out after his mother became ill. Then he loaned his horses to his trainer, Thomas Eriksson, who is in third place. I wonder how we would have fared if those horses were on our side.

Karen Bassett of Great Britain is one of the few championship-level female | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

Karen Bassett of Great Britain is one of the few championship-level female | © 2006 by Nancy Jaffer

I must say the enthusiasm for horse sports here is very heartening. The marathon course (which is the same piece of ground as last weekend's eventing cross-country course) was quite crowded, and once again it's obvious that the spectators are knowledgeable and real fans, not just folks out for a stroll in the country.

They were marveling at the well-constructed hazards. The first water complex had been transformed for the drivers, though the eventers' jumps were still there, but I loved the way the horses thundered down an arched bridge to get to the water, and then went back up on their way out. It was pretty dramatic.

I spent a lot of time in the sixth hazard, a triangular affair that had strategically placed logos throughout, providing a challenge for the drivers to navigate. I looked over the shoulder of a fence judge to see her diagram of how the hazard should be handled, and it was amazing to look at the different ways it could be approached. Frankly, it made me dizzy to watch the horses go through there, and I admired the judge for being able to determine if they were doing it right, when there were so many options. I'd have to go to the videotape!

I'll be back tomorrow to tell you not only how the driving wound up, but also the outcome of the top 25 in show jumping. The best four will be selected for the Sunday final in that sport.

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