Postcard from Gladstone Driving Event

September 23, 2001 -- Going out in style: Lisa Singer takes the pairs title, but fellow competitor Lizzie Chesson stole the spotlight with a classy retirement ceremony for her Holsteiners
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September 23, 2001 -- Going out in style: Lisa Singer takes the pairs title, but fellow competitor Lizzie Chesson stole the spotlight with a classy retirement ceremony for her Holsteiners

Gladstone, NJ, September 23, 2002 -- Morgans ruled the day here at Hamilton Farm, as they so often do in the driving world. Members of that hardy breed took the featured Advanced Pairs and Advanced Singles championships at the Gladstone Driving Event on an afternoon that was as stellar for the level of competition as it was for the perfect weather.

There's a family feel to Gladstone. Spectators are friendly and you cheer for all the drivers as if you knew them. And after watching them for three days, you actually come to feel like you do.

When I talked to Nancy Johnson, the computer programmer from Massachusetts who won the Singles with Canequin's Look Out, she was exactly like I expected her to be from her beautifully crafted 39.5-penalty dressage test--which earned the best score of anyone in the five advanced divisions--her well-controlled effort cross-country and her cool approach to those 18 pairs of orange cones topped with yellow tennis balls.

In addition to being well-organized and articulate, she's awfully nice. We chatted before she went into the cones arena, a moment when I would have been a nervous wreck! Nancy, who trains with pairs ace Larry Poulin, has done everything with Look Out (nick-named Robo, because his breeders watched him being born after they returned from watching Robo Cop at the movies.)

In the decade that Nancy has owned him, her 13-year-old bay has competed in ridden dressage at Second Level, evented to preliminary level, and completed 500 competitive trail ride miles. She took up driving when it was a choice between that and endurance riding to win the Morgan Sport Horse Award (which he eventually got) as an all-around example of this wonderful breed.

"He always seemed to catch on faster than I did," Nancy said about all their pursuits.

Nancy was one of those selected for the U.S. squad for the World Singles Championship that was supposed to be held here last year, and then got scuttled when the West Nile virus reared its ugly head. (By the way, you could buy 2000 World Singles Championship T-shirts from a vendor here. Wonder what they will be worth on eBay a few years from now.) Anyway, like the other top drivers in her division, Nancy's pointing toward the 2002 World Singles Championship.

At Gladstone, she had penalties to play with because of her super dressage score, so she kept her first place standing after the marathon, even though she was third in that segment behind Scott Monroe and Shadow (another Morgan) and Canada's Kirsten Brunner with Beaverwoods Birchley, that cute little buckskin Welsh/Standardbred cross. Nancy, Kirsten and Scott all dropped balls in the cones, and Nancy even had 1.5 time penalties, but she was still pretty far ahead of Kirsten, 120.07 to 125.02, to take the title.

Speaking of Kirsten, I asked her about her marathon vehicle, called a Batmobile, which is also used by several other Canadian competitors.

"Does it go as fast as Batman's?" I asked, trying to be a smart aleck.

"It depends on the engine," Kirsten retorted quickly, with a nod of the whip toward Birchley.

The battle for the USET championship in the pairs was even more exciting than the fray in the singles, since the reigning titleist, Lisa Singer, a three-time winner, and five-time winner Larry Poulin, both professional horse people, were duking it out with Lizzie Chesson, twice reserve champion.

It was an emotional time for Lizzie because the competition ended the careers of her Holsteiners Aristocrat and Bossanova. These fabulous horses, who also went to world championships with Lizzie's mother, Sharon, were being retired in ceremonies held right after the division was pinned. So Lizzie wanted to go out on a high, especially since she's taking a year's break (at least) from driving to go live in New Zealand.

Cones have always been a problem for both Lizzie and Sharon. They recently found out the measurement between the wheels of their carriage was 2 centimeters wider than other standard carriages of this era, so they had that fixed. Maybe that did the trick, or maybe it was the pre-cones coaching from four-in-hand driver Jimmy Fairclough, but Lizzie left all the balls in place on the cones for the first time ever today.

Let me add here that only one of the 26 drivers in the advanced divisions was able to turn in a double-clear in the cones. Eugen Hug of Canada, sixth in the singles, managed the feat. But rushing to make the tight 2-minute, 18-second time allowed foiled everyone else's attempt at total perfection.

So Larry Poulin had 7 time faults, which dropped him into third place, below Lizzie, who accumulated 4 time faults. Lisa Singer wound up with 3.5 time faults, but her chestnut Morgans, Farm and Chance, still carried her across the finish line as the leader as the American flag on the back of her carriage waved proudly. The Pennsylvanian took her fourth USET title with 123.49 penalties, and is still the only woman to have won it, though Lizzie (128.61) would have liked to be the second.

But it was enough to go clean.

"It's a first," she said happily. "What a great way to end."

She and her mother took turns driving Aristocrat and Bossanova around the ring for their farewell, as announcer Nigel Casserley read a tribute to the horses that the Chessons had written that morning.

"We both were crying at the computer," Sharon told me at the much-appreciated wine and cheese reception they threw for Aristo and Nova, who showed up to devour a bouquet of carrots they received in the arena.

The Chessons held it together with smiles as they saluted their fellow competitors and made their horses' final bow. But it won't be the last you see of mother and daughter, Sharon vowed.

"One of us will be out there doing something," she promised.

Whoops--gotta run, I'm out of space on this postcard. But check back Thursday for more on Gladstone when my regular column goes up on the site.