August 9, 2006 -- This year's world four-in-hand driving championship, to be held as part of the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Aachen, is one of the most eagerly anticipated contests in the history of the sport.
International driving events this season have indicated that this will be the closest and most hotly-contested World Championship ever. With more than 50 four-in-hand drivers from 20 countries taking part, the race for medals is wide open. No fewer than five previous individual gold medalists will compete.
Only three drivers from each country will be allowed to compete as a team at WEG. The best two scores from the three team members in dressage, marathon and cones will count towards the combined team score for the event.
The international calendar of events got underway in March and April with the Live Oak CAI in Florida and the Iberic Cup in Portugal. Following an indoor FEI World Cup Driving series, which ended with Holland's Ysbrand Chardon taking the title from four-time winner Michael Freund at the championship finals in Gothenburg, attention was focused in Europe on two international trials in May.
British-based Australian Boyd Exell won the prestigious LandRover international driving grand prix at Royal Windsor Horse Show in Great Britain in May. Also in May, three-time world champion Ysbrand Chardon won the spring Aachen CHIO international four-in-hand event ahead of Werner Ulrich of Switzerland and Felix Brasseur of Belgium.
Freund was dominant again at the Lahden CAI-A in Germany in June. Freund, a multiple German champion, has said he intends to retire from top-level international four-in-hand competition after Aachen.
Switzerland's Werner Ulrich is one of the favorites for the gold medal at WEG. He had a strong victory in the Breda CAI-O in The Netherlands in July. Felix Brasseur of Belgium was runner-up ahead of last year's Breda winner, Ysbrand Chardon, who finished third. Ulrich won the 1998 WEG World Four-in-Hand Championships in Rome and the Aachen CHIO last year.
Another favorite is the Netherlands' Ysbrand Chardon. Chardon is determined to make amends for a cone down in the final phase at the last World Championships in Hungary, which cost him his fourth world title. Chardon was unlucky again at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in May when one of his horses knocked a post, and he had to retire from the cross-country. But the 18-time Dutch national champion came back to win the Aachen CAIO the following week.
Australian Boyd Exell who has represented his native country in the past four world championships broke his leg in five places in a traffic accident and will miss the championships this time.
Great Britain's Karen Bassett is the world's leading women's four-in-hand driver and will head the British team at this year's WEG. She won the selection event for British horse fours at the Sandringham Trials in July and has four British national titles.
America's Chester Weber secured his fourth consecutive U.S. horse fours title by winning the 2006 USEF Championships with his bay Dutch Warmblood horses at the Live Oak CAI-A in Ocala, Fla.. A member of America's silver medal-winning team at the 2002 WEG, Weber will be a leading contender again for the medals. Six-time U.S. champion Tucker Johnson of Hobe Sound, Fla., narrowly missed out on an individual medal at the last WEG. The third WEG team silver medalist, James Fairclough of New Jersey will complete the U.S. team.
At the WEG, Tjeerd Velstra of the Netherlands will be President of the Jury that will assess the performances in the driven dressage in stadium 2 on the first two days of the competition.
The brand new compact Aachen cross-country marathon course is right next to the stadium, set in an 80 hectare area within the Soers grounds, with the start of section A less than 1 kilometer from the stables. The well-drained, three-section course will run close to the maximum distance of 17 kilometers.
"The new course is beautiful and should drive perfectly whatever the weather," said FEI Technical Delegate Richard James of Great Britain. "Although not quite as testing as the old one in Aachenerwald--there are no steep hills--the walk is undulating and through nearby woods so it will be videoed to help the judges."
Viewing for spectators will be excellent around the eight spectacular marathon obstacles grouped closely together. The massive obstacles, which include two water complexes, will provide the ultimate test for the drivers' skill and the horses' speed as the four-in-hands thunder through.
Aachen will be the fifth world championships course built by FEI Course Designer Wolfgang Asendorf from Salzhausen, Germany.
"We have to wait until eventing cross-country is finished before we can complete the marathon obstacles. I have a really marvelous team and without them it would not be possible," said Asendorf. "There will be small hills, bridges and ramps on section E to make it more interesting for the drivers. We have built eight different-looking obstacles, which ask different questions. We plan to have three options or alternative routes to each gate. The drivers know their own horses and can decide which route to take."
Team gold medalists in 2004, Hungary, led by the Zoltan Lazar (who was individual silver medalist last time with his four grey Lippizaners), will be in the hunt for team and individual medals again. The in-form Belgium team led by the 1996 World Champion Felix Brasseur and Gert Schrivers are a solid bet for a medal.
Visit EquiSearch.com for Nancy Jaffer's in-depth coverage of the driving competition August 30-September 2.