Allentown, N.J., May 9, 2005 -- Senior power was much in evidence at the Garden State Combined Driving Event, where age was no barrier to success in several key divisions over the weekend.
It gives us all something to strive for when we see a very fit Fritz Grupe winning the U.S. Equestrian Federation's National Pair Horse Driving Championships for the first time at the age of 67.
Fritz told me he has a 92-year-old pal who inspires him, since he still flies a jet and a helicopter. So to some extent, seven-time national pairs champ Lisa Singer can be inspired by Fritz, a grandfather she called "awesome"--even though he messed up her bid for her eighth national championship in the competition at the Horse Park of New Jersey.
"Never underestimate the power of a 67-year-old," said Chester Weber, who is Fritz's younger mentor and has helped train him.
Chester, looking very natty in a blazer and Panama hat as he judged the preliminary sections, is going to be the coach for the U.S. pairs team competing in the world championships in Austria this September. Garden State was a selection trial for that event.
He has high hopes. "Lisa's strong, and Fritz is strong," he pointed out, and then noted that Fritz probably will get even stronger over the next few months. The California real estate developer/wine grower is going to Europe to compete and train with former four-in-hand world champion Michael Freund, who has also worked with Chester and Tucker Johnson, both of whom are former national pairs champions (and national four-in-hand champions).
Lisa, a grandmother herself at age 57, got a bottle of Forest Glen wine from Fritz, who motor-scootered up to her van, still wearing his gold medal, to present the vintage made with his own grapes. It was a nice gesture from the winner to a competitor he respects.
The two have not been named to the team--the squad won't officially be picked until after the final trial in Bromont, Canada, later this month--but they have a camaraderie that bespeaks good karma and records that demand their selection.
Lisa mixed and mingled Mimi Thorington's Morgans, Farm, Count and Gali during the event. She won the dressage phase with 44.8 penalties, to Fritz's score of 45.57. In the marathon, she had two knockdowns at the last of eight hazards, putting her fifth in that section and second overall. Fritz was third in the marathon, behind winner Jim Richards (who usually drives a four-in-hand) and Larry Poulin, but his dressage score boosted him into first place overall with 115.89 penalties following Saturday's action on a route that included a new water hazard. Lisa, who lives in Pennsylvania, stood second on 118.84 penalties, so the cone phase was crucial.
The set-up for the cone phase yesterday was unique. Competitors started in one ring, did cone pairs 1 through 3, then crossed into another arena for 5 through 16, and finished up back in the first ring with 17 through 20.
Participants liked the set-up, noting it was "something different."
The footing, however, proved to be a problem for those who wanted to go fast and make the tight time allowed. Heather Walker, the event's director, said time was made more of a factor in the sport this year to give the final phase greater influence. (I still remember driver after driver going clear in the 2002 World Four-in-Hand Championships, making the cones rather a yawn at that competition.)
Lisa explained that the quarry dust in the rings caused the carriages to slide out at speed. She and Fritz both dropped two balls as a result, but he had fewer time penalties (no one in the FEI divisions made the time) to wind up first on 127.68 overall. Lisa's total was 130.92, while Larry Poulin, another former national pairs champion, was third on 134.61.
Fritz has only been competing horses for two seasons (his string includes the German-breds, Lloyd, Magnum and Peter). Prior to that, he was involved with Haflinger ponies for four years, but doing the horses put him on a whole new level. And he's obviously handling it just fine.
The other world championships selection trial held at Garden State was for the team going to the World Pony Driving Championships in Great Britain this July. This contingent involves two singles, two pairs and two four-in-hands.
The four-in-hand winner, Boots Wright, had a lot more on her mind than making the squad. Her husband, Dave, was taken to a New Jersey hospital with bleeding ulcers, but he wanted her to keep on competing. And so she did, winning the dressage, finishing second in the marathon to Elizabeth Keathley and taking the overall title with a score of 162.86 penalties, to Elizabeth's 178.56. Boots had a single knockdown and 1.5 time penalties in the cones. After crossing the finish line, she promptly burst into tears.
"The ponies were great, but I'm glad it's over," she said, as she prepared to go see her husband. She's heading to England later this week to compete.
Tracey Morgan, always consistent in the pair ponies, beat Paul Martin, 113.38 to 128.37.
The single ponies offered strong competition, but Sara Schmitt came out on top. Not a surprise, since she was the top-placed American in the last pony world championships, and her High Country Doc has only gotten better.
Resting on her victory, Sara is not going to the final trial.
"I feel like I've already done real well," said Sara, who would like to improve her dressage.
Doc doesn't have the flair of the German riding ponies, but he presents other virtues.
"He's a steady Eddie; he's very consistent," said Sara, who is so at ease with him she rides him bareback using just a lead rope attached to his halter.
Doc is good in the marathon, which he won, moving her into first place overall with 112.80 penalties. One of her rivals, however, didn't finish the marathon. Suzy Stafford, driving Courage to Lead, was disqualified for excessive use of the whip. Lisa Singer, Suzy's trainer, said there were no lash marks on the pony and that the problem was just that the noise of the whip was very loud. But whatever, Suzy was out.
Sara wound up winning with the best cones score in the FEI (international) sections. She had only 2.81 time penalties. Jennifer Matheson of Canada, the runner-up in the division, accumulated 8.43 penalties. Sara's final score was 115.61 to Jennifer's 127.41.
The other FEI division, single horse, was won in come-from-behind style by another senior, 61-year-old Bob Koopman with Lionhart, a handsome gray Dutch/Thoroughbred cross that was given to him as a weanling. Bob, who's from Massachusetts, knows his dressage needs work. He scored a 70.6 to finish fifth in that section. But he won the marathon by nearly 10 penalties, moving him up to third overall, as R.K. Brownridge held the lead with Liberty, a Gelderlander. Cones proved to be the decisive phase. Liberty had 14.93 penalties, sinking to second with 141.07 penalties, but Bob kept all the balls in place and only accumulated 2.83 time penalties, finishing on 138.73.
"It's the first time I won an advanced competition," said Bob, who started driving on his own when someone gave him a Standardbred years ago. "I didn't know anything about horses."
"This has been live and learn," noted Bob's wife, Wendy. Bob trains with Larry Poulin and has the help of his daughter, Anna, who rode through her youth and was on the intercollegiate team at Mt. Holyoke College.
"All the lessons he put into me are now paying off," she said.
So take heart, everyone. As you age, think of the over-50 folks who did so well at Garden State and know that there's hope for your involvement with horses for decades to come.